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.
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.
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.
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.
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