The Secret To Diagnosing Color Problems

A Simple Controlled Starting Point

Posted: 26 Aug 2020
Author: Robert W. Boyer

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Anyone who has made at least a few prints has experienced shocking, unexpected output results. I’m speaking of that print in the output tray that causes thoughts such as “What the…??” instead of “Wow!”. I’ve experienced that same disappointment more than I’d like to admit. The cause can be perplexing. I’d like to share the secret to isolating and resolving unexpected, bad, and outright wrong color in prints.

What I’m about to share is startlingly simple. If you’ve not figured this out on your own it’s understandable. Figuring it out took me a bit of time. Drum roll please… The big secret is to print a pure black and white image using the exact same print settings and paper.

Let me explain why this simple pure black and white print is the key to diagnosing color issues. This is so basic it is the first thing I do when I use a new paper or make a new ICC profile. When I said pure black and white I specifically mean using the Black and White conversion all the way at the top of the controls in the Lightroom Develop module. Black and white with no other adjustments and no split toning. Your “color histogram” should look like figure 1.

Use the exact same settings, paper, and printer to print the pure black and white image. What does it look like? Is it truly black and white — dead neutral - or does it have a color cast? Be sure to evaluate that test print in a few different lighting conditions to make sure your eyes are not playing tricks on you. In many cases if it’s hard to judge you probably have a print that’s close to neutral. However, if there’s a distinct color everywhere that anyone will see from across the room in any lighting condition (daylight, window light, artificial light, etc), you have a problem.

Let’s take a look at the possibilities and where to go from there.

The Black And White Is Neutral

If your black and white print has no obvious color cast or is so minor it’s hard to tell, then it would suggest your printer is fine and the paper ICC profile you are using is fine. So why did you think the color was bad on whatever you printed before? The place to start is your monitor. Take a look at the black and white image on your monitor. Is it taking on a color cast that’s obvious compared to the print? If this is the case you probably have a display that’s not calibrated or the display settings are using an incorrect profile. Depending on your operating system, display driver, etc., there are myriad helpful settings that throw the color way off. You may be “correcting” the color of your image based on monitor settings that when “accurately” printed are way off.

The Black And White Print Is Not Neutral

If there is an easily detectible color cast to your black and white print, that suggests a problem with the ICC paper profile, printer driver settings, or your printer itself. I’ll make the assumption all of your print settings are correct (including those that turn any color adjustments by the printer driver off, which you should do).

The first thing to do is try a known good paper and ICC profile you’ve been happy with. Is the print on that “known” good paper and using that “good” profile showing a color cast? If so it’s a printer problem. Is it neutral now with the known paper and profile? If that’s the case your best bet is that the profile for the paper is bad. You may have to make your own ICC profile. It’s easy now that the tools to do so have come down in price and are almost fool-proof. We use the i1 Studio from X-Rite.

If you cannot produce a neutral black and white on any paper and profile it would suggest the printer is the problem. This does happen and is usually due to some hardware issue. Just to make sure, shut the printer down completely and try it again. If you still get bad results it might be a strange software/driver/operating system software incompatibility. Did you upgrade anything lately? If so that might be the case but more often than not it isn’t.

There are a few things to try when you are sure everything upstream from the printer is not causing the problem. In our studio we’ve had clogged print heads produce horrible casts to a print and a cleaning and calibration regimen may do the trick. Try that first, because the next culprit is usually the print head itself. In a lot of cases this is not a cheap fix. Print heads are considered a consumable. If your printer or print head is out of warranty you’ll need a new one. Even more expensive is a tech service call which in a lot of cases costs more than a new printer.

I hope this suggestion of using a black and white print to pin-point color issues or at least get you looking in the right direction helps. If there are things you are not familiar with or need help evaluating monitor color vs output color take a look at the color management section of the eBook. If you are using a speciality paper that has a distinct off-white base, that is more yellow than neutral, that’s a different issue which we would be happy to address if anyone is interested. Just write to us and let us know.