What is Soft Proofing?
In the context of editing a photograph in a program such as Photoshop, soft proofing is the process by which you try to make the image you see on your monitor match what you will see on the printed photograph.
Where Does Soft Proofing Fit in a Photographic Workflow?
Soft proofing is often used when you want to print a photograph on your printer or on a printer at a photo-printing service such a Mpix.com with the intent of matching the colors as closely as possible. Understand, however, that soft proofing isn’t a part of every photographic workflow as it isn’t always necessary.
Digital Photographic Workflows
There are endless photographic workflows out there so I won’t rehash them here, but understand that your workflow is often dependent upon your desired output. For example, if I have a RAW image that I edit in Photoshop and only intend to display on the web as a slideshow, or to email the image for someone to look at, I don’t really need soft proofing. In this case, I’m looking at the image on a computer monitor and the people who look at my image will be looking at it also on a computer monitor. Now of course there will be differences between my monitor and my recipient’s monitor, the results (in general) will be pretty close.
But if I wanted to take that same image that I emailed to a friend, and then print that image, THEN I’d need to consider soft proofing in order to make sure that the colors on my monitor match up as closely as possible to the colors that the printer can handle.
Monitor Calibration and Printer ICC Profiles
To understand why soft proofing is helpful, ask yourself the following question: “Once I edit a photograph on my computer monitor, how does the printer at Snapfish [or insert any photo processor here] know what colors I’m seeing on my monitor? How will their printer’s red match my monitors red?”.
The answer is that they can’t. There’s no way — without profiling — that the printer at the Mpix.com print center can “know” what my monitor thinks is blue and what their printer thinks is blue. So how does one solve the problem?
You first solve the problem with device profiles (ICC profiles). A profile is simply a configuration file that allows your device (monitor, scanner, printer) to be calibrated to a color standard. In the same way you can calibrate your watch to a standard time, calibrating your devices sets them to a standard color.
1) Monitor profile — your monitor will likely come with a factory-made ICC profile, but the best thing to do to get the highest-quality is to use a monitor calibration device such as a colorimeter to create a custom profile for your monitor. So once you have your monitor profile set, your monitor is now calibrated to a standard. So now when your monitor says “red”, it’s a standardized “red”.
2) Printer profile – not all printing companies support using printer profiles. Walgreens, for example, does not. But Mpix.com, however, does. So Mpix.com can give you a profile for their printer (the printer that your photos will be printed on), so that when you go to edit your image in Photoshop, you use the soft proofing feature to “tell” Photoshop the characteristics of Mpix’s printer.
So now you have a monitor that’s been calibrated and has a standard for “red”, and a printer profile that also “knows” that standard “red”.
Notes Before Putting it All Together…
1) Not every image editing program can support soft proofing. Photoshop can on the PC and the Mac, and on the Mac side, Aperture can, too. Lightroom 3 does not currently support soft-proofing out of the box.
2) Not every image provider has the ability to give you printer profiles. So you can’t soft proof without having a profile for the output device (e.g. the printer the images will be printed on). So while I can still print to Walgreens, I can’t soft proof because they don’t have a printer profile to give me.
The Overall Workflow
There are some configuration steps you will need to go through to step soft-proofing but those are available on the web and I won’t go into those details here. But here is my basic (abbreviated) workflow (I usually shoot in RAW only, but this will work for JPG files, too). There are a lot of details I’m leaving out but for this article I’m condensing it so you can see when and why I’m soft proofing.
1) I import my images from the camera and browse them in Bridge or Picasa. For images where I just want to show some people, I’ll create a quick slideshow in Picasa and upload it and be done. Naturally if I have an image I really like that needs to be edited, I’ll pop it into Photoshop and do some correcting. For super basic edits I may just do it right there in Picasa. The key concept here is that because I’m not outputting any of these images to print, I’m NOT soft-proofing. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t go into Photoshop to clean things up a bit, but I’m just not using soft-proofing settings in Photoshop because I don’t need to.
2) NOW, let’s say there’s a few of those images from my slideshow that I really like and I want to print. Here is where I’ll bring soft proofing into the workflow. So I’m in Photoshop and I’m happy with the image. I’ve just exported the image for my slideshow as a .JPG (the mechanics here don’t matter) and now I’m sitting with a .PSD (when I edit photos I use layered .PSD’s for my edits). So at this point I have a .JPG that I exported for the slideshow, and I’m in Photoshop working with my .PSD. I’m now going to create a SECOND .JPG that will be specifically for printing.
2a) So now I duplicate the image in Photoshop and turn on the soft-proofing settings. If you look at your image with the proof settings on (again — you can look up how to setup profiles and turn on soft proofing — I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here). The first thing you will see is that your image with soft-proofing turned on is washed out compared to your original image. This is natural and the reason behind this is that your monitor can display a lot more colors than a printed image, and can also do a much better job of displaying color. At this point, however, you may choose to do additional edits to the soft-proofed version to try to make it similar to your non-soft proofed copy. I often make further corrections to the duplicated image (usually to boost saturation or fix curves), and then from this duplicated image, I make a second jpeg which is the one I’m going to send to the printer for the photographic print.
So in a nutshell those are the basic concepts behind soft-proofing. Remember that you need to be editing with a program that can handle soft proofing (such as Photoshop), and you must be working with a printer that can provide you an output profile (like mpix.com or your own printer profile).
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And please feel free to ask questions — this stuff took me a long time to figure out!