Fine Art Printing, Part 2 – colour management and settings
Background information

Fine Art Printing, Part 2 – colour management and settings

Translation: Patrik Stainbrook

Wrong colours are annoying, whether on a monitor or on paper. In this colour management deep dive, you’ll learn what you can do about it.

First off, congratulations. You actually clicked on an article with «colour management» in the title. A topic that most people avoid like the plague. But it’s important. Especially if you take photographs – and even more so if you print images.

The second part of my series on fine art printing isn’t just about printing, but the entire colour management chain. It has to be perfect, flawless. If you missed part one of the series, you can find it here:

  • Background information

    Fine Art Printing, Part 1 – basics and printers

    by Samuel Buchmann

I want this article to be as comprehensible as possible, as in-depth as necessary. As a result, it’s pretty long. If you already have prior knowledge, use the sections to navigate to the topics that are particularly interesting to you. At the end, you’ll also find a summary of the most important points.

Why colour management is necessary

Colours and contrasts should look the way you intend them to. Maybe like reality, but maybe different. It’s important that you make this decision consciously. Only problem is, there are so many steps that happen automatically between taking the photo to viewing the final print – and if you’re not careful, they’ll happen in a way you don’t want.

  1. Shooting: when you press a shutter release button, the sensor assigns colour and brightness values to its pixels. If you take photos in RAW format, all this raw information is saved in the image file. If you use JPG, the camera already burns its interpretation into the file – its picture style.
  2. Image development: you have to «develop» a RAW image on your computer using a converter such as Lightroom. These programs do the same as the camera, interpreting raw data with a colour profile. Here, however, you can flexibly change these settings and without loss.
  3. Image processing: finally, a JPG or TIFF in a specific colour space is created from the RAW file. You define it when exporting and embed this information in the file, allowing your computer to interpret the colour values.
  4. Display: your computer reads the colour values of individual pixels, converts them into a signal and sends it to the monitor. That device converts the signal again and uses its subpixels to create the colour you finally see.
  5. Printing: a printer works differently to a monitor. It doesn’t mix colours additively from red, green and blue, but subtractively from cyan, magenta, yellow and black. In the case of fine art printers, using even more inks. As a result, printers have to convert colour information in a file differently.
A monitor (left) mixes colours using red, green and blue. All three together make white. A printer (right) uses cyan, magenta and yellow, which together make black.
A monitor (left) mixes colours using red, green and blue. All three together make white. A printer (right) uses cyan, magenta and yellow, which together make black.
Source: Wikipedia

Cameras, monitors and printers can display different colour spaces, and they sometimes require signals in different formats. Simply put, they speak different languages and have different vocabularies.

The colour spaces of cameras, monitors and printers only cover part of our eyes’ colour space.
The colour spaces of cameras, monitors and printers only cover part of our eyes’ colour space.
Source: Silkypix

The information has to be translated, then. From reality to camera sensor, from sensor to computer, from computer to screen and from computer to a printer. That takes a dictionary’s worth to translate.

These dictionaries are called ICC profiles in colour management. They’re files that contain numbers and mathematical formulas, as colours are stored in number form. For monitors, for example, there’s the «red, green, blue» format. An ICC profile can translate these values into another language. For example, in those of a printer, i.e. «cyan, magenta, yellow, black». And it can convert values from one colour space to another.

ICC profiles translate the colour information from a colour space into the hardware language and vice versa.
ICC profiles translate the colour information from a colour space into the hardware language and vice versa.
Source: Eizo

If there were only one type of sensor, monitor, printer and paper in the world, it’d be a simple matter. Someone would calculate these tables correctly once and everything would be fine. But with countless variants, things get complicated. Not only do you need colour profiles that translate between different languages, you also need devices that correct deviations from the standard.

Welcome to hell colour management.

What to calibrate and how

There are three types of errors that can occur from recording to printing:

  • The colours of your photo aren’t realistic: the first mistake is only a problem if you want to depict reality at all, say you’re photographing a product for an online store or reproducing works of art. In most other cases, you’ll be editing colours and tonal values the way you like them anyway.
  • Your image file is displayed incorrectly: this second error is more serious. If a program or monitor displays the image file incorrectly, its colour values don’t change. You’re just working blind. Maybe you increased the colour temperature because you thought the image was too blue – only to realise when printing it that it now looks too yellow.
  • Your image file is printed incorrectly: this third error is also annoying. If your printed image looks different than you intended, you waste expensive material every time. If your monitor’s fine, incorrect print settings are usually to blame.

Some problems can’t be completely avoided, others can. Below you’ll learn how to calibrate the three phases of an image – capture, display, print.

Calibrating for taking pictures

No image sensor can cover the colour space of our retina. It’s impossible to achieve a one hundred per cent colour-accurate image. The standard profiles of cameras and RAW converters don’t claim to reflect reality. They should look good – and «good» is a matter of taste. There are profiles that approximate natural colours. One of the most successful examples is Hasselblad’s Natural Color Solution. However, even such profiles are adapted to average lighting situations and don’t apply universally as a result.

Instead, you can create your own colour profiles – for your specific camera in a specific situation. For this, you need a physical colour chart such as the Xrite ColorChecker. Take a reference image using this chart and feed it to the associated software. This will compare the actual values of the photo with the target values of standardised colour fields. The result is an ICC profile that compensates for deviations, which you can then import into your RAW converter.

Colour charts such as ColorChecker are available in different sizes. They’re expensive because they have to be extremely accurate. The more colour patches it has, the more accurate the profile will be in the end. In my experience, however, there will still be deviations from reality even then. Because of the effort involved, this method is only useful for static setups such as a product photography station, in my opinion.

Calibrating for a monitor

Screens are a completely different story. Calibrating them is simple and always a good idea. This also goes if you aren’t editing photos for printing, an image will look different on another monitor anyway. However, a calibrated device offers the best possible average.

  • Product test

    Eizo ColorEdge CG2700X test: when things have to be just right

    by Samuel Buchmann

Any screen can be calibrated with a colorimeter such as the Spyder X. Here, software displays various colour fields and the sensor measures what your monitor is actually showing. The software corrects differences between actual and target values with an ICC profile, which it saves in your computer’s system settings. Expensive graphics monitors have built-in calibration sensors and store the profile in the monitor’s hardware, meaning colours will also be correct when you switch computers. Screens wear out over time and become inaccurate, so you should recalibrate them every few months.

Calibration can correct colour shifts, but can’t improve the colour space of your monitor. An old gaming monitor still won’t be suitable for image processing in AdobeRGB, you simply won’t see some colours. Buying a monitor with good colour space coverage is worth it. If you’re editing images for digital purposes, sRGB is mainly important. AdobeRGB has established itself as the colour space of choice for printing. It’s the better common denominator, even if a print is only ever an approximation of what you see on a monitor.

Calibrating for a printer

You’ve edited your image on a calibrated monitor and are happy with it. Now you have to make sure that it translates correctly into the language of your printer. This also requires an ICC profile. Every printer is different, and inks themselves look different on every type of paper. You’ll need a separate profile for each printer/paper combination.

There are two levels of printer calibration:

  • Ready-made ICC profiles are usually sufficient. Major paper manufacturers calibrate their papers with all common photo printers. Independent brands such as Hahnemühle make these ICC profiles available free of charge on their websites. With Epson and Canon, profiles are included in the printer drivers. Handy, but they’re closed systems. You won’t find a colour profile for an Epson paper and Canon printer combo anywhere – or vice versa.
Without the correct ICC profile (left), the colours on this Hahnemühle paper will be completely wrong. With the correct manufacturer profile (right), however, it will.
Without the correct ICC profile (left), the colours on this Hahnemühle paper will be completely wrong. With the correct manufacturer profile (right), however, it will.
Source: Samuel Buchmann
  • Custom ICC profiles work using the same principle as on a monitor. You print standardised colour fields and check them with a measuring device. This’ll give you an ICC profile for the specific combination of paper and printer, slightly more accurate than a standard profile. You can also calibrate any printer/paper combination. If you use standard paper, this isn’t really necessary, any advantages over the first method are minor.

The right settings

Colour management has to be seamless. A single incorrect setting is enough to distort the result. Luckily, many options will be automatically correct. However, there are stumbling blocks in some places.

Camera settings

If you shoot in RAW format, you can basically do nothing wrong on the camera. For example, it doesn’t matter which colour space you’ve set. Picture style and white balance also only make a difference on the camera display. You can change both later on the computer without loss. Depending on the camera, smaller resolutions or different bit depths can be selected for RAWs. For fine art prints in particular, I’d recommend using the highest settings despite large file sizes.

In new cameras, you can shoot in HEIF as well as RAW and JPG. This format has a colour depth of at least 10 bit (RAW: up to 16 bit, JPG: 8 bit). Only, it’s not universally supported.
In new cameras, you can shoot in HEIF as well as RAW and JPG. This format has a colour depth of at least 10 bit (RAW: up to 16 bit, JPG: 8 bit). Only, it’s not universally supported.
Source: Sony

In addition to RAW, there are compressed formats. JPG, and in new cameras HEIF. You have to choose your settings carefully here. White balance and image style are burned into the file during recording. If you want to change them on the computer, this will reduce image quality. You can also only reduce the colour space. Say you photograph JPGs in sRGB, the camera will discard all information outside of this colour space. There’s no point in converting the file to the larger AdobeRGB later, any additional colours the sensor captured will have disappeared.

Settings for image processing

You can make two mistakes when editing images:

  • Unintentionally reducing the quality of your file if you save an image in a tight colour space such as sRGB, or in a compressed format such as JPG. You should only do either of these at the very end of image processing – and only if you’re using the image digitally afterwards, such as on a website. However, if your goal is a fine art print, make sure your workflow is as lossless as possible. Take the photo in RAW format and do as much of your image processing as possible in a RAW converter such as Lightroom. For editing in Photoshop, export the image as a 16-bit TIFF in the AdobeRGB colour space.
If you want to process or print a file, we recommend exporting it in TIFF with strong colour depth.
If you want to process or print a file, we recommend exporting it in TIFF with strong colour depth.
Source: Samuel Buchmann
  • You let a program interpret your data wrong. If there’s no colour profile embedded in your image data, you enter the wrong information or your program doesn’t offer colour management, colours will be interpreted wrong. An image could have a blue tint or look desaturated, for example. This is most likely to happen if Photoshop opens a photo whose colour space doesn’t correspond to your standard working colour space. The app will then ask you what it should do. Always click on «Use the embedded profile».
If the image and working colour space don’t match, Photoshop offers several options.
If the image and working colour space don’t match, Photoshop offers several options.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

Monitor settings

If you don’t want to calibrate your monitor, look for a setting that’s as neutral as possible. For example, many screens have an sRGB mode. Although this usually won’t be particularly accurate, it’s better than the oversaturated standard settings with too much contrast. Some monitors also come with AdobeRGB mode out the box.

Graphics monitors usually have image modes for standard colour spaces from the get-go. However, you should recalibrate them every few months, as deviations occur over time.
Graphics monitors usually have image modes for standard colour spaces from the get-go. However, you should recalibrate them every few months, as deviations occur over time.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

For fine art printing, however, it’s better to calibrate your monitor yourself. You can determine various parameters: colour space, brightness, gamma curve and white point. These settings are adjusted to the average end device or product. The rules of thumb:

  • If you want to evaluate images for the web, select the sRGB colour space, the D65 white point (corresponding to 6,500 Kelvin) and the sRGB gamma curve.
  • For printed end products, set the colour space to AdobeRGB if your monitor covers it well. Select 2.2 as the gamma curve and D65 as the white point.
  • The Rec.709 colour space, the D65 white point and a gamma of 2.4 are suitable for editing videos intended for playback on TVs.
  • The appropriate brightness also depends on the surroundings of your workplace. If you’re processing images for printing, it shouldn’t be too high. For example, 120 nits works to avoid reflections in a location that isn’t too bright.
Most calibration programs already have sensible default settings preselected.
Most calibration programs already have sensible default settings preselected.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

After calibration, the software automatically saves the resulting ICC profile in the right location and activates it in the system settings. If this doesn’t work for any particular reason, you can choose it yourself. In macOS, it’s under System Preferences > Displays > Color profile. On Windows, the setting is hidden deep in the menus. The easiest way is to enter Colour Management in the search field.

In macOS, you can select the colour profile in the display settings. Here’s an sRGB profile for the Asus PG34WCDM.
In macOS, you can select the colour profile in the display settings. Here’s an sRGB profile for the Asus PG34WCDM.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

Printer settings

First, you need to install the correct printer driver from the manufacturer. Only then do you add the printer in your system settings. If you use Mac, be careful. When adding the printer via the Bonjour protocol, only the AirPrint driver will be installed, which doesn’t include all necessary options. You can see this when you click on the printer in the system settings after adding it. Instead, select the TCP/IP protocol when adding.

Watch out! If you see AirPrint on your printer, reinstall it.
Watch out! If you see AirPrint on your printer, reinstall it.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

Fine art printers are quite backward devices. Almost nothing works automatically or intuitively here, especially if you work with paper from third-party manufacturers such as Hahnemühle. I think you should, by the way (more on this in the next part of this series).

You need to tell the software and the printer four things:

  • Which format your paper has.
  • Which ICC profile your paper needs.
  • What should happen with colours outside the printer colour space.
  • Which print settings your paper needs.

Annoyingly, these settings are in different places depending on your system and program. The screenshots in this article are from Lightroom in macOS Sonoma.

The paper format in Lightroom is at the bottom left under Page Setup. In Photoshop, however, it’s located in the Print Settings dialogue box. The choice of formats is huge. You could also activate borderless printing here. However, experts advise against this as the print head has to print a little beyond the paper, which can damage it.

With the right driver, you have plenty of options when selecting the format. I’d avoid borderless.
With the right driver, you have plenty of options when selecting the format. I’d avoid borderless.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

You have to set the ICC profile manually if you’re printing with third-party paper manufacturers. To do this, download the appropriate profile from the manufacturer’s website. Here are the links for Hahnemühle and Ilford, just to name two. You’ll receive an ICC file and a PDF doc, usually. Save the ICC file in your system:

  • In macOS Sonoma, open the Finder and press Go to Folder while holding down the Alt key. There, open /Library/ColorSync/Profiles.
  • In Windows 11, you’ll find the folder with the ICC profiles here: \Windows\system32\spool\drivers\colour.

The profile will then appear in your printing program. In Lightroom, it’s in the right-hand column under Color Management. In Photoshop, it’s again Color Management in the print window. If you’re printing on a Canon printer with Canon paper or on an Epson printer with Epson paper, the necessary ICC profiles will be integrated in the printer driver. In this case, you can set the colour management to the printer default.

In Lightroom, you can select from a list of installed colour profiles which should be displayed under Color Management.
In Lightroom, you can select from a list of installed colour profiles which should be displayed under Color Management.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

You set the rendering intent directly below the ICC profile. It determines what happens to colours outside the printer’s colour space:

  • Perceptual is the most popular rendering intent. It tries to maintain the overall impression of an image. To do this, the colour space of your picture is compressed if it contains colours outside the target space. Imagine evenly squeezing a foam ball. The advantage – colour gradations are retained. However, colours that were already within the target space will also shift.
  • With Relative Colorimetric, all colours that the printer can display remain untouched. Colours outside of this target space are simply pushed towards the next possible shade that the printer can display. This brings fewer colour shifts, but fine gradations and therefore details can be lost.

For many photos, it doesn’t matter which of the two intents you choose, the colour space of the image will fit completely with the target colour space. If this isn’t the case, you’ll achieve a better result with Perceptual or Relative Colorimetric, depending on the image. For the latter, you should check the Black Point Compensation box in Photoshop. Lightroom does this automatically.

Print settings can be found at the bottom left in Lightroom and at the top of the print dialogue box in Photoshop. Paper settings are particularly important here. For Epson they’re under Options > Printer Preferences, for Canon under Options > Quality and Media.

With Epson, you’ll find the paper settings well hidden under Printer Preferences.
With Epson, you’ll find the paper settings well hidden under Printer Preferences.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

With native paper, the settings are self-explanatory. For example, if you’re printing on a Canon printer with Canon Professional Platinum paper, select that medium in the settings. For third-party paper, you’ll receive a PDF telling you which setting you should select for the specific paper as an attachment with the ICC profile (for Ilford, the instructions are here). For a Hahnemühle Photo Rag on the Epson SC-P900, for example, it’s Velvet Fine Art Paper.

If you use native paper, they’ll be called the same in the settings. For other paper, you have to check the manufacturer’s leaflet to see which setting to choose for the printer.
If you use native paper, they’ll be called the same in the settings. For other paper, you have to check the manufacturer’s leaflet to see which setting to choose for the printer.
Source: Samuel Buchmann

Light when viewing a print

If your colour management chain is completely correct, the finished print should look the same as on the monitor – but only under normal light, with a brightness of 2,000 lux and a colour temperature of 6,500 Kelvin. Normal interiors are darker. If you want to generate standard light artificially and accurately, you’ll have to pay. Using a lamp like this one, the colours will at least be reasonably correct, even if the brightness isn’t. The simplest solution for neutrally viewing a print is a window without direct sunlight.

Indirect daylight is suitable for neutrally viewing a print
Indirect daylight is suitable for neutrally viewing a print
Source: Samuel Buchmann

However, think about what will happen to your print. Where will you hang it or look at it? If the picture is intended for a dark hallway, you can brighten it up and add contrast. Under artificial light, colours appear yellower than in daylight. You can also compensate for this if you want.

TL;DR: the most important facts in brief

Colour management is a huge topic. This article alone is pretty lengthy, and you’ll find huge treatises on each individual topic on specialist websites. Here are the most important points in brief:

  • For the best possible image quality, shoot in RAW format and export the pictures as TIFF in the AdobeRGB colour space.
  • Buy a good monitor that covers a standard colour space as completely as possible. AdobeRGB if possible, but at least sRGB.
  • Calibrate your monitor with a colorimeter such as the Spyder X.
  • You can calibrate your printer, but you don’t necessarily have to. You can find ICC profiles for specific printer/paper combinations on paper manufacturers’ websites.
  • Select the correct ICC profile in your printing program – and the corresponding print settings listed in the profile attachment.
  • Match your prints to the light in which you want to hang or view them.
Colour management can make your head spin. But it’s worth it.
Colour management can make your head spin. But it’s worth it.

If you feel overwhelmed by colour management, don’t worry. Most of it is repetitive and you’ll only have to set things up correctly once. It’s worth the effort. Once everything is set up, you save time, nerves and printing material – and can devote yourself to the creative decisions.

The third and final part of this series also deals with a creative decision – your choice of paper.

Header image: Samuel Buchmann

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My fingerprint often changes so drastically that my MacBook doesn't recognise it anymore. The reason? If I'm not clinging to a monitor or camera, I'm probably clinging to a rockface by the tips of my fingers.


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