48 Hours in Color-Management Hell
By Mike Johnston
The punchline first: Everything's okay. And: "whew."
However, I just got out of about 48 hours in color-management hell. Ever been there? It's not pleasant.
The printer I was using is new to me. It's a B9180 that HP sent to me as a review sample a few days ago. The first prints I made were...well, not prints at all, but embarrassments. Something was very seriously wrong.
But what? For a day or two, I'll be darned if I knew.
The printer was a repack, which is a bit dumb of HP from the start – the setup wasn't what was described in the Startup Guide, because the machine had already been initialized and had its language set, and so forth, and what the printer said it wanted from its little readout and what the Startup Guide was telling me to do were different things. But once I got everything put together, the built-in test sheets printed well and all the inks and printheads got a clean bill of health from the internal status monitors. So the printer hardware was confirmed to be working fine. That was the first thing I checked.
The trouble is that there are so many variables it's impossible to test them all. With only 5 sheets each of several types of very expensive media provided by HP, I had room for trials (but just barely) if everything went right.
Everything was emphatically not going just right. But what, exactly, was wrong? I was up till two in the morning two nights running trying to figure it out. No clue, and it was very frustrating and stressful. Two days, and I had yet to make an even marginally successful print from one of my own files.
Globally described, the problem was double-color-management, most probably. That's when you are applying color management twice, through two different software protocols or devices. The one fights the other, and the results are...alarming. The most obvious example of this is when you've got your software handling the color and your printer also handling the color. You've got to let one or the other do this, and make sure the other one is standing down.
I tried to profile the printer using the ColorVision PrintFIX PRO Suite. This is a two-part semi-pro calibration routine using the Spyder2PRO 2.2 for monitor calibration (works fine, looks nice) and the PrintFIX PRO colorimeter for building a device profile.
The HP printer driver gives very few controls, and for a while it wasn't exactly obvious to me which of them I needed to use when a) building the profile and b) printing. The ColorVision instructions are very emphatic about the need to turn off color management in Photoshop before printing the sheet with all the test patches on it, but then claims elsewhere that if you print the test patches from within the dialog box (DB) of PrintFIX PRO, the app will make sure no color management is being applied. So which is it? Plus, when you print the test patches from within the app, it still brings up the printer DB when you go to print...but of course the regular "Print" DB, not the "Print with Preview" DB. And then, at that point, it's unclear just what driver controls are needed. And this brings up a pervasive difficulty in digital imaging: there's no instruction book, because no single person or manufacturer can possibly try all the variables on every possible combination of equipment and write down for you exactly how it's supposed to work. The options for "Color" under "Paper Type/Quality" in the HP print driver are "ColorSmart/sRGB," "ColorSync," "Grayscale," "Application Managed Color," and "Adobe RGB." I was on my own as to which of those to use when printing the test patch sheet, which will then require half an hour to dry down and another fifteen minutes to laboriously read with the colorimeter. I picked "Application Managed Color," the app being the PrintFIX PRO software. Was that right? Who knows?
Then I was faced the prospect of a whole slew of new difficulties when it came to actual printing from within Photoshop. Because if the print still didn't look right, what do I do to troubleshoot, and what option do I try next? Do I rebuild the test patch sheet with a different print DB setting? Do I try different things within Photoshop color management? Or do I just screw with the settings in the printer DB? I decided to just jettison the custom profiles and work on getting a decent print with the standard controls. There were thousands of different possible combinations, and I had 44 sheets of paper and one set of inks then about 90% full...it wasn't looking too good for a while there.
Gavin – Snow Day
• • •
The good news is that everything's now fine. The problem went away – completely. The prints are now rolling off the B9180 looking just the way they're supposed to, as close to the monitor image as light-emitting and light-reflecting media can be to each other, responding well to subtle changes in both the files and the settings. The two custom profiles I've now built using the ColorVision PrintFIX PRO work fine, as do the standard, bundled-in profiles for the respective HP papers. This is (naturally) a very tentative conclusion, but I don't think I'd hesitate just to use the standard profiles unless I were experiencing some specific problem. Of course PrintFIX PRO would come in very handy for making profiles for non-HP papers. I'll know soon, as I've just ordered some Moab Entrada Natural that I'll probably have to profile myself—the printer is so new that Moab doesn't offer any profiles for it yet.
The bad news is...I still don't know what was wrong before, and I don't exactly know what I did to fix it. The problem, whatever it was, just sort of evaporated. Somehow, I was double-dipping, applying two layers of color management that were fighting each other, to the very alarming detriment of the prints, which were so woeful-looking that it seems – now, anyway – almost funny.
And now I'm not.
What changed? I can't really tell you. I know I was making multiple changes to all sorts of settings, and then setting them back again, and in one of those many changes I just eliminated the double-loop, whatever and wherever it was occurring. I think this particular problem was entirely within Photoshop. I suspect, though I'm not sure, that it was in the Photoshop > Color Settings DB. But I don't really know, because I didn't note all of the individual settings before I turned color management off and then turned it back on again during the profiling process.
An ultimate mystery, one that goes away without revealing itself....
The lesson here, if there is one, is just that when you experience problems, you just have to keep hunting them down until they go away. What are the action steps? I asked my friend Carl Weese for help, and he had a number of good suggestions. I kept reading away at the various help menus and instruction books (the number of these isn't trivial – it included, in this case, HP's printer manual and online help, the help buttons within the ColorVision product, and Adobe's online tutorials for Photoshop, plus color management resources and printing resources from other sources). Most of all, keep trying things. Write everything down, if you can, and change settings, and experiment.
I used to do the same thing in the darkroom. A problem would occur, and I'd have to chase it down, remoreslessly vectoring in on every potential cause until I either located the culprit or the problem went away.
I wish I could tell you what I was doing wrong, but the plain fact is that it wouldn't help you, or anybody, even if I could. We all use different combinations of devices and software, and in any multi-variable process there are going to be highly individualized problems cropping up that need to be solved. You just have to keep after it, be patient, keep learning. Trust yourself, too – you'll get it worked out eventually. I'm supposed to be an expert, yet there I was feeling as humiliated and helpless as any fledgling beginner. I suspect it happens to us all.
It's nice to be free again, however. Color management hell is just not a nice place to be.
Mike Johnston's "Daily kibble for photo dawgs" is The Online Photographer