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Print Quality: Custom profiling

While we've been very pleased with prints using Canon's supplied profiles, there are areas that show some room for improvement. Skin tones are rendered with a bit of a red bias and there is a loss of some detail in areas of deep shadow. Overall our prints appeared darker and with a touch more contrast than what we saw from the digital file on our calibrated and profiled Apple 27 inch display.

Fortunately, these sorts of discrepancies point more towards unit to unit variation rather than a substandard printer. We took the opportunity to create custom ICC printer profiles ourselves using Canon's free Color Management Tool Pro software. For comparison, we also had custom-digital build additional custom profiles using two top-end profiling suites, i1Profiler and MonacoProfiler Platinum.

The image at the top is a DSLR capture of a print from the Pro-1 using Canon's supplied ICC profile for its Photo Paper Plus Semi-gloss media. The image below it is from a print on the same paper, but using a custom profile that we built with Canon's free Color Management Tool Pro software and an i1 spectrophotometer.

As you can see in the examples above, the most obvious difference between prints made using a canned profile versus a custom profile built from our specific printer lies in brightness. With both prints photographed under identical light levels, we found that the print made with the canned profile was approximately 10 L units darker at middle gray than the print made with our custom profile, which translates to roughly a 1/3 stop EV difference. And it was the print made with the custom profile which provided a more accurate screen-to-print match in color, brightness and contrast.

In addition, we found that our custom profile could successfully reproduce shadow detail that was completely blocked when using the canned profile, as the examples below demonstrate.

The sample on the left was created with the Canon-suppplied profile. Shadow detail under the arch is non-existent. The sample on the right was created with a custom profile and reproduces shadow detail inside and above the arch that matches what we see onscreen with a calibrated and profiled display.

Profiling the printer

Profiling the printer with Canon's Color Management Tool Pro software is a straightforward affair. The software has a wizard interface that takes you through each step of the process. The software can create profiles for Pixma Pro9000 and 9500 series printers in addition to the Pro-1. It only supports spectrophotometers made by X-Rite though. Although Canon would not confirm when we asked, this limitation would seem to suggest that they have licensed the underlying profiling technology from X-Rite itself.

Canon's profiling software generates a 731-patch target that prints on two consecutive sheets of A3 (11 x 17 inch) paper.

After letting the prints dry, you simply scan the patches with a spectrophotometer and the software generates and saves the profile to the appropriate location on your hard drive. We find the quality of these profiles to be very good. While top-flight (and expensive) profiling software offers more customizeable options, the differences in print output when comparing RGB profiles made with Canon software versus those made with X-Rite and Monaco offerings were minimal in our real world samples.

Performance specifics

Once our specific printer behavior was characterized via a custom profile, the performance of the Pro-1 took a noticeable step forward in several areas. It was at this point we felt that we were truly taking advantage of what this printer has to offer.

One area of interest to print enthusiasts is the maximum density of black that can be achieved with pigment-based inks. With the Pro-1 we printed patches of L 0 (maximum black), measured the output with a spectrophotometer and achieved an impressive Dmax of 2.52 on glossy paper. By comparison, a well made darkroom silver gelatin print rarely exceeds a Dmax of 2.0. Matte papers, of course will yield weaker blacks. On Moab's Entrada Rag Natural 190 we measured a Dmax of 1.62, which is quite good, well in line with what we've seen from Epson's pigment ink printers on similar papers.

What we found even more impressive, however, was the neutral rendition of gray tones. A solid patch of gray set at a luminance of L 50 in Photoshop was sent to the printer and on glossy paper the output was measured with a spectrophotometer at L 50, a -1, b-1.4. That's about as close to a neutral middle gray as you can reasonably expect to print.

Fine Art Papers

With the Pro-1, Canon has made a strong effort to encourage the use of third party fine art papers. A list of companies which have made Pro-1 profiles available for its media is displayed on Canon's web site. In addition, Canon has made available for download a bundled collection of profiles for popular fine art papers from Canson, Hahnemühle and Moab and others. These profiles - unlike the ones on the paper manufacturers' sites - are made by Canon, have been 'quality-tested' and qualify for Canon technical support.

Indeed, in more than one instance, we have found the profiles developed by Canon to be noticeably superior. So it pays to see if your favorite paper has a profile included here before visiting the paper maker's site. Of course, if you have a spectrophotometer, you can get even better performance from the Pro-1 by making your own profiles.

The sample above is from a print made on Hahnemühle's Photo Rag Baryta 310. We used a custom profile built with MonacoProfiler Platinum. Image courtesy of Tyler Boley at custom-digital.
In both of these crops you can see that color transitions are rendered smoothly, with no abrupt color breaks or abnormal color shifts as the inks transition from light to dark tones.

The smooth tonal transitions you see in the samples above are very impressive. You can distinguish subtle and natural-looking gradations without hard-edged demarcations between hue and luminance transitions. In this regard, the Pro-1 exceeds output quality of some of Canon's recent large format printers like the imagePROGRAF iPF6300.

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