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Soft-Proofing: Benefits for the Graphic Designer

Posted by Martha DiMeo on May 27th, 2016 | No Comments

There is a very useful, but often overlooked, feature in Photoshop relating to color reproduction. When used properly with the required process control procedures in place, it is extremely helpful to preview how the color in an image will render as it moves through the digital workflow.

The feature I’m referring to is soft-proofing. Let’s discuss what soft-proofing is, and the benefits it offers before getting into the how-to steps within Photoshop. Quite simply, soft-proofing answers the question “How will this image look when printed?”. Or more specifically for a graphic designer, “How will this image look when printed by my print vendor on their press with the paper I selected?”

Most graphic design and photography professionals understand that there is an unavoidable dynamic range compression and/or gamut compression that occurs when going to print. Depending on the tonal range and color content, some images will appear very different when viewed on a light emitting device—such as a display—verses ink-on-paper. Saturation may decrease, hues may shift, the tonal range may compress, highlight or shadow detail may diminish.

Comparing RGB to CMYK Color ConversionSoft-proofing simulating a conversion to CMYK using U.S. Web Coated (SWOP)v2.
Notice the loss of saturation. Photo by © Martha DiMeo (Available to License)


Soft-proofing is the step in a color-managed workflow that “dumbs” down the screen so it can match what will come out of the printer or off the the press. Although, when you consider the technology behind the process, it’s not dumb at all, but rather sophisticated.

Said another way, soft-proofing allows you to simulate—to preview—on your display how an image will  translate when it is printed to a specific output device, on a specific paper, with a specific ink set.

soft-proofing-comparing-adobe-98-rgb-graciol-conversion In this example, soft-proofing indicates a color shift in the blue beads (image on right)
when Coated GRACol 2006 is selected as the target press condition.
Photo by © Martha DiMeo (Available to License)


The output device may be the an offset press, digital press, or inkjet printer. The paper choices often include glossy, semi-gloss, matte, coated, or uncoated. The ink set could be pigment-based ink, dye-based ink, or UV-cured ink.

Process Control—3 Things Must Be In Place

Soft-proofing can be very accurate when done correctly. Three things are essential to ensure the accuracy of the soft proof. First, you must be working on a high-end, wide-gamut,  color-calibrated and profiled display. Second, you must have a profile that accurately describes the printer/paper/ink combination. And third, the monitor must be in a controlled lighting environment.

Benefits of Soft-Proofing

The benefits of soft-proofing are four-fold.
•  It allows for control over the color reproduction of images and the overall design
•  It helps to avoid unexpected results
•  It ensures increase productivity
•  It results in cost savings
The biggest benefit, from a design perspective, is that soft-proofing sets expectations and minimizes unexpected results. Early in the process you will identify which colors are out-of-gamut and how they will shift. Then, if you choose, you can make adjustments to the image and/or the colors in the overall design before the first proof in pulled.

From a production and budgetary standpoint, the time and money savings can be significant. Without soft-proofing, the workflow typically takes this path: print a proof, evaluate it,  adjust color and contrast, print another proof, repeat.

Best case scenario, you get to pleasing color in two or three rounds of hard proofs. Not infrequently—if this is your method of working—you may output a pile of proofs before achieving satisfactory color. That pile of proofs is costly. In addition, you’ve wasted hours of production time making all those revisions.

How To: Photoshop Soft-Proofing Steps 

Now that you’re sold on the benefits of soft-proofing, here’s how it’s done. The steps are simple. The commands are found under the View menu in Photoshop.

View >Proof Colors is where you turn soft-proofing on and off. (Keyboard shortcut: Command/Y).

Photoshop view menu for soft-proofingPhotoshop’s View Menu; Select “Proof Colors”


When you toggle soft-proofing on, the image is rendered using the CMYK Working Space set in the Color Settings dialog box.

Photoshop Color Settings dialog boxThe Colors Setting dialog box in Photoshop CC 2015. Go to Edit Menu>Color Settings to open.

You are now viewing a simulation of how the image will look if printed to that particular CMYK press condition. In this example the Working Space is set to U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2. It’s worth noting, Proof Colors does not change the file data; it only changing how it is rendered on-screen.

Quite frequently, the Working Space setting is not the output device you want to preview with soft-proofing. For instance, photographers making fine art prints on a desktop inkjet printer, a working space profile for a commercial printing press has no relevance. Rather, photographers would want to preview how an image will look when printed to a specific inkjet printer on the selected media. If you are a graphic designer sending a project to a digital press, you’ll want to soft proof the images using the profile that describes the characteristics of the specific digital press your print vendor will be using to print the job.

Specifying a different device is done in the “Customize Proof Conditions” dialog box. But before opening that dialog box, if the printer profile for your printer/paper/ink combination is not already installed on your system, you will first need to install the profile.

A Brief Detour About ICC Printer Profiles

Printer profiles come in two “flavors”. They can be either generic (sometimes called “canned”) or they can be custom. Generic profiles are available from the printer or paper manufacturer; usually available for download from the company’s site. Custom profiles can be created in-house, if you own the necessary equipment, or by a company, such as Chromix in Seattle, Washington, that offers custom profiling services.

As to which is better—generic or custom—depends on a number of factors: the type of printer, the type of media, the content of the images, and foremost, the level of color accuracy you desire.

If you are unfamiliar with installing profiles, you can find both written and video instructions on how to install output profiles at Red River Paper.

Once the profile is loaded onto your computer, the next step is to create a custom proof setup. Under the View menu, select Proof Setup>Custom.


Photoshop Proof Setup Custom Settings Photoshop’s View Menu; Creating a Custom Proof Setup


The Customize Proof Conditions dialog box opens. In the Device to Stimulate drop-down menu, select the profile for your printer/paper combination. In this example I will be printing to Red River Aurora Art White on an Epson 3800 printer.

Next, select the preferred Rendering Intent,  check the Black Point Compensation, box and if desire, Simulate Paper Color.  If you would like to save this combination of settings as a preset, click Save.


Photoshop Customize Proof Condition dialog boxHow to create a custom proof setup in Photoshop


It will now appear at the bottom of the Proof Setup menu.

Selecting a Red River Paper custom setup in Photoshop Customize Proof Condition Preset


Now with your custom proof condition selected, when you toggle Proof Setup on and off, you will see on screen a simulation of how the colors will translate when printed to your specific printer/paper/ink combination.  At this point, if you don’t like what you see, you can either edit the image for that specific output condition, or select a different paper and/or printing process.

Taking Control of the Final Results

When you want to deliver great results, rather than just good results, soft-proofing is an essential step to add to your color workflow. Unlike the past when an image may of had a single use, now on any given project, the marketing mix may include offset printing, short-run digital printing, websites, and other digital media. When done correctly, with the necessary process controls in place, soft-proofing allows you to optimize images for each output process. Your images, and overall design, will stay consistent in whatever format they may appear when soft-proofing is part of your production workflow.

Images Destined for the Web

If you are a web designer, you may be asking “Does this apply to me?” Yes, soft-proofing also comes into play for images posted online. Stay tuned. In an upcoming article I will cover soft-proofing and profiles for images destined for the web.



If you have questions or comments, let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. If you found this article to be of value, be sure to share with your colleagues. Social media buttons at the top of the page to make sharing easy!


© Martha DiMeo 2016


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