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|| News Item: Posted 2003-11-03

Creating Your Digital Darkroom
By Vincent Laforet, The New York Times

Photo by Vincent Laforet

Photo by Vincent Laforet

The complete digital darkroom.
As the quality of inkjet prints now rivals that of traditional prints, it has now become possible for photographers to set up a high quality digital darkroom at home.

While the prices of the hardware and software vary greatly, some key principles apply to all digital darkrooms. My aim here is to give you a quick rundown of a few basic principles or steps you'll need to take to make that leap from making a good inkjet print - to one that rivals that of a chemically processed print. This is a first article of two - the second will focus more on how to prepare the best quality files (originals). Photoshop tips and tricks, choices of papers and inks - including bulk in systems, and a great technique to make your digital files look more like film

1. Calibrating your monitor.

I simply can't stress enough the necessity of calibrating your monitor. Yeah - I'm as cheap as all of you - and the idea of spending a few hundred bucks on a piece of plastic with suction cups was a hard sell for me too. I tried calibrating my monitor with the calibration software included on Mac OSX (prior to that I used the Adobe Gamma control panel in OS9) and no matter what - I could never get consistent print results on my inkjet printer. Making a quick print for a friend became a laborious process - often resulting in many wasted sheets of paper before I got a useable print. I wasted so much ink and paper - and often became so frustrated making a print that I just chose not to print anything at all. And that was pretty much the end of me making prints at home for four years.

For most of you, I'd highly recommend the Colorvision Spyder suite of products - which sells for $179 to $269 depending on the store, rebates etc … I chose the SpyderPRO suite for my Cinema Displays and haven't looked back.

It takes all of 5 minutes to calibrate your monitor. The end result? I now get useable prints on the first try almost every time. Period.

Photo by

Colorvision Spyder
It goes without saying that if I want to make a print that will someday end up on a wall - then perhaps I'll go ahead and make a few small corrections here and there depending on the paper etc. just as I would have in a darkroom. But for the most part I can honestly say that: what I see on my Apple Cinema Display is what I'm getting off of my printer. And isn't that what we're all after?

Another option is to go for the more pricey GretagMacbeth EyeOne Pro color management suite - and while it may be a higher end product aimed at extremely precise calibration of CRTs, I've actually found that the Spyder yielded better calibration results with my PowerBook display and Apple Cinema Display then the EyeOne. Just this week Monaco also released two versions of their calibration suites, I obviously haven't had a chance to see them in action, and can't offer any recommendations yet - but it looks like they're worth looking into:

Regardless of which system you go with, once the software does it's thing, it then creates an ICC profile for your monitor which it then sets as your default profile in your Display settings - and voila! Seriously it's that simple. (Note: if you're calibrating an LCD or Cinema Display it turns out there isn't much you need to do but let the software do it's thing - don't worry about messing with your brightness and contrast levels, you only need to worry about this with CRT monitors.)

I'll finish with the shtick the calibration people use to get you to buy their product - but I've got to tell you it's true: I've already saved two to three times as much in paper and ink by getting the Spyder. If you're a photo student and can't afford to buy one alone - split one with your roommates. Even if you don't plan on making prints - it's good to know that your website, or CDs or DVDs won't appear 30 points green and 1 stop dark on all other monitors… even though it looked "just fine" on your un-calibrated monitor.

2. Choosing a printer.
I had a very hard time making my mind up on which printer to purchase. After doing a lot of research and going to see printers in action at trade shows - I narrowed it down to two printers within my under $1,000 price range.

1. The Canon i9100
2. The Epson 2200

I really love the Canon i9100 printer - it produces some of the punchiest prints out there - some coming close to what Cibachrome prints used to look like. The colors are extremely vibrant and the print speed is significantly faster than that of the Epson 2200. Ultimately I chose to go with the Epson 2200 for one main reason: as member Dave Cheng put it:
"The fundamental difference between the S9000/i9100 and the Epson 2200, in particular, is in the inks. The 2200 uses the pigment-based Ultrachrome inks which are archival. The dye-based inks in the Canons will not give you anywhere close to the same print life as the 2200, but the colors will be a little punchier (as is the nature of a dye-based ink)."

Therefore the factors that led me to the Epson 2200 were: a. The Epson are supposed to be archival up to 70 years (same as any chemical color print BTW) whereas the Canon only claims 35 years - and that alone was a deciding factor for me. Secondly, I haven't been able to get any good-looking Black and White Prints on the Canon yet- as I haven't found any good Black and While paper profiles (once they're out thought - I hear the black and white printing results are superb...) Third, while this may only be an issue with the particular glossy Canon Paper I used, I found the surface of the Glossy Canon paper to scratch extremely easily,

Ultimately, the printer you chose will depend on your needs. The Canon Printer might be the perfect printer for portfolio printing - when you expect the prints to be behind a plastic sleeve, and don't need to print to be archival - not to mention that given that the printer is said to be two to four times faster than the Epson - having to print a last-minute portfolio for a client can go from being a 8 hour project - to one that takes less than 2 hours. If I wanted to make prints to give to others or for my wall - the Epson 2200 was the way to go.

The last factor that clinched my decision was that Colorbyte's ImagePrint did not yet support the Canon printer (I will discuss this software later on in this article.) . While the Canon i9100 may give you some of the best prints out of the box - nothing so far comes close to prints made using Colorbyte's ImagePrint and the Epson 2200. As software and paper profiles are released - this may very quickly change - the Canon printer may become a serious contender to the Epson 2200.

The ink of course is where you'll end up spending all of your money. As far as I'm concerned Epson should be selling all of their printers for under $100 or for free - as they'll make so much from selling you ink that the cost of the printer is almost negligible. The Epson has 7 ink cartridges - and if you plan on getting 4 sets of inks to stock your closet at $10 a cartridge - you'll easily surpass the $500 you spent on the printer when you add one or two boxes of paper to the mix. According to Epson, ink costs for an 8X10 print at 1440 dpi per print are: $0.77 in the color inks, and $0.14 in the black inks - totaling at $0.91 per print.

I will discuss bulk ink systems in the second part of this article - if you can't wait you might want to check out Lyson Inc. - one of the current leaders in bulk ink systems that work well with the 2200, and from what I've seen with my own eyes - do as well, if not better than the standard Epson inks. They also claim to be as if not more archival than Epson inks.

In terms of print settings - I print almost everything at 1440 dpi. I have found that the 2880 setting uses twice as much ink, takes twice as much time - and produces prints that are hard to tell apart from the ones printed a 1440. If anything the dithering used is a bit different - and you may be able to tell a difference in sharpness between the two print settings- with the use of a LOUPE … I also highly recommend the use of Matte Black ink for black and white prints - the only thing to be careful is that prints made on matte paper do tend to scuff up a bit in the blacks if you're not careful.

As far as getting consistent results from your printer (if you've calibrated your monitor of course) you simply need to select a correct paper profile in the Print Preview window in Adobe Photoshop - and then disable all Color Adjustment within the Epson Printer dialogue.

(Check the sidebar for step by step instructions on how to switch these settings both Adobe Photoshop color settings, and Epson Driver settings.)

3. The Final Step - using an RIP Processor.

If you think was skeptical about investing in a monitor calibration kit… I was REAL hesitant about the need for RIPs (Raster Image Processors.) In fact some of my office techs told me that there was no use for RIPs when printing photos - one only needed RIPs when you needed to print complex layouts or graphics, they said.

Well - ColorByte's Image Print proves them DEAD WRONG.

The $500 Lite version of their software may cause more than a few of you to hold back - but if you want to close the gap between what you assume an inkjet print should look like versus a traditional print - ImagePrint is just as much of a must-have. If you're even thinking of hanging prints on a wall - or selling them - this is an investment you need to make. It's also a must-have for anyone who wants to make neutral black and white prints.


Three main reasons:

Photo by

ImagePrint software.
1. As much as I love the Epson Printers, Ink, and paper - their software, and their support of said software is far from perfect… the software is a bit buggy, and they really don't have a good track record of keeping up with timely driver/bug updates … For example: I tried for days to get my Epson 2200 to work with my Matte Black ink … I ended up fixing it - but not before pulling a few clumps of hair out of my scalp… as of today - their latest driver update is six months old …. Epson is working with Apple to resolve some of these issues - but from what I've read - the two companies are passing the buck back and forth on who is responsible for the drivers not always working properly.

3. No matter what inks or paper you use - I haven't found ANYONE who can make neutral black and white prints with the standard Epson driver. ImagePrint solves that problem completely with a set of GREY (black and white ) paper profiles - in my opinion, the $500 you'll spend on the software will be justified by the endless supply of paper profiles available for free on ColorByte's ftp site.
(A paper profile basically tells your printer how much ink to spray onto each individual paper surface, based on how the paper will absorb/react to each color and/or ink.)

Want a very high quality paper profile for Ilford Gallery paper or Hahnemühle Etching paper? No problem. In fact they have profiles for every paper I can imagine - and they have profiles for Matte Ink, Photo Black ink, and GREY profiles for EACH of those paper stocks. These profiles give you the most gorgeous color , and/or neutral black and white prints I've ever seen outside of a traditional darkroom.

If you are serious about making black and white prints - ImagePrint is something you can simply not go without. Prints made with the Epson driver will either appear Green, Yellow or Magenta - depending on the paper. With the GREY profiles provided with ImagePrint you can print with all seven inks and obtain perfectly neutral prints. (Printing in black ink only mode with the Epson driver is not the way to go in my opinion - they are noticeably inferior to the 7-ink prints made with ImagePrint.) I should mention that an Epson rep told me that Epson would soon be making some black and white paper profiles available on their site for free at some point soon.

4. Image Print also does one small - but extremely significant thing. It opens up the last 5% of shadow detail that the Epson driver pretty much kills/compresses. Not only is the tonal range expanded throughout the shadows, midtones, and highlights - but so is the color fidelity of the prints. When compared to the ImagePrint results, prints made with the standard Epson driver look - well - like inkjet prints - with blocky shadow detail and at times, unrealistic color shifts and transitions. ImagePrint also offers a ShadowPoint adjustment slider which allows you to fine tune the amount you want in your shadows (great for Matte Papers.)

Photo by

Top is black and white print made w/ Epson driver w/ noticeable Magenta cast. Below is same print w/ neutral tones made with ImagePrint.
While the results are phenomenal, the ImagePrint interface was not intuitive to me at first - but there is a great flash tutorial included with the software that allows you to get printing within minutes. Drag a file into the browser, select a paper size, a paper profile (either a normal color profile, or a Grey profile for black and white prints - and of course the paper type, and type of black ink.) Hit print - and the Spooler starts up in the background. The spooler is extremely stable and allows you to print in the background with little to no slowdown in your other tasks/applications.

The Spooler keeps a record of all the prints you make - and unless you clear the print history - you can go back a month or two later - and drag a print record from the history window into the queue and make a quick re-print with all of the same size/paper settings. The software also allows you to create custom paper sizes, and precisely move and size a print on a sheet of paper - as well as layout a series of images onto one piece of paper.

The Full version allows you to tile photos across several pieces of paper, create macros, and make color adjustments (which are really intended for Graphics, not photos.)

In conclusion: With the use of a calibrated monitor and ImagePrint - it's almost scary how consistent your printing results will become on the first try - it's almost a perfect WYSIWYG - (What You See Is What You Get.) What I see on my monitor - is what I get on my print - and that's what this is all about after all isn't it?

In the next issue I'll include a few more tips mentioned at the start of this article that will allow you to refine the process of getting the most out of your inkjet prints. I'll also discuss some different sprays that can be used to eliminate differences in glossiness (white parts of the image that weren't sprayed with ink may appear less glossy that ones that received inks - which is one of the only drawbacks of inkjet printing) on many of the glossy papers.


Cure For Inkjet Printing Headaches.

Photo by

In a blown up detail of a shadow area: To the left is shadow detail from a print made with ImagePrint where the last 5% of shadow detail is present - whereas the image on the right made with the standard Epson driver eliminates a lot of the shadow detail.
In terms of print settings here are a few basic steps that are at the root of almost ALL inkjet printing headaches. What you want to do is: first calibrate your monitor - and then basically disable all of the Epson driver's automation in the print. The idea is: if you have a calibrated monitor, and select the correct paper profile - what you see on your monitor should be pretty close to what you get on your print - and I've found this to be pretty close to being true.

Here are the basic steps you'll need to follow in Adobe Photoshop for example.

Go to your Color Setting (Apple + Shift + K)

Select Advanced mode.

In you RGB Working Space - Select "Adobe RGB (1998)" (NOT your monitor's ICC profile you may have created using your calibration software.)

I don't use CMYK so I won't bother going into it.

In Gray - select the gray setting you used while you calibrated. It used to be that a 1.8 gamma was recommend for Macs, and a 2.2 for PCs - these days it's pretty safe to assume that everything is targeted for 2.2 for the most part - especially Cinema displays. So I set the Gray to "Gray Gamma 2.2."

In my color management setting - I leave everything to Off - but you might consider selecting " Convert to working RGB" if you plan on sending your stuff to outside sources. For now though - I'm just trying to cover making prints in your digital darkroom.

In the Conversion Options - I select Perceptual or Relative Colormetric - although this won't have much effect on your inkjet prints as you'll specify that later.

I also select the Desaturate Monitor Colors by "20%" as I find it gives me a more realistic view of what the prints look like on the Epson printer relative to my monitor - this too is optional.

Finally - go to "Print with Preview…" dialogue and make the following adjustments which are KEY.

1. Go to Page Setup and select your printer and paper size.
2. Size the picture as you want it to appear on the paper.
3. Click on the "Show more options" at the bottom left of the window if it's not already selected and go to the Color Management drop down menu - this is one of the keys - in the "Print Space:" Profile - select the type of paper you will be printing to. For Example: SP2200 Premium Luster_PK - for the Epson 2200, using Premium Luster paper, with PK - or Photo Black ink. If you were printing on Matte Paper using Matte Black Ink - you'd select: SP2200 Enhanced Matte_MK
4. Go to print and make sure the correct printer is highlighted - and here is the second key:
a. Go to the Print Settings dialogue and:
i. Put in your Media Type - i.e.: Epson Premium Luster Paper
ii. Mode: Advanced Settings - I select 1440 dpi most often.
iii. I don't use High Speed
b. Go to the Color Management Settings - and select NO COLOR ADJUSTMENT - this is the key - if you let the Epson software do its thing - it's like trying to fight the auto exposure in your camera in program mode - every time you go back and add 10 points of red because the first print looked a little green - the software will do a new evaluation of the print and give you a totally different and inconsistent result relative to the adjustments you just made, and therefore the first print. This can be maddening. So turn all the color adjustment off - and you should be able to get good results - if your monitor is calibrated of course (see the reason why you can't really avoid buying, or splitting a monitor calibrator with friends/students?)

(Vincent Laforet is a staff photographer with the New York Times and frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter. He is also a featured speaker at the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau 2003.)

Related Links:
Vincent Laforet's member gallery

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