When your prints are too dark
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.
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.
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
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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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