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Why your prints look wrong

  |   Article, Articles and reviews, Canon printer, Colour management, Epson Printer, Image Editing, Printing   |   2 Comments

10 reasons your prints look wrong

The most common problems in printing your photos

Prints not matching your screen and other issues.

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Sometimes your prints just don’t look right. What’s wrong? What should you do about it?

Over the years, Keith Cooper has printed thousands of photos and written many articles and reviews about printing photographs.

This articles addresses the most common problems we’ve been asked about and offers some potential solutions. It includes many links to more detailed articles and reviews that may be of help.

We’re always happy to answer people’s questions about printing

The sections go from the most basic to ones that invite you to ask more complex questions about why you are printing.

batch of test prints

Jan 2019: See also my 5 steps to improve your photography by learning to print article for more on this topic

1 Your prints come out too dark

The simplest explanation is that your monitor is too bright.

Yes, it really is the most common problem and solution for people contacting me over the years.

Modern monitors are a lot brighter by default and this skews your editing/adjustment of tones. The bright monitor opens up shadow detail, and you can clearly see things. Once you make the print, it’s likely to be viewed in dimmer lighting, and because of the way our vision works, the shadows show this up.

If you have a print that’s come out too dark, take it out on a sunny day and look at it in bright sunlight. See how it doesn’t look so dark in the shadows now?  That’s OK if you view your prints in daylight, perhaps not so when indoors.

The simple answer – turn your monitor brightness down.
The longer answer – use a monitor calibrator to set a known lower brightness.

This print looks very different (tonally) in daylight – but the colour is spot on

outdoor print platinum cotton

2 Your screen is wrong

yellow fieldsColour management can be a complex technical subject, but you don’t need to know all that stuff to benefit from it.

Look at the picture here. It probably looks fairly OK on your monitor, and if you only ever look at photos on your screen, then that’s fine.

If your monitor adds a slight purple cast to everything, you might not notice. Our vision is good at ignoring such things. Let’s say you adjust your photos to look good on the screen, you may even cancel out that slight purple tint in your adjustment.

The problem comes when you print the photo and that purple cast that you’ve removed becomes a greenish look to your print.

Modern screens do tend to be more accurate – well, the more expensive ones do.

Whatever screen you are using – you simply can’t adjust them by eye, or even spot where they are wrong.

The simple answer – use a basic monitor calibrator.
The longer answer – a better screen and calibrator.

X-Rite display calibrators.

i1display pro and cmd

3 How are you editing your photos?

Most computers come with a basic image editor. That’s often fine for quick snaps, but tends to let you down once you start printing larger photos for display.

You don’t need to go all the way to using Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Even a more basic editor such Photoshop Elements will support the sorts of adjustments you need to make.  It will also allow you to make effective use of colour management in your print setup.

Newer software packages such as Luminar, DxO PhotoLab, Affinity Photo and ON1 are well worth a look.

 Editing an image in DxO PhotoLab.

DxO PhotoLab mixed adjustments

Note the dark interface of the software – this can give a distinct bump in how bright an image looks. If I’m editing for printing, I prefer a light interface style/background for my editing software (it’s often selectable)

4 Is your printer up to the job?

Whilst it’s perfectly possible to make some nice looking small prints with a normal office printer and some ‘photo paper’, they are never going to match what you can get from a printer designed for photo use.

It is unfortunate, but HP for example, has effectively left the high quality (desktop) photo printing market. I can only really recommend Canon or Epson photo printers these days for high quality photo printing.

A large test print (printer is the Pro-2000).

keith cooper and large print

5 Are you using the right printer driver?

Check that the printer driver you see when sending a print to the printer is the right one.

An easy error to make is to use something like an AirPrint or WiFi specific one. These may be fine for printing snaps from your phone or tablet, but not if you are making larger prints that you’ve spent time adjusting and editing.

In general, use a wired connection if you are making large prints. This also avoids potentially cut down WiFi printing capabilities that could affect your prints.

This is a screenshot from my P800 review, where I’d accidentally selected the ‘AirPrint’ version of the driver – it’s easy to do.

wrong printer driver

6 Not using colour profiles

Whilst printer drivers have got better over the years. It’s still better to use a printer profile that matches the paper you are using. Canon and Epson both provide profiles to go with their papers.

Many better paper suppliers will provide free profiles with their papers, and some will even make custom profiles for you, if you buy paper.

This is not the place to go into the details of using such profiles, but have a look at any of my printer reviews to see examples of using them.

Making a printer profile on the PRO-1000

A3 profiling with lustre paper

7 Are you too cheap?

The quality of the materials you choose make a big difference.

If you use cheap third party inks or get your paper from a discount store because it has ‘Photo’ writen on the front of the pack, then expect variable and unpredictable results.

Sure I’ve been able to make excellent prints on a paper that cost a few pence a sheet, but I’ve got custom profiling equipment and software that costs thousands of pounds. Even then I’d not like to predict how the print will look after a few months.

That doesn’t mean you have to use Epson or Canon branded paper – my day to day paper for large commercial prints is a good 300gsm Lustre finish paper from a local supplier. There are large prints of mine (several metres long) in offices and architects practices that look superb, years after I printed them.

A few of the test prints from a printer review.

A few of the test prints from a printer review

8 The screen is not the print

A common notion is that you get the image to look exactly how you want it on screen and then just print it. The idea is that if the printer (and paper) are good enough then the print will look ‘right’.

At one level this sounds fine, since how are you going to edit your photo, if not by looking at your screen?

Where the problems (and disappointment) come in is that many forget the simple fact that screens and prints are two entirely different technologies.

At its most basic, screens emit light and prints just reflect it. More than that, screens have a much wider range of brightness than paper prints. With the print, the brightest white is the paper, and the blackest black depends on the ink used and paper.

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.

In printing, you are looking to fit the dynamic range of your screen into the much smaller one of a print. If you also consider that the dynamic range of the real world is usually even more than a screen can display, you can see that a print is a different object in its own right.

A frequent reaction is to ask how anyone can get a print right?  A quick look at prints you like shows it is eminently possible.

My own approach is to remember that what I’m seeing on the screen is only an intermediate stage in creating a print. The print will look different but I’m prepared for that.

This comes from experience, and includes really looking at how test images look as prints compared to how they look on the screen. I’ll always print them unaltered, since they are test images for the printer, not my editing setup.

Once my print setup is OK, I know there’s no problems in printing and I can concentrate on the image I’m working on.  Many aspects of the photograph, such as its composition and balance are perfectly clear on the screen.

Paper choices are much more subjective. The ‘right’ paper can give the edge to a great photo but won’t save a bad one any more than masses of filters and HDR techniques.

You might want to look at Soft Proofing as a tool to give a feel for how an image will look on a particular paper. However, be very wary of how the screen is NOT the print.

Soft proofing can easily become a crutch to avoid thinking about and understanding how prints look under different lighting and on different papers – use it judiciously.

Looking at a print

9 Are your photos up to the job?

When you start printing it seems like there are many technical challenges and it’s easy to wonder if you are using the right paper or printer settings.

I’ve seen people continually look for ‘better’ papers because their prints just don’t come out as they want. This is often a sign of deep seated issues in their print workflow.

By print workflow, I’m looking at the whole photography process, right from taking a photo and getting it out of your camera, right through to the print coming out of the printer. If the print looks wrong, then there may be a problem somewhere in that path.

Unless you understand your whole workflow, you are just guessing as to where the problem is.

This is why, when testing a new paper, I always start with a known good test image. I take the view that if I can’t produce an excellent looking test print, then what hope have I for one of my own images.

A custom black and white test image.

a3 plus monochrome borderless

10 The real challenge?

I take the view that if I can produce a perfect test print, but my photo prints don’t look good, then the problem is not with my printing, printer, paper or ink.

Making prints of your photographs is a rewarding thing to do, but after a while you do have to come back to asking if your photographic skills are letting you down?  At a show I was asked to comment on why a print didn’t work, and my best answer was that the photographer should have stood about six feet to the left to take the photo.

Sometimes a particular photo just doesn’t look good as a print – accept it, learn from it and move on.

Whilst I’m thinking of the skills you bring to the actual taking of the photos, I shouldn’t ignore the temptation to over do all the editing tricks/filters/presets. They only go so far in making a mundane image interesting.

Whilst much of my commercial work is delivered digitally, I still make a point of printing things – it’s a real test of whether the image is good enough to stand on its own.

One other thing always worth remembering about making large prints – very few people will notice your choice of paper, what they see is what the photograph is about, and what it means to them. Really solid technique and printing technologies can give your prints extra impact and appeal, but a poor photo is still a poor photo…

More photos – mostly commercial images I’ve taken for clients, that I’d not seen before as prints.

batch of test prints

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  • Smithy | Aug 2, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    Hi Keith, after too long being frustrated by the unpredictability of my print output, I recently decided to have another go at tweaking my settings in Photoshop CS5 towards more print satisfaction, with some success. Despite everything being calibrated, my prints consistently come out a degree too dark, meaning the very last stage in my workflow (the subsequent tweaking) was left to guesswork, not good. I have given up on Lightroom due to various reasons, and have gone back to CS5 because of it’s versatility.
    My setup is a Win8.1 machine with a reasonable Dell IPS monitor (set to 80cd/m2), calibration by Display i1 Pro, Epson P800, currently I’m printing with Canson Matte papers.
    Here is my workflow:
    When I have got an image looking how I want, on the screen, I finally go through the soft proofing procedure to end up with the print-ready image file. I tried adjustments with both levels and curves, and find a couple of levels adjustments to be the best. Firstly I played around with the Output shadow value, and found that by bringing that up to a value of 11 opened up the shadows nicely (in the dried print). But then the rest of the print was still too dark, I then combined this with adjusting the Midtone slider from 1.00 to 1.10, this lightened the rest of the image.
    Now when I print out my images, they really are very close to what I see on my screen.
    The most important thing for me here is that I am finally getting predictable results each time, so I am printing with joy, rather than with annoyances.
    I should say that I am a self-taught enthusiast, but passionate about printing, and this does appear to be a good solution.
    If anyone tries this, please do feed-back here.
    Cheers Smithy.

  • Tappy Mcwidestance | Aug 2, 2019 at 12:35 pm

    A) make a good ICC profile of your printer, whether it is your home inkjet or the photo printer at a retailer.

    B) profile your monitor properly.

    C) Let Photoshop simulate your printer on your monitor via Proof Setup.

    You will get a very close match.

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