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Why don’t my prints match my screen?

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Black and white, Colour management, Image Editing, Printing   |   2 Comments

Why don’t my prints match my screen?

Why monitor calibration is just the first step

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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.

One of our older articles – still relevant, last updated Oct 2020

matching prints to a screen gamut

Can my prints ever match my screen?

Sorry, but 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?

BTW… If it’s just that your prints are too dark, then have a look at the simple fix first.

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.

Not calibrating – get a calibrator!

You are not quite happy with the quality of prints you are getting and decide to buy a basic screen calibrator like the ColorMunki Display or the SpyderX.

(Note that there are many models available. For for basic calibration, look at the cheaper models – they are often only lacking features you may never need – see the monitor calibration articles category list for more )

The calibration process is very simple – just follow the default settings, unless you know why you might want other ones.

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 a company 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 book

I 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

RWCM  2nd Edition RWCM 

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 testing new equipment, and I write these articles :-)

Where I do produce prints for commercial and decorative use, such as my commercial work, I’ve had a number of large printers at the Northlight offices.

I used to have the big Epson 9600 (44″ print width) and a slightly smaller Epson 7880 (24″ print width). Currently (2015) I use the 44″ Canon iPF8300

I’ve lots more printer information in some of our printer reviews. These include additional details about getting high quality prints, as well as the more basic elements of any review.

Getting good results from our big printers takes some care and is not cheap.

By the way, if you’re wondering about buying a large format printer, you might want to have a look at this overview of what it’s important to consider before the delivery van arrives: “So, you’re thinking of getting a large format printer?

What about ordinary desktop printers? Print quality and ease of use has improved a lot since I first wrote this article, but still I’m asked about print/screen matching…

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 at the right 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.

You don’t need to know the exact details of the diagrams, just that working on a better screen shows more of the colour in your photos

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 your 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:

  • Colours that can be represented in your image, displayed on your screen and printed
  • Colours that can be represented in your image, displayed on your screen but cannot be printed
  • Colours that can be represented in your image, not displayed on your screen but can be printed
  • Colours that can be represented in your image, not displayed on your screen and cannot be printed

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:

  • The image file produced by the camera is not the same as the ‘Real World’
  • The screen view is not the same as what is in the image file
  • 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…

  • There is lots more info about printer profiling on this site but you might want to start with my reviews of the ColorMunkiSpyderPrint SR and the more advanced i1Profiler
  • Soft proofing is one way to simulate more accurately how your prints will look – see this very useful introduction by Bruce Fraser (archived copy)
  • Good explanation of Rendering Intent by Bruce Fraser (archived copy)

How does my choice of ink and paper reflect light?

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.

  • A low colour temperature (2800K) might equate to the yellowish white of a tungsten light bulb
  • Daylight might be ‘whiter’ white — maybe 6000K
  • Light from a north facing window with a clear blue sky at noon might be 9-12000K

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.

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.

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.


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.

There are links to all our articles about colour management further down the page

I hope this brief guide has been of help – I always welcome feedback and questions about my reviews and articles. It helps me and helps improve this site :-)

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  • Keith | Sep 14, 2011 at 8:06 am

    First up, calibrate your screen.
    Make sure it isn’t too bright (see another of my articles about why)
    Print using colour profiles for the paper and printer you are using
    Do this with a known colour test image so you know what a good print looks like.
    Adjust your images (in a colour managed application Photoshop or Elements) – you now know from the test image how screen will relate to print, so you can allow for it if need be

  • SuperK | Sep 14, 2011 at 2:54 am

    Excellent information. This has answered a lot of questions and enlightened me. One concept I must be missing. If you could shed some light, I would be grateful.

    I adjust the print on screen for exposure, color, contrast, whatever, then when I like what I see, I print it. Most of the time, I’m disappointed. I’m always playing a guessing game with what to adjust and which way to “fix” my print because it’s not coming out like the screen (which now you say, it may never) What is the correct procedure? I’m using the screen as the adjuster but the print never reflects what I just adjusted. Help?

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