Soft Proofing Your Photos to Get the Most From Your Printer

As photographers, one of the most exciting parts of our job is to print the fantastic photos we capture. We are eager to print the photos, but we must ensure that we adhere to all pre-printing steps to make sure you get real prints. Soft proofing is an important step.

This is an easy way to see how your image will look once it’s printed. In addition, it will enable you to choose between different color spaces and ICC profiles for your printer. You also get to adjust the color balance, saturation, brightness, sharpness, and other aspects to ensure the resultant image is as accurate as the original.

Photo from Canon

Photographers with perfectly calibrated screens and a good quality printer can benefit from soft proofing. But irrespective of whether you have these resources, it’s still a good practice to soft proof images before you print them as it can save you ink and time.

What is Color Management?

Two critical stages of color management are calibration of the monitor and using the correct printer profile. Color management aims to align your devices, from capture to viewing to print, to maintain consistent, correct color 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 with the help of a spectrometer and sound, reliable calibration software. A printer profile, on the other hand instructs the printer how to interpret colors by understanding what medium it prints on. When your printer accurately interprets colors within a printable color space, it can replicate them perfectly.

Photo by Joshua Fuller

Understanding Color Space and Why it’s Important

Color space is the range of colors that a device (such as a monitor or printer) can display or print. Typically, color space is expressed in Adobe RGB (1998) or sRGB. These abbreviations stand for the colors used in printing – so RGB is Red, Green, and Blue. A device’s ability to reproduce more colors is dependent on its color space.

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

If you view a colorful photo with a large color space, such as ProPhoto RGB, and send it to a printer only capable of producing a smaller sRGB color space, the colors won’t match from screen to print. In this scenario, the vivid colors in a photo may only appear dull as the printer lacks the ink and color space information to replicate the colors. As it can’t print beyond the printer’s color space, the printer will find the nearest color to its gamut and use that as its match. Before printing photos, you need to think about how your image will be output (jpeg/tiff) and the color space of the printer.

Aren’t All Printers The Same?

The short answer to this question is “No”. There are many features that printers offer, which can affect their cost. The cheapest office printer might only contain three tanks while a wider-format printer could have eight. Printers with more ink tanks have the advantage of replicating more color, so we can say they have a larger color gamut. Therefore, to print a photo with a larger color space (ProPhoto RGB or Adobe RGB 1998), it’s recommended you use a large format printer.

Photo from Canon

Another way of printing photos is with a 1-hour processor or minilab. These colors might not be consistent with what you have set up at your place of work. Many of these machines, such as Konica, Noritsu and Kodak, print using an sRGB profile. So, in summary, consider what printer you will use to print your photo, as it can drastically affect the resulting color!

How to Select the Color Space in Adobe Photoshop

Adobe is the most popular photo editing software, thanks to the excellent set of features it offers. If the default settings in Adobe don’t produce the desired results, Adobe can be adjusted to meet the needs of your image.

To access Adobe’s Color Settings, you need to navigate the Edit menu and select Color Settings from the drop-down menu.

You’ll now see the Color Settings dialogue box with many technical details.

These criteria are set to default, and most of them are okay for home office setups. The only one we need to alter is the Desaturate Monitor Colors By option. Set it as required, and then save the preset.

Right below the preset’s name, you can see Working Spaces – 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 need to pick one according to your image and the desired output you’re 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: Installation of ICC Profiles

The International Color Consortium (ICC) has designed a universal color management system for all imaging devices. ICC profiles are a collection of data that indicates to a device the input and output parameters for a particular color space. ICC profiles will work only when installed on your computer and match a particular paper stock.

Navigate to the manufacturer’s site and download the ICC profile that corresponds with the paper stock. You may need to adjust the installation instructions depending on your operating system.

Step 2: Color Management

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

In the same window under Color Management Policies: RGB, CMYK, and Gray select Preserve Embedded Profiles. Doing so ensures the imported photo retains its color space.

Step 3: Customize Proof Condition

To set up Photoshop’s Soft Proofing, you’d first need to Proof Setup. You’ll find this option following this path View>Proof Setup>Custom. Next, click on Device to Simulate and select the ICC profile for the printer you installed in Step 1. In the next window, you can set your proof conditions. You can now experiment with all the available options until you have found the combination that best suits your viewing area.

Step 4: Save Changes

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

Step 5: View the Calibrated Image

To view your soft-proofed calibrated image, you can head to the View tab. You’ll notice many changes in the image – right from its appearance to the file name displayed (the file name will change to include the paper profile). The screen will display your soft-proofed image. This will let you see exactly how the image will appear when printed.

Depending on the calibration method, you may still have to adjust and alter the brightness and contrast of your monitor to achieve an accurate match to the print you expect. It’s recommended to print some test strips (sections of the photo) to compare against what you see in the soft-proofing so you can make minor adjustments to your computer monitor.

Soft-Proof and Experiment For The Best Results

There’s no straightforward formula for settings when it comes to soft proofing. There are many operating systems and calibrators available, so there is no one way to do soft proofing. Instead, you’d have to experiment or invest some money into a good monitor and calibration device until you get the right look – it’s the only way to ensure your soft proofing is a success.


About the author: Leigh Diprose is a business owner and full-time writer in the imaging industry whose passion is to share knowledge. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His published work has been featured by top imaging wholesalers and leading imaging retailers in over 14 countries.


Image credits: Header photo from Depositphotos

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