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Using ICC Profiles in Adobe Photoshop CS5

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Say you have a gorgeous image in Photoshop. How likely is your printer to give you a result exactly like what you see onscreen? Rafael Concepcion explains how to use printer profiles to tell Photoshop the settings you need for the printer and paper you're using, so you get the precise results you want.

You spend the majority of your weekend tweaking a photo that you worked tirelessly to capture. You bought a fantastic camera and a great computer, and now you've shot a wonderful picture. All the fruits of your labor have come together to create this single image, and you can't wait to see the output from the printer.

Then you actually get the print—and you wonder why you bothered.

The problem isn't you, your printer, or your computer. The problem is that all these things came together without a key component—calibration.

Color-Correction Basics

Suppose you're asked to cook up some tomato chicken soup, using three basic ingredients: chicken broth, tomato, and pepper. (Doesn't sound very appealing, I know. Just go with it for now.) With this limited amount of information, different people can come up with multiple variations on tomato chicken soup. Some might decide to use very thin chicken broth, very weak tomato sauce, and cracked black pepper. Their soup would have a specific taste. Other people might go with very concentrated chicken stock, fresh tomato paste, and cayenne pepper. That soup would taste drastically different from the first variation.

The ingredients are defined—chicken broth, tomato, and pepper—but not the measurements. You might choose the proportion of each ingredient based on its properties, using more of a weak chicken broth, less of a very strong pepper, and so on.

Now let's think for a moment about how we see color on a monitor. When I worked in a classroom environment, I demonstrated this principle by asking each student to make his or her desktop wallpaper the default red color, and then I'd have all the students stand in the back of the room and look at the variations of red on all those computer screens. In addition to differences among manufacturers, we'd see differences based on the ages of the various monitors.

The color red has the RGB value 255, 255, 255 for red, green, blue on each monitor, so why did all those screens look different? To make them look alike, each monitor would have to know what it's capable of doing, and then all the monitors would have to adjust their various color "recipes" to match. This is the generalized description for the concept of color correction. Simply put, color correction requires three parts:

  • Calibrating your monitor (figuring out what it's capable of doing)
  • Calibrating your printer (figuring out what it's capable of doing)
  • Employing ICC profiles to translate all that information

The ICC profile serves as a conduit between your printer and monitor. These files are specific to printers and paper types. Once you calibrate your monitor, the ICC profile uses that information to simulate on your monitor how an image will look when printed on that specific printer and paper—a concept known as soft-proofing.

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