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When your prints are too dark

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Colour management, Image Editing, Printing   |   11 Comments

What to do when your prints are too dark

Some of the reasons that photo prints come out too dark

Some causes of the problem and some fixes.


A simple approach to fixing the ‘prints too dark’ problem

Some time ago I wrote an article called  ‘Why are my prints too dark‘, trying to answer a question I was regularly asked…

In the majority of cases I looked at, it was simply that the monitor was set too bright.

Why should this make prints of photos dark?  Well, if you edit on a bright screen the whole image is bright, and that includes the shadows.

colormunki display

Colormunki Display

When you print and look at the print in normal lighting, the whole print is darker (i.e. it reflects less light) – which once again includes those shadows.

Because of the way our vision works we notice the crunched up shadows more than we notice the lowered overall brightness, hence the ‘Print too dark’ problem.

The best way…

The ‘proper way’ to approach this is by lowering your screen brightness when calibrating your screen.

Ideally the brightness should match the lighting you are using for looking at your prints.

There are some more details about this in the recent review of the Colormunki Display and where I looked at a precision Print Viewing Stand.

However with some computers, such as the Apple iMac, setting the screen brightness is a real problem and although setting screen/viewing brightness with a hardware calibrator is the ideal solution, it’s not always available.

The simple approach

datacolor test image

Datacolor test image

One way round this is to create a simple adjustment curve that you can load for editing, and then dispense with it when printing

Note I’m using Photoshop for all my editing, it’s similar with Elements – I’m assuming something similar could be used with Lightroom, but I don’t use it at all. With Apple’s Aperture, there is a Gamma adjustment you can make in the print dialog – a few percent adjustment may be all it takes.

Open a known good test image and without any adjustments, print it.

I’d suggest the very good Datacolor test image, which we have for available for download.

On your ‘overly bright’ screen, the image will now look brighter than the print.

photoshop curve to darken imageThis is a rough and ready approach, so apologies to the colour management purists ;-) )

The print should look even and balanced – all the different little parts of the test image are designed to show potential print problems (there is more information on the download page)

If the print looks awful – you have problems elsewhere in your print setup.

Create a simple curves adjustment layer and drag the centre point of the curve downwards – this will make the whole image look darker.

The picture to the right shows a curve that produces this effect. Note the numeric values for the point on the curve, showing how a mid tone value of 128 is reduced to a darker 112.

Once you are satisfied that it’s fairly similar to the print, then save this ‘darkening’ curve.

Pantone colour swatches viewed with an Ottlite

Graffilite / Ottlite

One important thing to remember when making the comparisons is to take care in allowing your vision to adapt to each situation (screen vs. print viewing).

Physically move your head to compare – never put the print up against the screen. I have my print viewing stand positioned that it’s 90 degrees from the screen. I have to turn in my chair to look at it.

A large white border to your print can give the feeling that it’s a bit dark and low contrast – one way to allow for this is to make sure that you check your images on screen with a light grey or near white background. This effect can be quite subtle.

If you’re curious cut two mats out of white and black paper and place them over your print. Depending on the image the difference may be quite noticeable. As an aside, this is one reason I prefer a light look to the interface/background for my editing applications, rather than the fashionable black.

You might want to look at some form of consistent lighting, even if it’s only something like the Ottlite

Remember too that this isn’t meant to match the sort of accuracy you can get from a screen calibrator and viewing stand (but it is a lot cheaper)

Now open an image you want to edit.

Apply the saved curve – your image looks too dark.

Now edit the image (keeping the curve in place) until you like it.

Disable the curve – the image will look too bright, but print this bright version. You print should now come out pretty much as you wanted.

A less cumbersome approach

Editing the image with the curve applied can be a bit of a nuisance.

The simplest approach is to turn the curve into one that brightens the image, and you only apply it just before printing.

If your darkening curve dips down, then your ‘brightening curve’ will curve upwards by a similar amount – this is experimental, so be prepared to do a number of test prints to see how well it works for you.

With care you can get several small test prints on a sheet of paper, so this doesn’t have to use up lots of ink and paper

Using this new curve, you only apply it just before printing – it brightens up the image that is being sent to the printer, hopefully by just enough to fix your printing issues.

Experimenting…

What I’ve described is a very approximate way of fixing the ‘dark print problem’. It doesn’t address colour accuracy in your display or prints. It neglects all kinds of issues such as the brightness of other parts of your screen, or even how bright your room is (ideally similar or a bit less bright than your screen)

Have a read of the many more articles and reviews on the site for more info. if you are new to colour management, you might want to start off with the ColorMunki Display review, since I’ve written it to also try and address some of people’s ‘why should I bother’ questions about screen calibration.

More info…

In 2019 I published a longish article about how learning to print your images can really help all of your photography

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11 Comments
  • tom rose | Nov 4, 2016 at 10:58 am

    I agree with earlier commenters. Your articles are amongst the best on the web, as they are grounded in a lot of real world experience.

    I have a small question. The print driver for printing to my iPF5100 from LightRoom 4 includes a slider for “brightening” a print. Would experimenting with this fix the “Prints too dark” problem, or would that be inferior to either of the solutions that you describe (i.e. applying an adjustment curve to darken the image during editing, or to brighten the image when printing)?

    • kacoooper | Nov 4, 2016 at 1:56 pm

      Thanks – much appreciated!

      In many ways, it’s not the precise mechanism you use to get better prints that counts, it’s whether it works. However, I prefer to try and start from as good a ‘base line’ situation as possible and one that is repeatable.

      I don’t know Lightroom very well on the print side, but it’s worth trying once you’ve sorted out things like monitor setup and viewing lighting. Just be sure to test it with a known good test image rather than one of your own, since that helps make sure that the issues you are addressing are in the print side of your workflow

  • Bill Diedering | Oct 27, 2015 at 7:15 pm

    Thank you very much for this informative article. To help me understand this better I have a few questions. What is the reason you make a curves adjustment as opposed to making a brightness adjustment? By pulling up or down the center point on the curve aren’t you just adjusting the mid tones only?
    Anyway, I can’t apply a curves adjustment layer in Photoshop Elements 13. Can I do the same thing making a levels adjustment instead? If yes, how? I’m guessing I would adjust the mid tones slider?
    Thanks again.

    • kacoooper | Oct 27, 2015 at 9:32 pm

      The modern version of brightness adjustment in these editors is indeed similar to what I’m doing with a simple curve. I’ve just used curves for so may years that I don’t even think of it as brightness ;-)

      Moving up the midpoint on a levels adjustment is the same.

      What you’re doing is effectively opening up the shadows that tend to get compressed when you edit images on a monitor that is too bright.

      The ‘proper’ way of doing it is still to reduce monitor brightness, but I do appreciate that that is not always practical ;-)

      • Bill Diedering | Oct 28, 2015 at 4:15 pm

        Got it. Thank you.

  • kacoooper | Sep 10, 2014 at 12:23 am

    I use profiling kit which allows me to set a realistic brightness.

    If the screen then looks too dim then that tells me the room is too light ;-)

  • Cory Barnes | Sep 4, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Once the job is finished and ready to print make a copy then set that copy blend mode to screen and then dial down the opacity, 60% works as a good starting point for me. I calibrated my monitor with a spider pro 4 express but it still didn’t change the brightness of the screen. Maybe I’m doing that part wrong. Not sure.

    • kacoooper | Sep 4, 2014 at 8:09 pm

      Hmm – if it works then great, but this is a very back to front approach to the issue.

      The S4 express won’t change brightness – you need to do that yourself. The more expensive version do allow you to set a brightness, but with the S4 it’s an iterative process.

      • Cory Barnes | Sep 4, 2014 at 8:23 pm

        I kinda thought that. The screen blend mode trick did work, picked up that tip off Kelby. So how do you really get the brightness down with out make the screen damn near black. Is it simply a better s4? Appreciate the help.

  • Donna | Apr 19, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Hi Keith,

    Thank you so much for the information. I do have my screen calibrated, however i consistantly get dark prints! Very helpful thank you :-)

  • Amanda | Dec 17, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Very interesting, I will try this out. My dark prints have been bugging me, and I am determined to fix it. :)

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