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Finding the Color Management Sweet Spot, Part 1

The question I’m asked the most is “How often?” “How often do I need to calibrate?” “How often do I need to profile?” “How often should I call for service to perform a preventive maintenance routine?” “How often?” is a great question, but what’s the right answer?

To cut to the chase, it’s this: As soon as it becomes necessary.

While it’s not the answer most people want to hear, it’s the answer I usually give. Without knowing the environment, business goals, type of equipment, variety of media or substrates, and many other factors, it’s virtually impossible to give a better recommendation.

First, let’s take a look at calibration and profiling…


Calibration is a process in which you return a device to a known state or baseline. Nowadays, most printers come with some sort of calibration routine. It typically involves printing a sheet with a few cyan, magenta, yellow, and black patches which then get scanned with a spectrophotometer. The printer knows how it’s supposed to print based on the settings you chose in the print dialog box. With calibration, we can tell the printer how the output looks, so it can adjust itself back to the baseline.

While calibration can return your printer to a baseline, it doesn’t mean that the baseline is accurate. Most professional-level printers come with generic profiles referred to as Output Profiles or ICC Output Profiles. Typically, the names of these profiles refer to paper types or paper names, such as “Coated glossy,” “Photo paper,” or “Plain.”

The output profiles tell the printer how to adjust itself for these different types of media, so that the printed image looks as accurate as possible, even when printing on different types of paper. These profiles are part of the calibration baseline, because they tell the printer how to behave, but if we’re using the built-in, generic profiles, then we’re calibrating towards a generic baseline, and generic baselines are usually not very accurate.


Profiling is fundamentally different from profile. Profiling a printer means that we’re analyzing what colors a particular printer can print on a particular type of media or substrate. To do so, we’re usually printing several sheets of what looks like scrambled colored patches, scanning them with a spectrophotometer, and using some sort of software to generate our own, custom ICC Output Profiles.

Custom output profiles can contain a much more accurate baseline for your printer, because they’re created on your very own paper, using your very own printer instead of a generic, averaged profile made from several printers and several types of paper.

 Now back to “How often?”

Let’s go with the “as often as possible” approach: It certainly doesn’t hurt the printer to profile and calibrate every hour. Your printer will be in great shape if you have a service tech perform daily preventive maintenance routines. In fact, your print accuracy and consistency will be off the charts, that is, if you’re actually able to print something other than calibration and profiling pages during the time the service tech is not taking the machine down for a few more adjustments. Maybe this is not the best approach.

How about “profiling once a month and calibration every morning”? Depending on what type of spectrophotometer you have and the number of different types of paper, profiling can be a fairly quick process that can take anywhere from 10 minutes with a fully automated system to 30 minutes with a handheld device. Calibration takes anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes, so a monthly/daily approach won’t be a drag on the operators and your printer will be productive most of the time.

In general, I find the monthly/daily approach a good starting point – and you will find many professionals quoting this as the best standard operating procedure to keep the balance between productivity, accuracy, and consistency. However, the monthly/daily approach is not necessarily the best choice. Calibration and profiling should be a part of every print environment’s standard operating procedures (SOP). As with all good SOPs, they’re designed for specific environments. In an attempt to give a better SOP recommendation, I developed the following “Sweet Spot Analysis” chart:


There is always something you can do to make your printer more accurate or more consistent. Always! If your $1,000,000 printer and your $500,000 software investment can’t bring you closer to perfection, maybe hiring a bunch of color scientists to tweak your printer will? Possibly! But at what cost?

It’s all about finding the best standard operating procedures that work in your environment.

If you have a 50% accuracy requirement, meaning the majority of your customers don’t care how it looks as long as there is color on the paper, your investments are going to be fairly small. Really all you need is some sort of color printer and the cheapest paper you can find.

Unfortunately, our color management lives aren’t that easy. A vast majority of end users have very different expectations.

At minimum, they expect your output to be consistent. Maybe not accurate, but definitively consistent. If you’re printing a cover page for the next board meeting, they better all look the same. If you’re printing yearbooks for a school district and grandma wants to order one more book because somebody spilled coffee on her version, it better look like the ones the rest of the family have.

The thing about consistency is that it’s actually pretty easy to achieve. This is the 80% mark in the Sweet Spot chart. If you printed a job for a customer and they end up asking you to print some more, it probably means they liked the way you printed the first run. Maybe the color wasn’t completely accurate, but at least it was pleasing enough for your customer to return for more. If you’re consistent, they will likely not complain if the second run looks exactly like the first one. Even if the color is still not completely accurate.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Finding the Color Management Sweet Spot where I’ll discuss how to create a Standard Operating Procedure for Color Calibration.