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PHOTOSHOP TIP: The Hard Truth About Soft Proofs
by Melanie Crutchfield

There are some instances in life when a simulation simply will not tell you the whole story; times when the real-deal is a must. Despite how useful soft proofing with Photoshop's "proof setup" function seems, I find it to be one of those simulations that simply does not take the place of making hard proofs.

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of riding Mission: Space at Walt Disney World. It was a fantastic ride. The G-forces pulled dramatically as we performed our prescribed tasks as members of the space team. As fun as it was to ride Mission: Space, it didn't make me an astronaut. I don't even think it gave me a clear understanding of what it would be like to be in space. Even though a space shuttle and Mission: Space both subject you to dizzying amounts of G-forces, one shoots you off into real space--on a real rocket, and one ejects you out into the gift shop. Mission: Space is obviously not the real deal.

Proof Colors

The same thing applies to soft proofing—it can't take the place of the practice required for excellent printmaking. Hard proofing provides that training.

Soft Proofing Myth #1:
Soft proofing will protect you from unpleasant surprises on your print

One of the myths that exists about soft proofing is that it can serve as a "safety net" to avoid surprises on your print. As Rich Seiling discussed in a previous tip, most monitors can't display as many colors as a print can. For example, the NEC LCD1990SXi--even with its $999 price tag--can only display 69% of AdobeRGB. When used in concert with hard proofs, this deficiency does not impact the success of your interpretations. However, if you expect the monitor to show you precisely what will be on print, you will be misled and frustrated.

Even if soft proofs did display color completely accurately, there are subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between viewing an image on a monitor, versus seeing an actual print. So, when you see an actual print, there will be surprises--even if you think the soft proof looks perfect. Even Photoshop's built-in help menu warns that, "the reliability of the soft proof depends upon the quality of your monitor, the profiles of your monitor and output devices, and the ambient lighting conditions of your work environment."

Soft Proofing Myth #2:
You can use soft proofing to correct out-of-gamut colors:

One of the most common uses of soft proofing is to correct out-of-gamut colors (colors that fall outside what your photo paper or inkset can accurately reproduce). Typically, a photographer will use the soft proof to identify out-of-gamut areas, and to "simulate" how the colors will actually print. They will then locally correct these areas based on the soft proof, in an attempt to bring the colors back into gamut. Now, if the soft proof was perfectly accurate (you are using a $4000 display, right?) that might be a good way to work. But the reality is that monitors aren't perfectly accurate, and you are most likely "fixing" a problem that doesn't even exist. One of the reasons we at WCI abandoned soft proofing is that we kept seeing the soft proof tell us that colors were out of gamut, but when we printed them without "correction", they printed in a more pleasing way than when we made preemptive corrections.

And that's the trap. If soft proofing isn't accurate, but I pretend it is, then I'll start making corrections based on an inaccurate soft proof. Chances are, I'll make corrections that are both unnecessary, and detrimental to getting a good print. It's like trying to find your way in the wilderness with a compass that never points the same way twice.

Soft Proofing Myth #3:
Soft proofing saves time and money

Another myth is that soft proofing can save time and money by allowing you to skip the steps of actually making printed proofs. If "close enough" is acceptable, then maybe it can save you a bit of time and money. But if you are trying to make a fine-art print that speaks as clearly as possible, "close enough" isn't your goal. I've seen many artists who changed their print by one point in the color balance tool to make it feel perfect. Soft proofing may attempt to simulate the real thing, but when push comes to shove, it's not going to deliver a print that communicates precisely.

So, what's the alternative? Hard proofs!

The Benefits of Hard Proofing

Hard Proofing Benefit #1:
Hard proofs are actual prints, made on the same material as your final print

A hard proof is the most accurate kind of proof, since it is an actual print made using the same materials that will be used to make the final print. If I make hard proofs, I can't be misled by the inaccuracies of the soft proof simulation. Instead, I see EXACTLY what the print will look like, and then any corrections I make are based on reality--not an inaccurate simulation. This saves time and frustration, and results in a more pleasing print.

Hard Proofing Benefit #2:
Using hard proofs helps create your "mental profile," which is more accurate than any monitor

Looking at hard proofs also has the added benefit of helping you anticipate what the screen can't display. You'll begin to have a "mental profile" that will remind you that your print will have a bit more contrast, more saturation, more yellow, etc., than what you see on your monitor. This means you'll have fewer surprises as a result of your experience. My experience, after printing thousands of images, is that my "mental profile" is much more accurate than any soft proof. Sure, it takes practice, but so does every art.

Hard Proofing Benefit #3:
Hard Proofing will ultimately save money and results in more pleasing prints

The more actual prints I make, the more experience I gain, and the easier the printing process becomes. If you use soft proofing as a crutch, you'll never develop your printing skills to their fullest potential. Hard proofing is an investment that is similar to investing in a good workshop--Though it may cost you money up-front, you will reap long-term benefits. Your individual skill and experience is worth investing in. By developing your skills, it will be easier to make prints closer to what you had envisioned when you were looking at your screen. This translates into fewer wasted prints, and less wasted money. In my experience, making hard proofs is the fastest, most efficient way to hone your printmaking skills.

The Hard Truth:
Perfect prints require patience

No master printer expects to make a perfect print the first time. When you look at your first proof as your starting point, the pressure to get the print right the first time is lifted. Printing is a process, and the more you practice by making hard proofs, the more refined your printing skills will be. Using the hard proofing process--which is the same proofing process great printmakers have always used to explore the possibilities in each photograph--may be just the thing that takes you from feeling satisfied with your prints, to being elated with your prints. And that is the sweet truth about hard proofs.

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