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Ask An Expert: Soft Proofing

January 28, 2010

I received a really good and quite timely question about soft proofing earlier this week.  I’m in the process of searching for a new printmaker and soft-proofing is a critical step when you’re working remotely with a lab, especially when your prints will be delivered directly to a client without you ever actually laying eyes on them.  I queried the experts and received not one but three awesome answers from Nat Coalson, Guy Tal and Andy Biggs.  All three of these guys offer killer workshops, some of which include comprehensive digital darkroom and printing components.  Thanks for the great Q & A, dudes!

The Question:

I have a question to submit, one that I haven’t found a straightforward answer to online, despite a lot of looking. It regards soft proofing, in my case using downloaded profiles from print labs before ordering prints online. I’m using CS4.

I understand how to use Proof setup>Custom, I even feel like I understand rendering intents pretty well, but I don’t quite understand how to proceed once I’ve activated the proof setup and my image begins to look dull. What is the workflow from here? I assume the next step is editing the image until it looks more acceptable. Any tricks or advice for this stage? And how should the resulting image be saved once it is ready (taking into account that many mail-order labs specify sRGB files)? How do “Assign Profile” and “Convert to Profile” figure in here?

The Experts Respond:

First, Nat Coalson said – Even with a perfectly calibrated display and great profiles your monitor will ever perfectly match any print. The reason is simple: your display is transmissive (emits light) and a print is reflective (reflects light). On your display, pure black is the absence of any light being emitted. On a print, pure black still reflects some light.

In other words, the black on your monitor will ALWAYS be “blacker” and deeper than what you see on a print. At the other end of the scale, the whites will ALWAYS look brighter on the monitor than on a print.

All that being said, you CAN and SHOULD expect to be able to get accurate, predictable color. Especially if you’re willing to soft proof and make adjustments for each print.  This requires training your eye to correlate what you see on the display to how it will look on the print.

In Photoshop, start with your photo in whatever color space it happens to use (and always make sure to Embed profiles when saving).

Make sure you’re using the following settings for your proofing setup (note this is for photographic printing, not prepress proofing):

Choose View > Proof Setup > Custom

In the proof setup dialog box:

  • Proof Conditions: choose the profile for your printer/paper combination
  • Preserve numbers: NEVER ENABLED
  • Rendering Intent: try both Relative and Perceptual (see next section)
  • Black Point Compensation: ALWAYS ENABLED
  • Display Options (On-Screen): BOTH should be checked – simulate paper color and simulate black ink.

These last settings for “simulating” the printed output is one of the most crucial parts to successful soft-proofing. It’s also one of the hardest parts to master. These buttons are what Jeff Schewe has referred to as the “make my image look like sh*t buttons”. But you’ve gotta use them. I’ll explain more about this in a minute.

Once you’ve got the settings just like this, make sure to save your preset. I would save one using relative and one using perceptual.

Here’s how do the actual soft-proofing and adjustments:

First, with your master working image open, choose Image > Duplicate; using Merged Layers is fine. We’re making a copy of your print file to use as a temporary reference. We’re going to keep the reference visible while we soft proof and make adjustments to the master file.

Now, with two windows open showing the same image, place them side by side or top and bottom, depending on the orientation. You can do this with the commands under Window > Arrange, or just drag the windows into place. You just need to be able to see your photo in both windows. Also, keep track of which is your original master image that will be printed, and which is your reference. I’d recommend arranging your windows in the same way every time to avoid confusion.

Click the window to make sure you’re in the original, master document and enable soft proofing for your desired proof condition. You will notice immediately that it looks different (and worse) than your reference.

VERY IMPORTANT: Don’t enable soft proofing on the reference window!!

Now, with soft proofing enabled, make adjustment layers in your master print file to try to get it to look as close as possible to the reference image. During this process, you can try both the relative and perceptual versions to see which one you like better for each image.  But remember, like explained above, your soft proof and your reference will NEVER look exactly alike if you’re doing this correctly.

What you will see is that the reference file looks bright, vivid, and beautiful – just like your master file did before you enabled soft proofing.  Your master file now looks dull, lifeless and flat. And depending on your paper and profile, some may look worse than others. For example, if you are printing to a photo paper, it will look closer to the reference than if you’re proofing for a canvas (which will look totally washed out!)

Here’s the part about training your eye and understanding the situation. What you see in the Photoshop soft proof really IS closer to your print than the reference version, because Photoshop is simulating the black ink and paper white as described by your profile.  Which again, will never be exactly like that of the print.

(Sorry it took a while to get to the simple answer 😉

You will need to add adjustment layers to get the soft proof to match the reference as closely as possible. I usually end up with a curve layer to open up shadow detail and brighten the image overall, plus a Hue & Saturation layer with Saturation set at somewhere between +5 for photo paper and +20 for canvas.

When you’re done, group the adjustment layers together and name them for your proof condition.  You don’t need to save the reference file.

To save files for the print vendor or service bureau: After doing all your adjustments and flattening the file you can use Convert to Profile to change the file to a specified color space, such as sRGB, etc. (If you’ve been embedding profiles when you save files, “Assign color space” doesn’t have any use in the workflow.) Or, if the lab specifies it, you can convert to the same printer/paper profile and rendering intent you used for the soft proof. In any case, when you save the file, make sure to embed the profile.

With some practice, I promise that you can get to where you can tell from your soft proof what the printed image will look like. And you will find that what looks like dull, washed out blacks on your display actually comes out as rich, deep blacks on your print. Over time your eye and brain will begin to tie the two results together and doing soft proofing with adjustments will give you just what you expect.

Nat provided some screen shots to give you a visual on his technique.

Next, Guy Tal said – Nat already covered the workflow so I’ll just add a couple of things on a technique I teach at my workshop:

Rather than trying different rendering intents in case one just happens to fit, I always use Relative Colorimetric. In this mode, all in-gamut colors are preserved and I only have to worry about re-mapping the out-of-gamut colors, which I prefer to do manually (Perceptual, on the other hand, remaps all colors to fit into the target space, which usually requires more work to restore the right look later).

In order to reign in those out-of-gamut colors, I turn on Gamut Warnings which will highlight them in grey. I find the most useful control for bringing colors into a small color space is Saturation, so I add a Hue/Saturation layer, and drag the slider left (de-saturate) until the grey warnings are gone. Of course I reduced overall saturation so the image looks pretty dull at this step.

Now comes the fun part:

Click on the Hue/Saturation layer mask, and fill it with black. This essentially eliminates its effect so color is back to normal and the grey areas are back.  While the mask is still selected, use a soft white brush at 50% opacity to paint over the grey areas and watch them magically disappear.

Voila! You only corrected those colors that don’t exist in the target space.  Everything else is just as vibrant as it was in your master file, and it only took one layer.

Finally, Andy Biggs chimed in – I do exactly what Guy does. It is quick and easy, and usually doesn’t need to be done very often. Keep in mind that soft proofing for me usually shows the deficiencies in the media type than anything else. In other words, matte papers do have a reduced gamut from a luster paper, and I usually do small tweaks to make my image look good for that specific media. For example, I may create a new layer in Photoshop to adjust the overall, not local, contrast of the image.

Update: I received an email from Melanie at West Coast Imaging with a link to another fantastic article about soft-proofing.  Thanks, Melanie!

Got something to add?  Don’t be shy.  Leave a comment!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Garrett permalink
    January 28, 2010 11:24 am


    Each day I read your posts and each day I am overwhelmed at the amount of information that you and your experts provide to us….all for free!!!! This post is no exception. I’ve had the same issues with soft proofing and now I have a clear cut set of instructions to work from. Keep up the fine job you are doing with your blog and thanks to your contributors as well!!

    Light Of Nature Photography

  2. January 28, 2010 11:24 am

    Thanks, everyone! That definitely helps my confusion over the technical aspect, and also answers a few questions I didn’t know to ask. I really appreciate your taking the trouble to respond. Can’t wait to do some experimenting and order some prints!

  3. January 28, 2010 12:34 pm

    I’m glad my blog is getting some good use. I’m working to make a great resource for photographers and it will always be free but for the occasional workshop or iFotoGuide pitch. Hope ya’ll don’t mind those if I keep ’em to a minimum.

    If you find the blog useful I encourage you to tell people about it, especially the “Ask An Expert” feature. I need good questions!

  4. January 28, 2010 5:00 pm

    That tip from Guy on adding a layer mask to the proof adjustment is great.

  5. February 5, 2010 12:55 pm

    Again, an awesome informative post.

    Thank you.


  1. Valuable Internet Information » Ask An Expert: Soft Proofing « Bret Edge Photography
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