The Camera or the Lens?
ImagePrint is well known for its vast library of high quality printer profiles. In fact, often users seem to think that the profiles are the software, or at least the most important part. In the following article, I’d like to correct that perception and show that Imageprint is not just a layout package with great profiles thrown in, but is instead the core component that makes those incredible profiles possible.
“The standard print driver is good enough, so why should I buy ImagePrint?”
That’s a question I hear often. After all, high-end printing software is an investment, and it’s understandable for users to wonder just what it brings to the table. But before answering with a list of ImagePrint virtues, I often like to first talk a little about camera equipment, and just what “good enough” really means. Face it, it’s hard for software to be sexy to most people but everyone likes to talk about their camera and lenses!
Cameras and lenses do matter
Most people understand that the quality of the image starts at capture, and while great equipment certainly won’t make you a great photographer, poor or unsuited equipment can limit what you can produce.
It’s nice to have a great camera—one with convenient, useful features and easy to operate controls. Yet most people don’t run out and buy the most expensive camera from their manufacturer of choice. Instead, most choose the best camera for the type of shooting that they do. That camera may or not be the “top of the line” in every respect, but users know that image quality won’t be sacrificed as long as they choose the right camera for their work. In a sense, choosing a camera is all about choosing features.
Lenses are a different story. Each choice of lens you make is a choice that can affect the quality of the images you produce. That’s why everyone who is serious about photography longs for the best lenses available. Why don’t we settle for lenses that are just good enough? Because the lens will impact the capture regardless of how good a photographer we are—everything goes through the lens.
Printing is no different than the capture side in regards to the pursuit of excellence. For those demanding excellence, “Good enough” just doesn’t cut it. Good enough gets you a print that matches what that discount lens would have captured, not what you got with your expensive, higher quality one.
And, just as with the capture side, people often think in terms of features and quality. There’s the printing software, full of layout and work-flow features you may or not need, (like a camera), and there’s the printer and its ICC profiles—like the lens everything passes through.
But, in reality, the profiles are tied to the printing software. And just as one of the biggest mistake you can make is to spend money on a high-end camera and equip it with a low-budget lens, it’s all too easy for people to choose their printing software based on a list of features without considering how that choice also affects (or even determines) the quality of the prints (and profiles) they can achieve.
To illustrate my point, let’s look at some things that make a great print.
— A true 16 bit data path
Often, what separates a good print from a great print are the little differences throughout the image. Reproducing those differences means maintaining detail throughout the entire tonal range throughout the entire printing process. But, if your images are 16-bit, often-times what happens in the standard printer driver is that somewhere in the process the 16-bit data is forced down to 8-bit. That means that even if the driver can accept 16-bit data it doesn’t mean it can actually print it. To really reproduce 16-bit data the entire data pipeline must maintain that 16 bit data—from opening the image, through its color management, all the way to the last step, screening.
For those not familiar with screening, a quick description: Printers are one bit devices, they either put a drop of ink down or they don’t. So to form one bit data out of 16- or 8-bit image data you must somehow break up each color plane of the image into that one-bit data the printer can process. You do this by creating screens. These are basically patterns representing the data as clusters of dots to reproduce a given density at a each tonal range. For 8-bit data we need around 250 unique screens, but for 16-bit we need upwards of 8000 unique screens to get all that subtle color and detail from the original image onto paper. Preserving all the detail in the final print is one thing that will separate a great print from a good enough print.
— Color accuracy
Color and density reproduction is a critical element of any great print, and there are of course lots of ways that users try and improve the color output. One of the most common (especially when using the standard printer driver) is to use a “good enough” profile and then make test print after test print, tweaking color along the way, until you finally get it right. This method is both time consuming and expensive, and it won’t take long before you began to search for a better way. So what to do? Ah! Maybe try having some custom profiles built. (After all a custom profile has to be better than that generic “good enough” profile that you downloaded form the paper manufacturer, right?) And it might very well be better, but there is also a good chance that it won’t, and here’s why: A profile can only be as good as the method used to create it. One aspect of that method that can make or break a profile is the quality of the measurement device reading the calibration target. Another is the number of color patches contained in the target. The more patches, the more true data points are captured resulting in less interpolation. And, no less important than the others is the quality of the printing software used to output the target. Which brings us to another factor in making a great print…
— Advanced printing technology
If the technology used to print the target, i.e. the driver, does not produce great screens, has a less than stellar color engine, or “tweaks” the print by adding artificial contrast or a color curve, you’re simply not going to get an excellent profile.
You see, inside the driver is the actual color recipes that tell the printer how and how much ink to put down. It controls drop size as well as many other important factors that determine the over all use of ink. So the bottom line is that no profile can overcome the deficiencies of the driver, just like the greatest camera in the world isn’t going to overcome a faulty lens.
This is even more true with third-party papers because the standard “free” driver is only programmed on how best to lay down ink on the manufacturers own (OEM) media. For third-party papers printing is just a roll of the dice. You may get good results, but it will seldom be optimal without profile tweaking or image editing. With ImagePrint we embed special ink recipes into the profile for the specific paper assuring we get the maximum quality each media is able to achieve.
A complete solution
Those are just a few of things that ImagePrint offers to make the difference between “good enough” and truly excellent results in your output. But don’t just take my word for it. Read this article on how ImagePrint can simplify the process of obtaining excellence in your prints: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/essays/in_search_of_the_ultimate_inkjet_print.shtml. I recommend this article because it underscores so well how just throwing money at color management won’t get you the best prints possible–getting great prints requires finely-tuned printing technology working together throughout the entire process. And when you have that working for you, even out-of-the-box profiles will deliver superior results.
Going back to the camera analogy, in the most important ways ImagePrint is really more like a great lens than a camera. Sure, we may have a lot of features that can make your life easier, just like a good camera, but in the end, it’s the underlying printing technology—our color engine, our advanced, 16-bit screening, and our print drivers– that make the difference. Yes, profiles are important, and ImagePrint is justifiably famous for the quality of the ones we provide. But they wouldn’t be possible without the software used to produce and use them. ImagePrint is really what allows our profiles to perform so well.