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screen and printer gamutsWhy don't my prints match my screen?

Why monitor calibration is just the first step

The other day Keith was asked if calibrating and profiling a monitor would make someone's screen match their prints?

Some thoughts and potential solutions for this common problem.

  • This article was written several years ago and has (Sept 2010) been updated with some newer links and information.

Can my prints ever match my screen?

The short answer is no,
...but the reasons may be much more varied than you first thought, and with care you can get the two very close.

Hopefully this short guide (and the links to other more detailed information) will be of help?

After profiling and calibrating your monitor...

Let's assume that you have read all the articles about how important it is to have your monitor calibrated.

You are not quite happy with the quality of prints you are getting and decide to buy a screen calibrator like the Spyder4express or even the basic Pantone Huey.

digital black and white logoFYI: I run a LinkedIn group (~7000 members) for people interested in any aspects of Digital Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

monitor and printer testDoes this now mean that your prints will look better?

Well maybe, but it really is only part of what you need to know...

Right >
Chillies at a Seattle market stall -- can you get a print to match what you see here?

Matching up what's on the screen to your prints covers a whole range of issues, some of which may not be so obvious at first.

If you send your images away to be printed, then you may well get better prints just from sorting out your monitor (especially if it looks quite different after you've first calibrated it). However, if you are doing your own printing, there's a bit more to do.

I never print most of my professional photographic work, it goes directly (digitally) to the clients.

That means that I'm relying on the accuracy of my own screen to know what I'm sending them.

Color Management bookI often get asked for suggestions about learning more about the nuts and bolts of Colour Management.

My usual suggestion is Bruce Fraser's Real World Colour Management. My own copy is well thumbed. It's my first port of call if I'm asked a question and I feel I don't quite understand an issue well enough to be absolutely sure of an answer.

Check latest price/availability from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

RWCM 1st Edition RWCM
RWCM 2nd Edition RWCM

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See some other books Keith has on the shelf, on our Books Page

Of course I have to trust that they actually know what to do with the images ... not always the case ... it's one of the reasons that part of my work involves training in colour management, and I write these articles :-)

Where I do produce prints, such as my Landscape work, we have two large printers at the Northlight offices.

There's the huge Epson 9600 (44" print width) and a slightly smaller Epson 7880 (24" print width).

I've lots more printer information in some of our printer reviews.

Getting good results from our big printers takes some care and is not cheap. What about ordinary desktop printers?

It turns out that there an awful lot of factors that influence whether a print 'looks the same' as on a monitor.

I'll briefly mention some of the most important ones and provide some links to more detailed information that you can explore if interested.

How does your camera capture 'real life' colours?

The file produced by your camera has to fit the range of colours and brightnesses it 'sees' in the 'real world' into a more limited range in its image files.

The limited range is called a colour space, and is a subset of all possible colours that you could actually see.

In fact, since digital camera sensors can 'see' colours (such as infra red) that the eye cannot, there are additional problems that arise.

Fortunately the camera manufacturers are getting pretty good at this...

The more technical version of this would be - How do you map the the original image to your choice of working colour space (for example - how the real world is fitted into Adobe98 or sRGB by your camera)

How does the image get displayed on your screen?

Your screen can only display a subset of the colours present in the file from the camera - the translation from what is in the file to what is on the screen is carried out using the monitor profile.

Different screens have different capabilities, so even matching images on two screens is not a trivial task.

The two images below show the difference in performance (size of black triangle) between my own laptop and Apple 23" screen

Gamut comparison (size of triangles) -- Apple 23" LCD vs. Apple PowerBook.

The range of colours covered (the gamut) is greater with the Apple 23" LCD (the graphs are part of my Eye One Display 2 review)

How does the image get converted to a print?

Just as your monitor only has a limited range of colours that it can display, your printer/ink/paper combination has a limited range of colours that can be printed.

The printer profile is part of what can be used to do the translation from what is wanted to what is possible.

Even if you print without using profiles, there is still the equivalent function going on inside of your printer driver -- although it's usually well hidden by the writers of the printer driver software.

The range of colours available depends on the type of ink and paper you are using, as well as how these are actually combined in the printer.

Suffice to say, there are wide variations between printer models and makes.

What's more there are usually:

comparing screen gamut and print gamutThe picture to the right shows a 3D representation of colours that can be displayed on my 23" LCD and printed on my old Epson 1290 (Epson PGP paper)

The shapes represent the range of colours (gamut) - the 3D representation reflects the combination of colour and brightness variations

Right >
Gamut comparison - Print vs. Screen

Notice how certain light yellows and dark cyans can be printed but not displayed on my monitor.

The differences are somewhat exaggerated in this view, but they do exist.

If you are wondering what happens to non printable colours when you try and print them, it all depends on what's called the rendering intent.

This is either built into printer drivers or you specify it when printing with profiles (it's a bit more complex to explain than fits in this article)

Thus we have potential problems in that:

  1. The image file produced by the camera is not the same as the 'Real World'
  2. The screen view is not the same as what is in the image file
  3. The printed version is also not the same as in the image file, but in a different way to the screen view

And that's before you even get round to looking at the the screen and prints...

How does my choice of ink and paper reflect light?

Keith Cooper and two of his printsThanks to everyone who has ever purchased something via our links.
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How white is white in your prints?

With a print, the whitest white you can get (without white ink) is the reflected colour of the paper. This will undoubtedly be different from what your monitor emits when it is displaying white.

Some papers have optical brightening agents in them (OBAs) which absorb UV light and re-emit it as a blue light. This can be quite bright when the paper is viewed in daylight, but completely missing when using ordinary tungsten lighting (which has no UV component to speak of)

Different ink types also produce different results on different papers - how black is the deepest black you can get for example?

How does my choice of viewing lighting affect prints?

The visible colour of dyes and pigments in the coloured parts of your images also vary with the kind of light you are using.

Try a simple experiment - match two similarly coloured pieces of clothing (from different manufacturers) in tungsten lighting - then take them to a window (north facing on a clear sunny day is particularly good) ... do they still match?

There are many ways of measuring lighting, but you will often hear of the colour temperature of a light source. This is the same as the setting you may have used in your monitor calibration.

You can think of it as how yellow or blue the colour white is.

light colour rendition qualityThere is also a measure of the 'quality' of light for colour rendition, compared to an arbitrary 'perfect' daylight.

This gives what is known as a CRI or colour rendition index (100 is perfect)

Some monitor calibration tools give the ability to measure the quality of ambient lighting.

The diagram shows the results when testing the quality of an energy saving light bulb with an Eye One.

The bumpy red line shows the spectrum of the bulb compared to daylight. It is so bad for colour rendering that it scored zero.

So ... never check prints under energy saving light bulbs unless that is where they are going to be displayed!

How does the human visual system perceive colour/contrast under different light intensities?

Our visual system is tremendously good at adapting to the ambient lighting conditions. We automatically adapt our own 'white point' to the brightest white in our visual field. We also compensate for colour casts, so for example, you do not see everyone looking slightly green when you are sitting under a leafy tree on a sunny day.

As a result of this, the lighting conditions where you work can have quite a noticeable effect on how images on a screen, or a print are perceived.

To compare a print with an image on screen, they both need to be similar in brightness. You can get special viewing cabinets, with special adjustable lighting, designed for comparison work (they are not cheap - see the link above)

Following on from this, one of the worst ways to compare a print with an image on screen, is to hold the print up next to the monitor. It is far better to have the print well lit, to one side of the monitor. You make a point of physically turning your head to look at the print - it take a bit of practice, but the comparison is much more accurate.

At lower light levels the eye sees images with a slight blue shift in colours, so in a dim room and with a dim monitor, a colour temperature setting of 5000K may look OK, whereas in more normal working conditions it would look rather yellow. This also helps explain why dim candle light with a colour temperature below 2000K doesn't seem as yellow as first might be thought.

So, does monitor calibration really help match my prints to what's on the screen?

As you can see, there are a lot of variables...

One of the best arguments for a using colour management (a colour managed workflow) is that it nails a lot of the variables down, so when things don't work, you have a much shorter list of things to investigate.

Leicester Curve - side viewThe factors I've listed come into play even if you don't actively use any 'colour management' at all. For example, if you just print using the printer driver settings, there are the equivalent of printer profiles and rendering intents built in to the driver software. You are just working with -lots- more variables.

Yes it does help, but it's only part of the solution...

One of the key realisations I made, and a reason for writing this article, is that asking to match prints to a screen is really getting things the wrong way round.

If you are aiming for prints, then the view on your screen is only an intermediate stage in the workflow from camera to final print.

Remember:

The Screen is -not- the Print

It's quite possible that the best print does not come from the best screen version of your image - get over this and you can concentrate more on print quality.

The picture to the right has been adjusted to look OK on the web.

The print version for my Epson 7880 has had saturations for the deep reds and blues turned up considerably.

The version that looked the best on a Canon iPF6300 was different again - not by much, but enough to make a difference.

You need to experiment with good known test images for this, don't initially rely on using your own photos.

We've a collection of downloadable test images that may be of help.

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