"Fun" with colour profiles and printing

Bamburgh Castle and Beach

I’ve recently joined the Whitstable Photographic Group. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get much out of it, apart from finally feeling young again compared to the other members(!), but I have to say I’ve learned some things already so perhaps it’s going to be a worthwhile experience.

Like, I assume, most photographic clubs, there are club competitions, which of course I’m going to enter. In order to submit photographs you have to print them out and mount them. Sounds so simple, but for someone like me who is almost entirely computer and internet bound, it turned out to be surprisingly complicated and extremely frustrating.

Now, anyone who has tried to print digital photographs in the past will probably know that you need to calibrate your monitor in order for the printed copy to look anything like the one on screen. I did a rough calibration on my iMac when I first got it – it’s not professionally done, and probably wouldn’t be good enough if I was interested in fashion or product photography, but it seems to work for me. The things I’ve had printed up to now (calendars, small prints, cards etc) have all been fine, and my photos look good on other people’s screens so I can’t be too far wrong.

For the last 6-7 years I’ve been using Photobox for all my printing needs – I find it too much hassle to print my own, they always end up with black splodges from the printer, and the ink and paper is really expensive. I don’t even have room for an A3 printer anywhere in my house. I recently had some credit from them left over from a competition I won a while back, so I had a set of 12×8 prints done of some of my recent and favourite shots. I was very pleased with the results, the colour balance and brightness were spot on, my pictures looked great.

So when I needed slightly bigger ones (15×10) for the photo competition, it was obvious that I’d go there. My logic went like this:

  1. My screen might not be truly accurate
  2. I could have a problem with printing
  3. I know that my Photobox prints were great
  4. I’ll use Photobox, my monitor must be calibrated well for them.

So you might imagine my disappointment when I got my 15×10 prints back to find that they were all awful. All of them were too dark, and the colour balance was off on those with colour. The Bamburgh Castle one above was particularly bad, which is a shame as it’s one of my favourites.

Goodbye, Darkness

This black and white one was even worse – it relies on the subtle features in the brickwork of the arch to pick out the lines, but these were completley gone into muddy darkness.

I wrote to Photobox to complain, and they agreed to reprint the batch. The second batch were no better so I wrote back and said so. Eventually a different customer service person wrote to me and said that they use a different printer for large format prints (e.g. the massive 15×10) than they do for smaller ones (i.e. the tiny 12×8). This large-format printer has a different colour profile and prints roughly 1.5 stops darker than the other one.

What?! I just.. I don’t even..  I’ve been thinking about this for a week now and I still don’t get this. Seems to me that your monitor is either calibrated or not, you don’t generally calibrate it for a specific printer.. but then maybe I just don’t know a lot about this stuff. They do have profiles you can download for their printers and apparently the professionals who use their service seem happy with the results, so it must be possible, but I’d have thought the default behaviour with an sRGB profile ought to be “OK”.

Frankly, even if I can, I’m not going to prepare separate image files for 12×8 and 15×10 prints – life is just too short.

Another member of the photographic club recommended DS Colour Labs, having been through the same issues with Photobox. These guys are charging one third of the price, and if you dig a bit deeper, turns out they use the same printer for their 15x10s as for the smaller prints.

Anyhow, to cut an already-too-long-story down a bit, these guys are great, my prints are good (except the Bamburgh Castle one, which is OK, but too bright – I think I selected auto-calibration from them whereas it probably didn’t need it.. not their fault, you can choose to turn it off). The paper the prints come on is not as thick, so it’s slightly harder to mount but it’s still decent quality. In addition, the Photobox prints came rolled up in a tube – it took me two days to flatten them under a pile of books, whereas DS Colour Labs ship in a flat box.

Moral of this story? Use DS Colour Labs for anything bigger than 12×8! To their credit, Photobox did give me my money back and their customer service is responsive and (eventually) helpful but it’s too much effort for me to make it work.

The competition? Well, I hand in the entries on Friday, I won’t know the results for a couple of weeks though. Of course, it’s all about finding out how other people see your prints, and how you can improve.. not about winning.. honest. Yeah, definitely. Not about winning, no, not at all….!

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