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Printer profiling has been regarded as a bit of a black art, with many people not getting the best from their existing print set-up.
Traditionally the solution has been a custom profile.
Producing these (well) requires skill and is not a quick and simple process, hence the not insubstantial cost.
Could a 'Do-it-yourself' solution really work?
Keith tried out one such system at Northlight Images.
Keith's review covers several aspects of the PrintFIX solution from ColorVision.
He offers some personal opinions as to who could benefit from its use and where some might be disappointed?
This is actually one of our very first reviews on the site (2003) It's left here (with notes on updates) for completeness and also for anyone who's given a PrintFIX
Printer profiling with the PrintFIX
Jan. 2012 - The newer (2005) PrintFIX Pro device still works just fine with the latest SpyderPrint Software, which is covered in our Spyder3Print SR/SpyderPrint review
Oct 2005 ColorVision announced a new more advanced version of the PrintFIX, the PrintFIX PRO. We have a detailed review of the PrintFIX PRO, which uses a Spectrocolorimeter to read test targets.
The PrintFIX PRO is a completely new system based on a spectrocolorimeter and a standalone software package. It supports 3rd party inks and almost any printer you might want to try. It does not support the original PrintFIX scanner.
Updates added into original article
To get the best results from your printer you need a profile which maps the colours from your image (more on Black and White later) into the relevant mixture of inks to use. Many people print in colour without ever knowing profiles exist (they can be built into drivers) but for best accuracy and range of colours you need a profile that matches your individual printer/ink/paper combination.
If you’ve got this far and are feeling lost, you might want to have at Keith's article 'An introduction to colour management'. It also contains links to all of the various colour management information on this site.
If your monitor is not showing the correct colours then it will be difficult to see if your printer is reproducing them accurately. So before starting out I reprofiled and recalibrated my monitor. There are numerous hardware solutions available, since this is well beyond casual setting up by eye (see the Viewing page for some more information on Monitor calibration)
The new product
The PrintFIX printer profiling system from ColorVision has recently been announced. It is a small USB scanner that scans test print patches that you have printed on your target printer with a your chosen ink and paper type. It is USB powered so it needs a suitable USB port (direct connection or a powered hub)
It works with the following operating systems/software:
It currently supports the following printers:
More printers are due to be supported in the near future, and will be announced on the ColorVision site
The PrintFIX 1.1 Installer updated includes the following changes:
The version 1.2 upgrade is released - Keith has looked at how the PrintFIX has come on from its initial release in an update to this review. The software update is available at the ColorVision site and needs a form to be filled in with your PrintFIX scanner serial number. All news on updates and new printers supported will be added to the update.
A lot of expectations...
The latest photo printers all come with very good profiles – if you use OEM inks and papers. However you may not wish to support the manufacturers pricing structure on consumables, or might find a particular type of paper that you really like. Several of these printers are supported with bulk ink systems where you can use a third party ink (an example from Lyson). To get the best results with these combinations you need that custom profile. Does the PrintFIX render the skills of the profile builder redundant?
The device is a small elegant scanner (not entirely different from this one), which comes with a manual, a CD, some plastic scan wallets and calibration sheets. The wallets consist of a thin plastic sheet attached at one end to a card. Their purpose is to hold your sample print during scanning and to keep ink from coming off your print into the scanner. Keep the box for your scanner -- profile building needs accurate equipment -- dust won't help.
Ease of installation
All of the testing was done on a G4 Apple Macintosh using OS X 10.2.6 – The installation was a breeze on the Mac, with the software (a Photoshop plugin) installing into the PS plugins folder. The manual is quite clear, although the printed copy has a bit of a version 1.0 feel about it.
Some first tests
The system is very easy to use. It is simply a matter of selecting and printing an appropriate target for your printer from the menu of the PrintFIX plugin.
The print (when dry!) is trimmed to the appropriate size and placed in the wallet to be scanned. Before doing this for the first time you should run the supplied calibration sheet through the scanner – an option to do this is available from the plugin. After setting the scan defaults, you do the scan (this worked flawlessly on my Mac but there have been some comments about the PC version not correctly remembering settings) The image will need some cropping so that there is only white paper surrounding the coloured patches (729 in all, or 728 if you don’t count the white one in the bottom r.h. corner)
A sample scan (much reduced here) after cropping, ready for making a profile.
It is important to leave only white space around the patches (the scanner covers a larger area which could include some text or the edge of the print). Presumably the software relies on this white area to get the paper white colour correct
With the cropped scan open you call up the plugin and the software will do its stuff, inviting you to name your new profile. You may well be producing several, so give it a meaningful name. You will then need to quit and restart Photoshop or it will not see your new profile.
Now to see the results.
A convenient test image is included for you to try. At this stage it’s best to go for one like this rather than one of your own, since a lot of work has gone into making it very accurate.
Note that the version to the left is tagged with sRGB while the downloadable original is Adobe98.
There is also an article by Keith with more info on choices of colourspace and other factors affecting the quality of images on the web.
Now comes the really tricky part? how to show you, on a monitor and system I don’t know, some very subtle differences in prints.
Hopefully you will see some of the differences I’ll try and illustrate, but it’s not going to be easy. The printer used was an Epson 1290 with Epson Inks.
I compared a print on Epson Premium Glossy Photo Paper between the Epson PGPP profile and the PrintFIX one and similarly a generic matte photo paper (I had a sample pack with several A4 sheets) using the Epson Photo paper profile and a PrintFIX one.
Both PrintFIX profiles looked a trifle too green in the highlights and a little light.
The deficiencies were minor and the saturation of colours was excellent though, with yellows in particular being much better than the Epson profiles (the sunflower shows this well).
The range of colours available to print (gamut) is larger in the PrintFIX profiles, and although size of gamut is only one factor in profile quality, it is important if your image contains out of gamut colours.
This picture (click on it for a full size version) shows four instances of a colour photo opened in Photoshop. Using soft proofing, out of gamut pixels are replaced with red ones. Four different profiles have been used. They are (clockwise from top left)
1 Epson 1290 Photo Paper
The image (Old John, Bradgate Park) is the one used in the feature on converting colour to Black and White
The PrintFIX profile (2) has only a few red pixels at the top right hand side, while the PGPP (3) has a few in the shadowed wall as well. The PrintFIX profile was created for a light 140gm glossy photo paper (I went to a local ink/paper supplier and asked for their best selling glossy photo paper).
If you were using this brand of paper you would have to experiment with your available profiles anyway to see which best suited your printer, so the number of test prints involved in generating your own profile starts to look less daunting.
My first test of the profile used above showed it to be a bit light and a tad too green.
The plugin has adjustment sliders that you can use to alter the overall tone and brightness of the profiles. This is very useful, but you are faced with the problem that the sliders are marked in arbitrary units, and there is no feedback available on what the effect is going to be.
Plenty of space in the dialog box to add some new features...
There is a potential problem here in that you can keep adjusting away and producing test prints and never feel that things are quite right. A lot of it will depend on your own degree of perfectionism and what is ‘good enough’. Given that the first profile was pretty good I only needed to make a few adjustments. I ended up moving two units towards magenta and one less in brightness. Incidentally, do remember to let everything dry properly before comparing prints. I left them overnight.
The results on the image of Old John were very good, in particular the PrintFIX profiles got far more detail out of the shadowed wall, where all of the Epson profiles tended to produce a brownish-greenish mush. The paper was not one I'd have chosen myself, but I wanted to try out something different.
The examples above are photos of actual prints and give a feel for the differences. They were taken with a digital camera and processed identically to maintain the feel of the actual prints. I hope it looks that way on your monitor, but that's all part of the mystery you get when putting images on the web.
For more info, see Keith's article about the problems of images on the web.
The plastic wallets are absolute dust magnets (static electricity) and the scanner -will- show up dust.
There is noticeable interference fringing introduced by having the plastic layer over the print (with glossy paper). I’m not sure how this affects accuracy and repeatability of profiles. (ColorVision does suggest that you can clean up -minor- blemishes to the scanned image with Photoshop).
One of my print wallets quickly started slipping in the scanner and refused to feed correctly (ColorVision support promptly answered my request for a replacement wallet).
The PrintFIX profiles handled some seriously out of gamut colours less gracefully than the Epson ones. I would normally check for out of gamut colours with soft proofing before doing a print, and make any adjustments needed. This is not a problem, it’s just part of the trade-offs that can go into profile making.
Adjustments using the adjustment sliders need to be re-entered each time you make a change, a feature to allow the saving of named sets would be nice ... otherwise just remember to write them down.
The calibration seems to be limited to black and white levels (from the calibration card). Perhaps a slightly more complex card (with a mid grey for example) would increase initial accuracy?
PC users – I’m afraid we did not have any PCs in the building to test the PrintFIX.
A much magnified portion of a scan made of a glossy paper, showing the interference fringes.
The image is direct from a scan and been increased in size by 200%, converted to sRGB from Adobe98 and saved as a medium-high quality JPEG (with sRGB profile).
Where it gets tricky
If you’vet looked at much of the rest of this site you’ll see that I do a lot of Black and White.
B/W profiling is one area that takes really good ($$$) equipment to get right, and some printer/ink/paper combinations will probably never give a good grey scale.
You may get a good B/W profile with minimal tweaking, but then again you may not? My own solution  is to use a printer devoted to B/W and special inks (Lyson SG for the prints on this site) Most of my commercial colour work is fully digital, with images being sent electronically for reproduction.
There are software tools to help you refine the profiling process, such as DoctorPRO from ColorVision but this is starting to get into some serious stuff. If you feel like going this far, you should already know quite a lot about colour management, if not it’s time to learn. (See update at the end of the review for latest DoctorPro Info)
Quite a lot of the finer adjustments depend on your own colour vision. It can be worth checking with other people?
A quick web check on your colour vision is at http://www.toledo-bend.com/colorblind/Ishihara.html
Remember to compare test prints in similar lighting to which they will be viewed.
What it’s good for
Third party inks and papers. Despite what the printer manufacturers say, most will not cause your printer to burst into flames. To get the best you need a profile. PrintFIX will (with some work) probably allow you to get better results. Some papers and inks just won't work together and no amount of profiling will fix it (an example would be some pigment inks on certain glossy papers ...the ink just won't stay put)
I’m going to be using it as part of my Photography teaching. The process of creating profiles will certainly help explain some aspects of colour management.
I can see it as a useful resource for Photo Clubs and groups, enabling people to try out profiling on their own printers (also good for an additional topic of discussion at the bar).
Testing new printer/ink/paper combinations for short runs, where the expense of a custom profile is not justified.
Profile building is not some arcane guild secret. It seems to be possible to get very good profiles with this DIY approach. Certainly, any potential purchaser should have realistic expectations and be aware of the limitations, but it is reassuring to see that ColorVision offer a money back guarantee on the product. There are some features that could be improved (feedback on adjustments and those plastic wallets) but overall I found it a good product.
And where it’s not (yet)
Black and white printing will be somewhat hit and miss.
If you need -absolute- colour accurate prints, then pay the money and get it done by a pro!
The profiles are RGB ones. If you're into CMYK then I'm afraid that more $$$ will be required. Don't forget though, that the inkjet printer drivers you are using are RGB anyway (the driver does the RGB <-> CMYK conversion internally) The PrintFIX is aimed squarely at the photographic side of things.
If you are going to be producing large numbers of prints on the same printer with the same ink and paper you can’t beat getting a good profile from a reputable profile maker.
Where will it lead...
I’m sure that in a few years devices like this will be the norm, providing fast accurate profiling at a fraction of the cost of today’s custom profiles. I’m not saying the skills of the profile builder are ready to go the way of the Linotype operator, but they had better factor this into their business plans?
According to ColorVision's web site they are offering a copy of DoctorPRO with the PrintFIX (until Sept 30th)
Keith has tried out this software with PrintFIX profiles...
DoctorPRO gives you the ability to tweak profiles with a lot more subtlety than the adjustments in the PrintFIX profile builder plugin. It is also supplied as a plugin for Photoshop. As I mentioned in the review above, it gives you very fine control with a direct visual approach. The basic technique would be to open an image and convert it to your output (PrintFIX generated) profile. This gives a version of the image that you can correct (saturation, contrast, remove colour casts etc.) The corrections are then applied to your starting profile to produce a new one that better meets your requirements. The adjustments are carried out by recording your edits as a Photoshop Action (script). It is this action that is used to edit the profile.
I found the instructions for using DoctorPRO quite straightforward for someone who knows a bit about Photoshop -- and therein lies a potential problem. If you have never used actions (and I know several quite advanced users of Photoshop who have not) you had better get that manual out!. Also there are often many ways of achieving the same change to an image in Photoshop and it's up to you to decide. This is not really a criticism of DoctorPRO, since it's aimed at serious users who want the finest adjustments of their profiles (it even does CMYK profiles). If you should get a copy with a PrintFIX, I'd really recommend leaving it in the box to start with -- only after you have experimented with PrintFIX, have a go with DoctorPRO. When making adjustments, don't forget that you have converted your image to a printer profile, so just assuming that R=G=B=127 is going to give mid grey and correcting accordingly is wrong (if the reason for this is unclear, you might want to find out more about profiles and colour management to get the best from a package like this) As an example, try converting an image to a printer profile, desaturating it and seeing if you have a good greyscale image, then check colour values with the eye dropper...
Although perhaps beyond what could be expected with such a product. I'd appreciate one or two worked examples in the documentation and maybe a section relating to common 'faults' and how to cure them.
As I mentioned above, Black and White will be a bit hit and miss. Even with DoctorPRO you are still going to have to make those final tweaks by eye, so make sure you are happy with your monitor calibration and have appropriate lighting to do your tests. Very fine colour casts are not at all easy to see when distributed over a greyscale image. Once again this is aimed at colour printing.
A useful addition to the PrintFIX package -- but not for the unwary!
--We are looking at producing a more in depth review of how you can use DoctorPRO -any hints or tips appreciated!
Comments received about the review
Wallet problems? ... I received a mail from someone with the same wallet slipping problem I had. They also noted its dust attracting feature.
Colour fringes? ... several comments as to how this affects the accuracy of profiles, but no consensus as to whether it's a significant problem.
Historical note added Mar 2006
The PrintFIX was a good idea, and I got some quite usable profiles from it. I know some people had problems with the scanner, but if anything, that was often more due to unreasonable expectations. Things have moved on and if you look at what you now get in the PrintFIX PRO package, you can see many of the lessons learned (the software is very easy to use and has very extensive help available). If you've got to this page because you've been given an original PrintFIX then do have a go with it - you can learn a lot in the process!
The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
Keith is always happy to discuss matters raised in his articles. You can Email Us
Northlight Images prides itself on its independence when giving advice. We do not sell hardware or software and have no direct commercial links with any of the software or hardware vendors that may be mentioned here. See our Review Policy for more information.
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