When I first got interested in photography, I used a crummy Dell monitor (to be fair, I am still using it) with strange ICC profile that is supposed to improve color rendition. That was my first experience with ICC and color management, and to be honest I wasn’t too sure what was going on. Eventually, I read online that if you really want to get good colors for your photos, you’ll need to manage your color devices – printers, scanners, cameras, and most importantly, your monitor. Canned ICC profiles like that provided with new monitors are better than nothing, but they do not take into account the significant sample variation, as well as the aging process of the phosphors which cause color shifts. You can also use visual checks (like Windows Media Center’s color calibration tool) to calibrate the monitor, though the process is hardly objective. That’s where devices like the Spyder2Pro and Spyder3Pro come in handy. These are essentially purpose-built calibrators that can automatically generate profiles for your monitor. The software will run through a bunch of colors on the screen, and the sensor will record the output, and compare against a stored standard. With time, you will see your monitor struggle to achieve the same high brightness, and there will also be a slight yellow tinge. But overall, the color is pretty close to where you want it.
I love shooting black and white images. One of the things that can seem counter-intuitive to the new photographer is that, why should color management be important for monochrome printing? Well, the reason is that what appears as only tonal information is in fact difficult to achieve, due to the need to maintain absolute color neutrality. Any slight shift in color can be easily and quickly picked out, detracting from the image-appreciation process. So, I use my calibrated monitors to edit my photos extremely carefully, and print out a few of my favorites occasionally. Unfortunately, the print results used to be invariably disappointing. While it may be possible to get decent color photos from the cheap photo printers like the Canon Pixma iP4600 (my first decent printer) that I can afford, they fail to produce usable monochrome prints. To understand why that is, you first have to understand how a 4-tank printer prints its grays.
A long time ago, before we had advanced color printers, if you wanted to print a black and white photo with a home printer, you will use only the black ink. The ink comes in only one density – absolute black. So how do you achieve gray? Well, you simply put less black dots per unit area, so that when viewed from afar, the white paper seems to ‘dilute’ the black. Compare this with the shades of color achievable by mixing different ink ratios used in the printer to produce a color photo, and it is not hard to understand why printers used to have much higher color print resolution than black and white ones. Newer printers are much smarter, and achieve an almost-gray by mixing and matching the black (Key) with Cyan, Magenta and Yellow (or CMYK) to achieve what looks like gray. The problem with this approach is that all the images end up having slight tints. In addition, you are using a lot of ink to achieve the color black (photo black + cyan + magenta + yellow), so it is not the most economical way to do things.
A better way to achieve good monochrome prints is by means of multiple gray ink tanks, each of different density. By further mixing and matching these inks, we achieve superb grayscale reproduction capabilities. Professional grade Canon printers like the Pixma Pro 1 have a 12-ink system, including 5 different black densities to achieve best color reproduction. Some systems even include toning ink to give warm or cold tones to the prints, just like the coldtone and warmtone photographic paper of old.
Armed with this information, I figured, why not replace the ink tanks with grayscale ones? I did just that, and eventually I have a system that kind of works. However, the path there was anything but smooth-sailing. I will talk more about it in Part II of the series. Stay tuned.