Soft Proofing Your Photos to Get the Most From Your Printer

As photographers, one of the most exciting parts of our job is printing the fantastic photos we capture. As keen as we are to get the prints, we have to make sure we go through the entire pre-print process all the way to the T to ensure you get realistic prints. A crucial step in the process is soft proofing.

Soft proofing is a simple method that allows you to visualize what your photo will look like when printed. Moreover, it will allow you to choose between different color spaces and ICC profiles for your printer. You can also adjust color balance, saturation, brightness, sharpness, and other aspects to ensure the resulting image is as accurate as the original.

Photo by Canon

Photographers with perfectly calibrated screens and a good quality printer can benefit from soft proofing. But whether or not you have these resources, it is always recommended to soft proof images before printing them, as it can save you ink and time.

What is Color Management?

Two critical steps in color management are calibrating the monitor and using the correct printer profile. Color management aims to align your devices, from capture to viewing to printing, to maintain consistent and correct colors across all your devices.

Calibrating your monitor is one of the essential tasks you need to consider when preparing your images for printing. When you calibrate a monitor, you balance and correct its colors. You can easily calibrate your monitor using a robust and reliable spectrometer and calibration software. On the other hand, using a printer profile tells your printer how it should interpret colors by understanding the media the ink is printing on. When your printer accurately interprets colors in a printable color space, it can reproduce them perfectly.

Photo by Joshua Fuller

Understanding color space and why it matters

Color space is the range of colors that a device (such as a monitor or printer) can display or print. Generally, the color space is expressed in Adobe RGB (1998) or sRGB. These abbreviations represent the colors used in printing – RGB is therefore red, green and blue. The larger the color space, the more gamut the device can reproduce.

An illustration showing how much of the color spectrum (the oval in the background) is covered by different color spaces. Image by Jeff Schewe and licensed under CC BY 2.5.

If you view a colored photo with a large color space, such as ProPhoto RGB, and send it to a printer capable of outputting only a smaller sRGB color space, the colors will not match across screens . In this scenario, the vivid colors in a photo may only appear dull because the printer lacks ink and color space information to reproduce the colors. The printer essentially finds the color closest to the top of its gamut as a close match because it is unable to print beyond its color space. Therefore, it is essential to consider how you are producing your photo (jpeg or TIFF and what color profile you might assign) as well as the color space of the printer before printing any images.

Aren’t all printers the same?

The short answer is no. Printers have varied features that contribute to their prices. A less expensive office-style desktop printer may only have three ink tanks, while a large-format printer may have more than eight tanks. Printers with more ink tanks have the advantage of reproducing more colors, so we can say that they have a wider color gamut. Thus, to print a photo with a larger color space (ProPhoto RGB or Adobe RGB 1998), it is recommended to use a large format printer.

Photo by Canon

Another way to print photos is to use a one hour processor or a minilab. You may find that the colors do not match your color management in these places. This color shift is because many Fujifilm, Noritsu, Kodak or Konica machines print in an sRGB color profile. So, in summary, think about the printer you will use to print your photo, as this can dramatically affect the color you get!

How to Select Color Space in Adobe Photoshop

Adobe is the most popular photo editing software, thanks to the excellent set of features it offers. For example, if Adobe’s default color settings aren’t giving the desired results, you can constantly adjust the settings to match the requirements of the image you’ve captured.

To access Adobe Color settingsyou have to navigate Edit menu and select Color settings in the drop-down menu.

You will now see the Color Settings dialog with many technical details.

These criteria are set by default and most of them are suitable for home office setups. The only one we need to modify is the Desaturate monitor colors by option. Adjust it as needed, then save the preset.

Just below the preset name you can see Workspaces – this is where you select the color space you want to use. Adobe offers four different color space options – RGB, CMYK, Gray and Spot and you should choose one depending on your image and the desired output you are looking for.

How to Soft Proof a Photo in Adobe Photoshop

Below is a quick guide on how to soft proof your images in Adobe Photoshop:

Step 1: Installing ICC profiles

The International Color Consortium (ICC) has designed a universal color management system for all imaging devices. ICC profiles consist of a set of data that tells a device what the input or output parameters of a color space are. ICC profiles will only work if they are installed on your computer and correspond to a particular type of paper.

Navigate to the manufacturer’s website and download the ICC profile of the paper you plan to use. The installation process may vary depending on the operating system. So check the installation instructions when downloading the ICC profile to your computer.

Step 2: Color Management

Access color settings in Adobe through the Edit>Color Settings and adjust the criteria to reflect your printer’s printable color space specifications. Higher quality printers will be capable of a wider gamut, such as Adobe RGB (1998).

In the same window under Color management policies: RGB, CMYKand Grey select Preserve embedded profiles. This ensures that the imported photo retains its color space.

Step 3: Customize the proof condition

To set up Photoshop soft proofing, you must first Setting up the proof. You will find this option by following this path View>Proof Setup>Custom. Then click on Device to simulate and select the ICC profile for the printer you installed in step 1. You can now set the proof conditions in the same window. Experiment with the options provided until you find the best combination that suits your viewing environment.

Step 4: Save Changes

You can review the changes by checking and unchecking the Preview option in the same dialog box. Once you are happy with the changes, you can proceed to save them. You can also give your configuration a unique name for future reference.

Step 5: Display the calibrated image

To view your calibrated soft-proof image, you can go to the See tongue. You will notice many changes in the image, from its appearance to the file name displayed (the file name will change to include the paper profile). Your screen-proofed image will now be visible on screen – you’ll know exactly what the image will look like when printed.

Depending on the calibration method, you may still need to adjust and change your monitor’s brightness and contrast to get an accurate match to the print you expect. It is recommended that you print a few test strips (sections of the photo) to compare with what you see in the on-screen proofing so that you can make minor adjustments to your computer screen.

Soft-Proof and experimentation for the best results

There is no simple formula for settings when it comes to soft proofing. Thanks to the wide range of displays, operating systems and calibration devices, one solution would not work for all. Instead, you’ll have to experiment or invest some money in a good monitor and calibration rig until you get the look right – it’s the only way to ensure your proofing in the screen is a success.


About the Author: Leigh Diprose is a full-time business owner and writer in the imaging industry with a passion for sharing knowledge. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. His published work has been featured by top imaging wholesalers and major imaging retailers in over 14 countries.


Picture credits: Header photo from Depositphotos

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