Why Aren't Colors The Same As My Screen When I Print? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Why Aren't Colors The Same As My Screen When I Print?

by David Peterson 7 comments

You don’t have to be a fan of Office Space to hate printers. They’ve been my worst enemy for years. Printers always seem to be the most error prone device you can connect to your computer. If it’s not a PC LOAD LETTER error, it’s something else. And what's worse is trying to print a shot with the same colors for my photos as I see on my screen. It's hard to do properly without specialised equipment, but I’ll show you how to get it mostly right.

Calibrate Your Monitor To Your Printer

There are two main reasons the colors are different between an image on your screen, and one on your monitor. The first is due to your monitor and printer using completely different methods to create a specific color. Monitors use an 'additive' process whereas printers use a 'subtractive' process.

Printers take the image data and apply ink to a piece of paper. Computers take the same data and use it to light up pixels on the screen. Each is calibrated with different brightness and color settings. These slight differences show up when you start making your first prints. The differences are the result of the two different color schemes. Monitors and LCD screens use the additive color scheme RGB. When you mix colors together using the additive color scheme, you get closer to white. Printers use the subtractive color scheme CMYK. When you mix more of these colors together using a subtractive color scheme, you get closer to black.

You can think of additive and subtractive color like this. On a computer monitor, you get color by shining a light from the back of the monitor through some kind of color filter. So if you shine more light, you’ll get closer to white because all of the different colors of light will come together. Printing is different. You get color by putting ink of a page and reflecting light off it. If you’ve ever mixed paints together, you know that the more paint you mix in, the closer to black you get. That’s the difference between additive and subtractive color.

But it's worse than that! Both monitors and printers need to be calibrated to display an accurate representation of the color in your photos. And each monitor is slightly different to every other monitor (and same for printers) so what looks great on your computer's monitor might not look so crash hot on someone else's monitor. Small color differences can also happen on your printer when changing inks, or paper.

These are the things they don’t tell you when they’re selling you that shiny new printer!

Fortunately, you can tune your monitors and printers are displaying colors relatively accurately, which will help to make sure what you see on your screen matches what is printed. It's called calibration and there are two types.

Visual Calibration

You can subjectively calibrate your computer monitor and printer using software. For monitor calibration software, Mac users should look under the Display section for the "Monitor Calibration Wizard", and follow the steps. For Windows, search for "Calibrate" and you'll find the "Calibrate Display Colors" program that will take you through the steps.

Most printers come with calibration software that will print a test sheet and ask you some questions about what you see on the test sheet. By answering those questions, the software will calibrate your printer so the colors on the test sheet - and from that, the colors on your prints - are more accurate.

Visual calibration is easy to do, and doesn't take long. The problem with these subjective calibrations, is they rely on your eye. What looks good to your eye may not look good to someone else.

Mechanical Calibration

To make sure the color corrections are completely accurate, you'll need a gadget that will scan your prints and screen and uses that information to correct the colors. This is called mechanical calibration.

However, it's not cheap. One of these tools is marketed as the ColorMunki, and it’s very costly. You’re looking at paying at least $500 for one of these things. Outrageous, but it works.

You place the ColorMunki over your monitor, and then you print out a test sheet. It’s a similar wizard style of calibrating, but it takes all of those variables into account. The makers of the ColorMunki suggest you re-calibrate your monitor every month (because it does change over time) as well as every time you switch our paper or ink.

A ColorMunki draped over a monitor. It has a sensor
on the front that gathers the light and uses it to calibrate the monitor.

Consider using a professional printing studio

What a headache. Is it worth the effort? Not if you aren’t selling your prints. Even if you are selling your prints, it might be better to go with a professional printing studio that works with people like you all the time. Studios know how to get their printers to print something you’ll like. They know it because they work with artists who often have much more demanding tasks every day.

You thought it was hard to get the color right on your digital photos? Imagine getting them right on a reproduction of your painting. That’s a whole other can of worms, and these guys are used to it.

Unless you make your living as a photographer and can afford expensive things like the ColorMunki, printing from home just isn’t the best option if you want quality and precise colors. You can use your computer’s monitor calibration wizard to get close to your printer's colors, but it’s still not ideal. I seriously wish I had an easier answer, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Gerald Murphy says:

    My problem - I assume that I'm not alone - is that, using a laptop, the colours and their brightness change depending on the angle of the screen and the distance from my eyes.

  2. Dave Munn says:

    I fully agree with the information above and I have followed the process and procedure to get my printer to produce images the same quality prints that I am seeing on my monitor. I bought a 'Spyder5elite datacolour calculator. It most certainly set my monitor up correctly and it reminds me every month to re-set it. However, nothing has changed with my prints- they are all 'wishy, washy' and I still do not know how to improve them. The printer is an Epson Stylus office BX635FWD. What I will say to everything I have read is this. If you want to print images your self for your photo album collection then you should by a dedicated printer for the purpose. Consider spending a minimum of 300-400 upwards. The printers you can by that are all singing and dancing just do not have the quality output to produce high resolution images of at least 6 megapixels.

  3. Gail says:

    My printer is terrible with dark colors. They are so dark, you can't tell if there is a wrinkle in a shirt or a dark cake, it is so dark you can't know what kind it might be. When the black cartridge is almost out of ink, then it is good, but I don't want to wait until it is. Is there anyway to change the saturation of black? I have a HP printer. Thank you!

    • David Peterson says:

      I assume you're using a inkjet printer. On most printers, you can configure the gamma, which controls the brightness of the image. You should be able to set a gamma setting to show more detail in the blacks without making the rest of the image too bright.

      If not, it might be time to invest in a better printer, or use an online printing service rather than printing your own.

      Good luck!


      • Dave Munn says:

        Followed my own suggestion and David Peterson's after a disaster trying to print from a standard printer. Quality was very poor even after calibration.
        I invested in a Canon Pro 100S. Whilst this is not a high specification printer it is a dedicated photo printer with more than 4 cartridges.
        Conclusion... brilliant. Nothing more to say other than 'I should have done this a long time ago' easy to set up and the quality output is superb. Use genuine ink and Canon paper or a highly recommended product. I have used Canon Gloss and Permajet Semi Gloss (not a Canon product) and results are excellent.

  4. Brandon Esher says:

    There are quite a bit of printers out there that genuinely produce great pictures, and there are those that are just plain terrible at it. But, I think that one of the main issues is the display of the computer. LCDs generally would produce a worse looking image than what you would find on a quality printer. From what I have seen when using my CRT (which I have had for 11 years now), it appears to be a near-perfect representation on printed sheets. I agree that there are crappy printers out there, but I also believe that LCD screens are terrible to begin with. Compare an LCD to a CRT. The only positives for an LCD would be how if refreshes (LCDs do not have a true refresh, CRTs do) in which causes less eyestrain (Set your CRTs refresh rate higher and you will find that it is much more comfortable), its size, and its power consumption. Other than that, the CRT destroys the LCD and generally every other display in comparison.

  5. Laurie Hall says:

    I have a brand new Nikon D3200 and am unhappy with its auto settings - too washed out, even when using a polarizer! They look good in the viewfinder, but . . . And then, if that's not bad enough, when I load them on my laptop (running Windows XE I believe, Windows 7 Home Premium, etc.) the color shifts to much bluer, they look dull and muddy and the focus isn't even all that great. I've viewed them through Windows Photo apps. as well as Picasa and they look identical. I haven't yet downloaded the software from Nikon, but Hunts Photos tells me it will look the same as Picasa, etc. My resolution on my computer is set as high as it will go (beyond the min. requirements) and is running 24 true bit color, I believe. Still need to confirm that. The color on all other photos (like the samples that come with the HP), is gorgeous and true. Now what?? How in the world do I tell what I really have for photos, quality-wise?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *