How to print colour-accurate photos on your inkjet
Making your print colours match what you see onscreen is a dark (or should that be “light”?) art. Left to their own devices, even expensive, high-end printers such as the Canon Pixma Pro-100 can turn a steely grey into a muddy brown, skin tones into lurid pinks, and delicate shades of colour into one bland mash. With the right tweaks, however, you can transform the appearance of your photographs. See also: what’s the best printer for enthusiasts and professionals?
Achieving maximum colour accuracy takes patience, an understanding of the different colour-management modes, and no small amount of trial and error.
We can’t possibly hope to cover the full range of colour-management techniques here, but here’s a quick guide to matching screen and print colours, and the different colour-management modes available in Photoshop.
The first step to achieving colour accuracy is to make sure that your monitor is properly calibrated. For our tests, we used an Eizo ColorEdge CG276 display, but most home photography enthusiasts won’t be fortunate enough to have such high-end equipment at their disposal. Thankfully, there are a number of options for those who don’t.
The first, most basic step is to use the screen-calibration tools that are now built into Windows. Click Start and search for “calibrate”; in Windows 7 and 8 you should get the option to “Calibrate display color” (go via the Control Panel | Appearance And Personalisation | Display, if not). These tools are fairly rudimentary, but should help correct any major problems with gamma, brightness, contrast and colour balance.
Those who take their photography seriously may wish to invest in dedicated calibration hardware. The monitors we test in the PC Pro labs are calibrated with an X-Rite i1Display Pro, which is available for around £160. This puck-sized calibrator rests on your screen, and using the provided software you can ensure your display is set to the best possible colour temperature, brightness, contrast and gamma.
If you don’t trust the colour accuracy of your monitor but don’t want to invest in a better screen or hardware calibrator, you may already have a calibrated screen in your household of which you could make use: your tablet or smartphone. Many of today’s high-end mobile devices are factory-tuned to deliver astounding colour accuracy.
The imaging experts at DisplayMate (pcpro.link/244dpmate) carry out regular test of tablet screens to determine which delivers the best image quality: a relatively recent report on the accuracy of three leading tablets concluded that the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9in and the original iPad Air both “deliver top-notch picture quality, absolute colour accuracy, and accurate image contrast that isn’t only better than any other tablet, it’s also much better than most HD TVs, laptops and monitors. In fact, with some minor calibration tweaks they would both qualify as studio reference monitors.”
We know professional photographers who, before sending photos to print, first download them onto their iPad to check colour accuracy. Alternatively, you can line up your iPad and monitor side by side with the same image onscreen, and try to match the colours as closely as possible by adjusting your monitor’s settings.
Once you have the screen colour accuracy sorted, it’s time to work on the printer. The range of colour-management options available to you will depend on the sophistication of the printer. At the top end, the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 Windows drivers offer a full range of colour-management settings, and the device can even be fitted with an optional X-Rite spectrophotometer for maximum colour accuracy.
The Canon Pixma Pro-100, meanwhile, includes a colour-management plugin for Photoshop in its software bundle, which we found useful for tweaking settings – although it doesn’t go much further than the print options already provided in Photoshop itself.
In general, we found that we obtained the most consistent results by switching off all the printer’s automatic colour-management tools and allowing Photoshop to handle colour management. There were a few exceptions to this rule, in particular with black-and-white photography on the high-end printers, but it’s usually best to take control in the imaging software if you can.
Photoshop’s print settings provide a number of colour-management options with which you may need to experiment to achieve the best results for different types of image. There are four types of “rendering intent”, which we explain below.
Perceptual: We used this setting most often, and it’s the one that delivered the most satisfying results for our test photos. Perceptual rendering aims to maintain the visual relationship between colours so that they’re perceived as “natural” to the human eye. The software will use its judgement to “pull back” colours that would be outside of the printer’s colour gamut, effectively compressing some of the spectrum. This tends to reduce the saturation of images, but leaves skin tones in particular with a pleasingly lifelike quality.
Relative colorimetric: Unlike perceptual mode, which may shift all the colours in an image to make them look more natural, relative colorimetric will aim to match colours precisely. Those colours in the image that aren’t within the printer’s gamut will be matched as closely as possible. This may mean that out-of-gamut colours are all mapped to the same colour, and could result in banding. On the flip side, if you have an image that consists of only a narrow range of colours (say, a closeup photo of a rock face), relative colorimetric will more likely retain the subtle shades of brown than perceptual’s crushed colour gamut.
Absolute colorimetric: Unlike relative colorimetric, absolute mode will provide no compensation at all for the backlighting on your screen when attempting to match colours. In this mode, the colours printed on the paper will likely look very different to what you can see with your eye on the screen. This mode is largely intended for reproducing specific colours in logos and graphics, and isn’t intended for use in photography.
Saturation: As the name suggests, this setting aims to maintain the saturation of an image, sometimes at the expense of colour accuracy. It’s most useful for making graphics or charts leap off the page, but it may also prove effective in certain types of photos where you want to “pop” the colours.
With all of these settings, there’s an element of trial and error. Sometimes an image that looks flat when printed in perceptual mode can be brought to life in relative colorimetric, and vice versa. After a while, you’ll get a feel for which setting will work best with which type of photo on your particular printer. If you’re unsure, however, it’s wise to carry out a small test print before wasting ink and paper on a larger print.