My Printer Profiles Aren't Working!

Background

I've noticed a significant increase in complaints recently about printer profiles not working properly. Most inquiries relate to people trying to use printer ICC profiles and then complaining of green/magenta color casts, prints that are too dark, or other color issues when using printer profiles supplied with the latest printers. Those familiar with the concept of color management and ICC profiles might even ask "Am I double profiling"? In most cases, people end up turning off color management and just using the automatic mode in the print driver, claiming that they get much better pictures that way. This leads many people to simply give up on color management, convinced that it must be something they don't need. I've done a number of articles on color management but I thought this topic needed revisiting as it seems to be causing a lot of confusion recently.

Am I double profiling?

As a general rule of thumb, if you know enough to ask whether or not you are double profiling, you probably aren't! There are two places that ICC profiles can be applied when printing: inside your print driver and within the software you are using to print. Double profiling occurs when you activate the "ICM" or "ICC" option in the print driver and you also specify a printer ICC profile in the software you are using to print your photos. The bottom line is that if you use a printer ICC profile, you need to select color management in one place only: the print driver or the printing software, not both.

The most common symptom of double profiling is overblown or garish colors with a color cast (usually magenta or green) in gray areas. Since most profiles lighten up prints a bit, double profiling also causes most prints to appear too bright, so if your complaint is that your prints are too dark, you most likely are not double profiling but you may be using the wrong profile or the right profile in the wrong place (see below).

Many people see printer profile assignments under the properties for their printer in control panel and assume that if a profile is assigned there and they also specify color management in the driver or in the printing software, that they will be double profiling. Such is not the case, however, because the profiles you see associated with your printer under the printer properties are simply there as placeholders so that your driver knows which profiles to use when you check the ICC/ICM option in the driver. Do not remove these associations under "Printers and Faxes" and "Properties" for your printer. Any profiles listed there should remain there and the presence of those profiles will not lead to double profiling.

The two methods of applying a printer profile:

  1. The first method (and the recommended method) of applying a printer profile is to identify the ICC profile to be used within the software you use to print. Of course, for you to be able to use this method, the software you are using must be "ICC aware" in that it knows how to apply profiles. Software such as PhotoShop, Paint Shop Pro, Qimage, and other popular editing/printing software will allow you to do this. When using this method, you must make sure that the ICC/ICM option is not being used in the print driver. Usually, this means selecting the "no color adjustment" or "none" print option in the driver in the color management section. By letting your printing software handle the color management and turning it off in the driver, the printing software can read the color space of the image and convert to the printer ICC profile that you specified in your printing software for true start-to-finish color management.

  2. The second (and usually less desirable method) is to specify the "ICC/ICM" mode in the print driver and not do any color management in your photo editor or printing software. With color management enabled via the print driver, you must not enable it in your printing software. In PhotoShop, you would select "printer color management" and in Qimage you would select "sRGB" as your printer profile. This will cause your printing software to send the image to the driver in a "standard" color space, allowing the print driver to do all the work with respect to profiling. When using this method, it is often not necessary to specify which printer profile to use because the driver will pick the right profile based on the paper type selected and other factors.

Which method should I use?

The printer profile(s) supplied with your printer (or downloaded from the manufacturer's site) can be designed for use either via your printing software or inside the driver. Some profiles simply were not designed to be used outside the driver and will only work properly when used in the driver via checking "ICC/ICM" in the driver. Unfortunately very little (if any) documentation is supplied with these generic profiles so it can be very difficult to tell exactly how the manufacturer intended for them to be used. In general, unless documentation is supplied with the profile telling you exactly what settings to use in the driver, it is probably only meant to be used inside the driver and you may get unexpected results when you turn off color management in the driver and try to use these profiles in your printing software. Taking a generic printer profile that comes with your printer and trying to use it outside the driver accounts for the reason for unexpected results in many cases.

When you have someone develop a custom profile for you or you use profiling software to create your own profile, you'll want to disable color management in the driver and let your printing software handle the profiling. This is by far the best way to get accurate profiles since you are in control of the driver settings when the profile is created. When you use a pre-made profile like those supplied with many printers, you often have no idea what settings such as print quality, halftoning options, etc. were used when the profile was made, making those profiles next to useless when trying to use them outside the driver. Although some of the latest Epson profiles like the ones that show file names starting with "SP" and some of the Atkinson profiles are designed to be used in printing software with color management turned off in the driver, they often don't specify settings well enough to know exactly how the profile was developed. In cases like these, it is often best to try the profile in your printing software but if it doesn't seem to work well, just try activating color management in the driver and deactivating it in your printing software.

If this trial-and-error method seems a bit imprecise, it is. Not knowing how to properly utilize supplied printer profiles due to lack of documentation is the number one cause of complaints about printer profiles! Supplying printer ICC profiles (.icm or .icc files) with a printer installation with no included documentation on how to use them is like supplying an owner's manual for a car with a couple of extra screws and no documentation about them! Since lack of documentation automatically means that you probably don't have enough information to determine how to try using the profile(s), my best advice would be to try disabling color management in the driver and use the profile in your printing software first. To do this, you must know at least how to set the paper type and print quality in the driver. If you know that much, try setting the paper type and print quality in the driver, turning color management off in the driver, and selecting the profile in your printing software. If that doesn't seem to work or leads to unexpected color or tonality, try the opposite: turn off color management in your printing software and just check the "ICC/ICM" option in the driver. Without any documentation specifying how a profile should be used, trying both methods is your only option.

Getting it right from the get-go

By now it should be obvious that in many cases, the cause of problems related to use of printer profiles is that printer profiles are often supplied with no documentation as to how/when they should be used. Some manufacturers even supply generic "matrix shaper" profiles that are not even real printer profiles. Older Canon "CNBJPRN..." ICC profiles and Epson "EE_..." ICC profiles are examples of profiles that should be avoided because they are simply too generic to be accurate and were not designed to be used outside the print driver. One sure way around these problems, and one way to be sure you get profiles that will work for you is to have custom profiles made for your printer, paper, and ink using a service or profiling software that you use yourself to create those profiles. This is really the way color management and ICC profiles work best.

There are many options available and these can be found by using Google to search for "printer profiling" or "custom profiling" but I'll reference two of my favorites. If you want to print a test target, send it in, and have a custom profile generated for you, an outfit like Cathy's Profiles is a good place to try. If you'd like to try your hand at creating your own profiles, a tool like my own href="http://www.ddisoftware.com/qimage" rel="nofollow"> Profile Prism is a low cost solution that consistently gets good reviews as well. Whatever method you choose, creating profiles that are designed for use on your own equipment and that you know how to properly utilize (because you specify the settings to use) has many benefits. The immediate benefit, of course, is that you get profile(s) that you know how to use properly and that you know are designed to be used with the equipment and media you are using.

You may have questions about some of the references in this article as far as the usage of print drivers and printing software. For more information on how to apply profiles or how color management works in general, be sure to check some of my previous articles on the subject of color management:

August 2004 - Over the Gamut and Through the Woods
February 2005 - Color Management in a Nutshell
May 2005 - Using ICC Profiles with Epson Printers
June 2005 - Using ICC Profiles with Canon Printers
July 2005 - Understanding Rendering Intents
September 2005 - Soft Proofing Basics
December 2005 - Lighting, Viewing, and Metamerism

Summary

There are many causes for complaints about printer profiles not working properly. Many result from trying to use "generic" printer profiles that are supplied with a new printer or are downloaded from the manufacturer's web site. In general, if you don't have enough information/documentation to tell you exactly how to set up the print driver in order to use these profiles in your printing software, it may be best to let the driver handle color management, at least until you are able to create some custom profiles of your own that you know will work properly for your specific equipment and media. Double profiling should not be a problem unless you activate the color management (ICC/ICM) mode in the print driver and you also specify an ICC profile in your printing software. If you avoid that situation and you still have trouble with an ICC profile, chances are the profile is simply not meant to be used in the way you are using it and you may not have enough documentation to correct the problem. The solution is to create your own custom profiles. That way you can be sure what they are for and how they are to be utilized.

-- Mike Chaney