Soft Proofing 101
by Marvin Magasura
Soft proofing is a mechanism that allows you to temporarily simulate the way your image will appear when printed on your display screen. Given that it replicates how your print will look when it is on paper, soft proofing is definitely one of the most useful features of color management. Nonetheless, it also calls for a trained and experienced set of eyes that know how to properly correct an image when it doesn’t appear as intended. The key to succeeding at soft proofing relies on your specific type of paper and ink combination. This is called a ‘printer profile’, and it’s not usually provided with the printer, so if you’re determined to achieve accurate prints, you will have to spend more money to have it measured. Some printer manufacturers provide these types of profiles, but they’re only helpful if you use the same type of ink and photographic paper for which it was designed. The other things you’ll need before you start is a calibrated monitor and a color management software, such as Photoshop or Lightroom.
How it Works
There are two conceptual stages involved in soft proofing. First, you have to simulate the out-of-gamut colors so that in the second stage, you can simulate white balance and dynamic range. However, both stages are carried out at the same time from the computer’s perspective. One common misconception about soft proofing is that it will change the image’s data. Nothing can be further from the truth, as soft proofing will only change how the image is displayed on your monitor. In addition to this, both stages are optional so operators can choose to see both of these effects together or each in isolation.
Stage 1 – Color Conversion
This stage is very similar to the conversion of a regular color-managed image when it’s sent to the printer. Basically, the color space of the original image is converted so that it matches the printer’s color space. The outcome is the compression of any out-of-gamut colors into the printer’s typically shorter spectrum.
Stage 2 – Display Options
As opposed to the first stage, this one isn’t typically applied to a graphics file when printed. It addresses how the image is going to be displayed by compensating the differences between the darkest and brightest tones in print and on your monitor. If done correctly, at the end of this stage you’ll have an image that will closely resemble the appearance of your printed work.
How to Interpret a Soft Proof
When comparing your previous on-screen image with the results of the soft proof, you’ll notice that the difference can range from drastic to subtle changes depending on factors such as the image content, printer profile, and monitor. However, not all of these changes matter that much, so it’s crucial to remember which changes will be rapidly compensated by our eyes (mostly stage 2 changes), and those that won’t (mostly stage 1).
Stage 1 – Changes
Most color management programs include a “Gamut Warning” feature that indicates which of your file’s colors are outside the printer’s gamut. During the soft proof, you’ll need to monitor these colors closely as they could change drastically. Some problematic colors include mid-tone reds and other saturated colors that cannot be completely reproduced by most printers. A small decrease in saturation is to be expected in most soft proofs, but significant changes in hues must be prevented if possible. Changes in a hue can be managed by trying different rendering intents or even tweaking the original colors until an acceptable soft proof is achieved.
Stage 2 – Changes
Even though stage 2 changes are usually the most visible ones, they typically lack importance. The human eyes will automatically compensate for both white balance and dynamic range changes, so they won’t usually present any visual issues. In fact, both these settings are generally unavailable or disabled by default. If by any chance you are using these setting, it’s probably best to review the resulting image in full-screen mode. It’s also critical to look away for a few seconds before enabling these options. That way your eyes won’t have a prior reference and will fully adjust to the new image.