Help, My Prints Don't Match my Screen

I often get contacted by photographers frustrated and complaining "my inkjet prints don't match my screen display". Sometimes they have spent significant sums of money having prints made and when they receive them from the printer they look dreadful. Sometimes it might be the fault of the printer but in most cases the photographer is at fault. Even if they aren't, they seldom have the understanding of the problem to defend their corner and have the images re-printed.

Possible Causes

Whilst there may be other problems, I suspect well over 80% of the problem cases (I would expect it to be over 95% in all honesty) come from three simple root causes. Address these problems and printing will become more predictable. They are:

  1. The monitor used for editing isn't correctly calibrated
  2. The correct printer profile hasn't been used when printing or soft proofing
  3. The image hasn't been correctly soft proofed

Let's take a look at each in turn.

Monitor Calibration

Monitor calibration ensures that the image you are editing displays correctly on your computer screen. White from the image will be displayed as white, black and black and all the colours will be accurately represented. Once you are confident of this you can confidently edit your images. If the image appears wrong on your screen display you will know that you need to correct it with image editing software such as Photoshop, Lightroom or Elements.

To accurately calibrate your monitor you will need a hardware and software solution. Popular packages include:

When purchasing a calibration device be sure to pick the correct one. Most if not all will calibrate your monitor. If you want to be able to calibrate a printer, many devices won't help you. Printer calibration units are usually more expensive.

Personally, I used to use the Eye One but switched to the ColorMunki Photo when I decided I wanted to be able to create printer profiles.

Color Munki unit in position on the monitor

Color Munki unit in position on the monitor

ColorMunki in position on the monitor

Software only solutions won't really work and be wary of anyone claiming to be able to remotely calibrate your monitor for you. Invest your money instead in one of the screen calibration tools.

Printer Profiles

Once you know that your image is accurately represented on the screen and that you want to print it, you need to ensure your printing software is set up to print using the correct printer profile. The printer profile is unique to a printer and paper combination. Select the wrong printer or use the wrong paper and you will find the print comes out wrong, sometimes very wrong.

Lightoom Print Module where you can set the printer profile

Lightoom Print Module where you can set the printer profile

The other potential problem here is that the software used to print the photo isn't correctly configured to use the profile and/or the printer driver isn't correctly configured to take instructions from the printing software. Typically you will need to set up the printing software (for example Lightroom) to use the printer profile and the print driver to not perform any colour management, because it's being done by the printing software.

Print driver set to no colour management or managed by host

Print driver set to no colour management or managed by host

Soft Proofing

The printer profile also comes into play when you want to soft proof your image. A soft proof is a rendering of your image on the computer screen that simulates how the final print will appear. Typically people don't sent up the soft proof correctly and miss out the options to simulate paper and ink.

When you pick the option to simulate paper and ink it will often make the soft proof on screen look terrible. If it does, you know your print will look terrible. To overcome this you will need to make adjustments to the soft proof image in order to make it look like the original image, before you print it. Typically this involves adding more contrast and saturation but you might need to make other adjustments. If you use Lightroom for this it has a great option to display the original image and soft proof side by side. This makes it much easier to edit the soft proof so that it matches the original photo.

Soft Proofing mode in Lightroom

Soft Proofing mode in Lightroom

Whilst there are other problems that can arise, if you have done the above you will remove most of the sources of poor printing.

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