I’m disappointed, frustrated. A few weeks ago, I ordered two large format prints (100 cm wide) of images from my photobook on the lockdown in Antwerp. Both had – of course – a large number of vibrant deep blues, plus a touch of red. When I received the prints, the red was either desaturated or even something orange. The reason: the printing company has an ‘all sRGB-workflow’ and probably ignored the AdobeRGB profile that defined my very vibrant images. The feedback I got after complaining: “sRGB offers the highest quality”. No, not really… Let me explain it.
In case you haven’t seen my corona pictures, please take a look, either at the e-book, or read the two previous blog posts about the book project (the challenge, the solution). As you can see, the pictures contain very vibrant colors, intentionally. To enjoy them to the fullest, you need to see them on a (close to) 100% AdobeRGB display, which becomes more and more common.
When printing a book, that is challenging: the gamut of regular CMYK in offset is a bit limited, especially in the blue area. But when going to a large format, fine art photo print, these vibrant colors shouldn’t be a problem: these large format printers usually have a large gamut, well, at least much larger than the regular CMYK in offset.
I checked the websites of about a dozen companies that print this kind of fine art photo prints, to see which one had the best offer, in terms of quality. I’m happy to pay a premium for that extra quality that I want. Already after checking a few websites, I noticed that the knowledge of basic color management is either very low in these companies, or they deliberately publish incomplete and therefore incorrect information, in an attempt to simplify things and not to confuse customers.
Most of the websites I checked, were talking about RGB profiles in general. As if sRGB and AdobeRGB are the same (no, they are not, they are very different). A few websites state that they only use sRGB. That is, of course, their right to do so, but it is a dealbreaker for me: I want to be able to use AdobeRGB as input profile, and I know why.
Show me the profiles!
Only in a few cases, the companies supplied output profiles, that’s what I was looking for. I want to be able to download these profiles to assess the quality I will get. I do this in two ways: I check how big the gamut is in the 3D color space (I’m using Chromix ColorThink, but you can also use this website: https://www.colorview.de). Next to that, I use the profile to do soft-proofing in Adobe Photoshop, on my nearly 100% AdobeRGB, calibrated screen.
And that’s necessary: one of the companies that offered ICC profiles, was – of course – bragging about the impressive colors, etc. What is interesting is that they use a photographic process, not inkjet print. So, I was very curious what that would bring me! And it was a disappointment: the color gamut of that fantastic solution was (much) smaller than a decent inkjet print…
The company that I have worked with in the past offers ICC profiles. But for the rest, only very few offer them. So after having checked the options, I eventually opted for a company that provides two options for acrylic prints, the regular one and the ‘fine art’ one, which claims to be “even more vivid, thanks to the modern 12-color printing method”. With that claim in mind, and because I saw that the gamut was a bit larger than my previous supplier, I ordered two prints.
And great was the disappointment when I received those prints, especially when taking both the promise of even more vivid colors and the price (over 200 euro per piece) into account. The blues could have been more vibrant, but especially the red accents showed something was wrong. Very wrong.
After complaining about the quality, I got a long reply, which flabbergasted me (I always wanted to use that word!). They were claiming that they only use sRGB since this offers the highest quality. And they had lots of satisfied, notable customers, so I had to be wrong, not them!
[ sigh ]
I replied with the suggestion to read this color management tutorial first.
I also showed a few graphs: the first one with a 3D comparison of sRGB (the red one) and AdobeRGB (the grey wireframe). Plus: the colors of my two images plotted in that 3D space! Guess what: a large number of blue tints are OUTSIDE sRGB. Yes: part of my beautiful dark blue tones can not, can never be represented with sRGB. And if you have an sRGB only workflow, you can NEVER print them the way I intended them.
But the second graph is even more surprising: a comparison of sRGB with the gamut of the printing method of my choice. Guess what: the printer can produce many more colors than can be encoded in sRGB!
So, why would you invest in such a capable machine/substrate combination, with such a large gamut (meaning: very, very colorful), if you limit the input side to sRGB??? I’m lost here…
[ sigh ]
In one of the responses, they also claimed that if somebody would upload an image with another profile than sRGB, that they would print it according to that profile. No, they didn’t. They either just ignored the profile or assigned sRGB to my AdobeRGB images, which means – read the tutorial – that the ‘real world’ colors are changed! You are adding another ‘color translation dictionary’ to the numeric red, green and blue values in your images. E.g. 125 / 0 / 125 is a different color in sRGB than in AdobeRGB…
BTW: the explanation of what went wrong and how it could be solved, wasn’t consistent. But they did insist that they new all about profiles and how to deal with them.
The basics of ICC color management: who is to blame?
ICC Color management is designed to make color reproduction predictable. But this color management only works if the rules – all of them! – are followed in every step. And one of the basic rules is that you need to respect the color profiles. They contain the transformation of device-specific colors (RGB, CMYK) into independent, ‘scientific’ or real-world, colors (CIELAB). It’s via these independent colors that you can do color transformations. That’s what your RIP, DFE, color controller (or whatever the tool you use is called) will do: translate the picture (whether in sRGB or AdobeRGB) into the colors that the inkjet printer understands and into ink droplets onto a substrate.
If you don’t provide that crucial information (which RGB?) to the RIP, DFE or color controller, it has to guess what these numbers in RGB mean: it will take the default profile, which will be wrong in some cases. When you set your RIP, DFE or color controller always to use the embedded profile, it will never go wrong (unless the customer did something wrong, or you used the wrong rendering intent). Only if there is no RGB profile attached to the images, you might want to default to sRGB. If there is an ICC profile embedded, you must respect it, always, even if it seems to be a bizarre profile.
Calibrating your devices is, of course, a necessity, you need to bring them into ‘known state’, but color management is more than that! Respecting profiles, choosing the right rendering intents (the way colors are transformed) are equally important.
Since I was so flabbergasted, I contacted Paul Sherfield from the UK’s Missing Horse Consultancy, he is also the FESPA color ambassador. In case you don’t know FESPA: it is a global federation for the screen printing, digital printing and textile printing community. It organizes the FESPA exhibition and other events, and has a lot of interesting resources, with a focus on color management and large format printing.
Here is part of our conversation: “colour management is not widely understood or used correctly in this market sector, as you have experienced!! The main large forma DFE’s have very good colour management tools but, these are not often used and left on default settings using generic device profiles and often ignoring profiles and/or assuming sRGB. (…) The training in this area can be an extra charge on installation, so printers, unwisely, may cut corners in this area.”
So it seems to be a general problem… And it is a problem that is costing these companies money: the need to do reprints, and what they don’t see: they are losing customers. A one-time investment in decent training can easily solve this and will have an excellent ROI. They have the tools, they just don’t use it properly… As if they bought a Rolls Royce and only used it as a couch to sit on…
Now, I do admit that for many (or even most) photographers, those extra colors that you can encode in AdobeRGB don’t really matter. But for some – like me – they do. And unless you explicitely specify that images should be in sRGB, you have to take this into account. Period.
Why is this important?
If you invest in a capable tool, e.g. an inkjet printer with a large gamut, this has to fit your workflow. Or better: your workflow has to fit the tool. It makes absolutely no sense to invest in a large gamut printer if you limit the input by having an sRGB workflow.
Also: you need to inform customers upfront and do that correctly. If that company had said they want sRGB images, I would have never ordered prints with them. NEVER! Now they have a very dissatisfied customer – who even writes blog posts about it and informs his friends about his bad experience – and they had to invest a lot of time to try to make it up a little bit with me. This is really not what you want as a company, that is awful advertising, which costs more than having someone take a decent color management course, which will prevent these errors from happening…
PS: meanwhile, I got the reprints, they look better: the blues are really vibrant now, the red looks red. But it’s still not what my soft proof showed… the red is not entirely correct yet. But I’m not going to complain again, I’ll accept that this is the best they can do and go elsewhere in the future.