By David Saffir
You’ll get the best image quality from your inkjet printer using a color-managed workflow. This includes a calibrated and profiled display, correct software setup, and image-editing software that can handle application-managed color when printing. (In this article I’m referring to color, RGB-oriented workflow.)
This might sound like a lot of work, but once you get your color locked down and you’ve had a chance to practice a bit, you’ll find that color managed workflow requires little time in execution. And the results are worth it!
I have been working with a demo unit of the new Epson Stylus Pro 4900 printer at the Santa Clarita Valley Center for Photography near Los Angeles, and so far it has been a positive experience.
Out of the box, setup is logical and relatively easy. Image quality on photographic-style and fine-art media, in color and black and white, has been very good. Paper handling has improved from earlier models; the roll paper feeder, paper tray, the upper single sheet feeder, and the lower single sheet feeder all work well. The roll feeder accepts both 2- and 3-inch cores. The Stylus Pro 4900 can handle cut sheet media up to 17x22, and 1.5mm thickness.
The Stylus Pro 4900 has eleven 200ml ink cartridges using the Epson UltraChrome HDR Ink; this includes both photo and matte black. A switch from photo black to matte black ink requires the operator to push a button on the printer control panel. Switching takes a couple of minutes, and seems to use a small amount of ink.
The instructions regarding the hands-on operation of the printer are straightforward and clearly illustrated. Overall, a flexible, pro-level machine.
I use a flat-screen desktop display that has a color gamut equal to or better than Adobe 98 RGB. I calibrate it using an X-Rite i1 Display 2 colorimeter and X-Rite software. The colorimeter is the device that looks like a mouse, but is placed on the display for use (image courtesy of X-Rite).
Generally, it’s best to use the “advanced” option in the calibration software. This allows you to set the white point, gamma, and luminance of the display. Most people use the settings shown below.
Note that in this example luminance is set to 100. Many people who have issues with screen-to-print match have screen luminance set too high—often above 200. High screen brightness affects your perception of the image during editing, and in most cases, you’ll produce a print that is too dark.
Image editors like Photoshop need a bit of tweaking out of the box to correctly support color-managed workflow for photography. From the menu bar (Mac) choose Edit > Color Settings.
First, click on More Options. I recommend that you make changes in the Color Settings dialogue as shown below.
When you have completed this, click Save, assign a name to these settings, and save them to disk. This way, you can restore these settings if needed.
Photoshop also provides the user with an on-screen preview of output color, called soft proofing. (This requires a calibrated/profiled display). It uses the printer ICC profile to adjust on-screen color, simulating what your print will look like “live” as you are editing. It’s a very powerful tool. From the menu bar, click View > Proof Setup > Custom.
From the drop-down menu (see above, marked in blue), choose the printer/paper combination you intend to use. Your display should now show you a preview of your image, as it will appear in print. This isn’t perfect, but it’s quite good. The live view provided by Soft Proofing will help keep your image editing within the boundaries of your printer. You can save your settings for future use. Click OK to return.
Developing Your Image Files
When developing raw image files, you have the option of choosing the color space/color profile that is embedded in the image. I recommend using either Adobe RGB (1998), or ProPhoto RGB. I also recommend that you work with 16-bit image files all the way through to printing (more on the last point a bit further on in this article).
When opening your image in Adobe Camera Raw, click on the blue link at the bottom of the dialogue box (red outline). This will open another dialogue:
Note the drop-down menus. The uppermost menu (Space) offers four choices in color space: sRGB, ColorMatch, Adobe RGB (1998), and ProPhoto RGB. If you intend to print your image on a machine like the Epson Stylus Pro 4900, I suggest that you use either Adobe RGB (1998) or ProPhoto; I use the latter.
Using 16-bit depth settings generally gives more flexibility in image editing, and in many cases a better print. You can use the next menu drop-down to set image size, and even enlarge the file. You can also specify image resolution/size, pixels/inch, etc. I usually do not apply sharpening at this stage; I prefer to sharpen on a layer in Photoshop.
I make adjustments in Camera Raw that are best adjusted prior editing in Photoshop. Exposure and color balance are key; I perform most other edits in Photoshop using layers. The Lens Correction tool is also very useful—you can specify your camera/lens combination, and Camera Raw will apply corrections.
Printing Setup and Options
Once your image editing is completed, save your image with all of your adjustment layers as a PSD or TIFF file. This creates a “master file,” one that you can return to and adjust as needed, more than once if necessary.
If your finished image file has many layers, you can flatten it and save it with a different file name. I typically use filename_print.tiff. A flattened file is smaller, and will usually print more efficiently. Choose File > Print to bring up the dialogue box below.
Note that is divided into three main groups: on the left, a preview of the image; in the center, controls for printer setup, printed image size, etc; on the right, controls for color management, use of ICC profiles, and rendering intent.
The preview on the left has a set of check boxes beneath it. Among these is Match Print Colors, Gamut Warning, and Show Paper White. (green outline)
Match Print Colors is quite useful, as it shows a color-accurate preview of your print on your selected media type. Gamut warning can show you where the colors in your print may exceed the gamut available through the printer.
Some people like to use Show Paper White, which “sets the color white in the preview to the color of the paper in the selected printer profile” (from Adobe). I find that it can be useful, but frequently it feels like overkill. It is most useful with fine art papers and newsprint.
In the center column, select your printer, printer setup options, image size, etc. Select your printer, top center. Then select Printer Setup button (yellow outline), which opens this dialogue:
This is one of the more important tools in your workflow. Click on the drop-down menu that says Layout to reveal more options. Choose Printer Settings.
The dialogue below comes up next. Note the choices made here. I’ve set the paper size to 17x22, specified manual feed (vs roll or tray), media type Cold Press Natural, 16 bit output, and SuperPhoto 1440.
I usually try 1440 first, vs 2880, as I find that the machine prints faster, and the prints look fine. I don’t use MicroWeave or HighSpeed, and only in special cases do I try Finest Detail.
Notice that the Color Mode drop-down is grayed out, and it says Off (No Color Management). On the Mac, this happens when you select Photoshop Manages Color in the main Print dialogue. This prevents applying two sets of color controls to the print. On a Windows-based machine, you will have to turn color management off yourself, or, as the engineers say, you’ll get an “unexpected result!”
Now the software application knows which printer, which paper, output resolution, etc. Click Save, which returns you to the main print dialogue.
Printing Your Image
On the top right select Color Management from the drop-down menu. Below this, you’ll see a menu for Color Handling (marked in red). I recommend Photoshop Manages Colors, vs. Printer Managed Color. When Photoshop manages colors, you can use a Printer Profile (marked in purple). Click and hold to see a list for the printer/paper combinations installed on your computer. Enable Black Point compensation.
I generally use Perceptual Rendering Intent (black circle). However, some recommend Relative Colorimetric. I’ve found that for color images there is no strict rule that defines which will give the best result, and which will not. It seems to depend on the image; if you switch back and forth between rendering intents you’ll see changes in your preview on the left.
At this point, provided you’ve loaded the correct paper, click Print, and voila! You have a print!
Media Notes: Epson’s hot- and cold-press fine art papers, which come in both bright and natural base tone, perform well on this printer. I was impressed by the density and saturation, and the high level of detail rendered. I’ve been using 8.5x11 sheets, and I’m looking forward to receiving larger sheets soon.
Cut sheets are convenient and easy to handle. You have three options for loading cut sheets on the 4900: the lower paper tray (which can hold a stack of paper), the upper manual feed, and the lower manual feed slot. I suggest that with thicker/fine art cut sheet papers, you try the lower feed slot. It has a straight paper path.
Color managed workflow, implemented correctly, will save you work time and materials costs. No more print-tweak, print-tweak, and wasted materials. And the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 does a good job with color accuracy on Epson media—with the right color management setup, you should have no difficulty in getting a good screen-to-print match.
David Saffir is a photographer, fine art printmaker, and author. He lives in Santa Clarita, just outside Los Angeles, California. His blog address is davidsaffir.wordpress.com.