You’ve spent lots of time editing your photo to look exactly the way you want it to. Excitedly, you send it off for printing and your heart drops when you get your print back and it looks noticeably different from the way it looked on your monitor, the way it is “supposed” to look. What’s up with that? How can you make sure that doesn’t happen again? Why does that printer do such a bad job? All good questions.

First of all, and this may not provide much consolation, let me tell you that we all face this issue regularly. It simply comes along with having prints made. It is also worth mentioning that there isn’t necessarily one objective way that a photo looks. There may be the way you are used to it looking, but others will have no idea what you’re expecting if you haven’t shown them first hand. This doesn’t mean all hope is lost though as there are some things you can do to make these differences not so drastic.

Let’s start off by talking about photographing the world around us.

You must first accept that your camera doesn’t capture the world exactly as it looks to you, no matter how much you may want to believe it does and no matter how certain you are that you remember it looking exactly like that.

Think of a beautiful sunset. You may describe it as containing bright oranges, pinks, and reds. In reality there are thousands of different shades of color seamlessly blending into one another such that you can’t tell where one stops and another stops. Our amazing eyes and brain can see all these colors. A camera cannot.

So what happens when some of those reds are beyond what the camera can capture? Simple, it represents them as the closest thing it has the capability of showing. That means that if there are 5 subtly different shades of red beside one another and the camera cannot show any of them as they are then they are all 5 squished into the same shade of red in your photo. In this way the camera usually compresses something, be it colors or brightness levels, relative to the world we see with our eyes.

Think about a rainbow. If we had a camera that could only show blue and red then our entire rainbow would look half blue and half red. However, if we have a camera that can show a million colors, then suddenly we have a much better representation of the rainbow we see. One of the advancements being made in camera quality is its ability to show colors.

From the camera we then take our photos and put them on our computer. The next issue we face is that most of the time our monitor is not going to show the photo the same way our camera did. The monitor will not come out of the box with the same brightness and color settings that your camera are dialed in to. What if your entire monitor is more blue than what you see on your camera?

From there we have another issue in that our printers usually cannot reproduce all the colors that our camera can capture or our monitors can show. On top of that our printers function in a different color space than our cameras/monitors. What does that mean?

Think about a blank, powerless computer monitor, or a blank camera screen, or close your eyes. What do these things have in common? They all start off black.

Now, think about a blank page waiting to be printed on. It starts off white. Yikes…what are we supposed to do with that?

For sake of keeping this post from taking you all day to read I will simply say that computer monitors and cameras operate in what is called an RGB color space. Printers operate in what is called a CMYK color space. A quick Google search of “RGB vs. CMYK” will give you a great idea of what that means (look at the pictures). It is often in the conversion between these two color spaces that the print troubles arise. Here’s an example chart that may help illustrate some of these concepts:

color spaces

To recap, the camera shows less than your eyes see, the monitor then shows the photo differently than your camera did, and then your printer is converting to a different color space that doesn’t show colors the same way as your monitor or your camera (and in fact may be incapable of showing some of the colors on your monitor at all). You can see how you can end up with print color inconsistencies!

So what can you do about this? And perhaps more importantly, what does a printer like Imaging Arts do about this?

Here are things you can do:


Yes, it deserves to be capitalized and have an exclamation point behind it because it is that important. But, what does that do?

Calibrating your monitor creates a monitor profile. The best way I can explain a profile is to say that it is a set of instructions that tells your monitor how to better show colors. Imagine that you have a boss at work and they call you into their office and say “you’re doing a good job, but here’s a list of some things you can change to do an even better job”. That’s a profile.

How do you calibrate your monitor to create this profile? It’s as simple as buying a monitor calibrator and following the simple, step by step instructions. Two popular systems are the Spyder and the ColorMunki. They come with everything you need to calibrate your monitor. When we all calibrate our monitors it brings them closer to being in alignment with one another and results in fewer variances from monitor to monitor.

2. I’m tempted to put calibrate your monitor here again for those of you who want to skip that step. Instead, I’ll say purchase a good monitor. You may find that the monitor you already have is just fine. The more colors the monitor can show then generally the better job it will do at showing your photos more accurately.

3. If you are printing your own photos on your printer at home then you also need to have profiles for each of the papers you are using. Just like your monitor needs instructions as to what to do with colors the computer also needs these instructions for each paper you use because every paper will absorb and show ink differently. You can usually download profiles for papers from the website of the paper manufacturer. Once you’ve downloaded the profiles you need to install them on your computer and then, when printing from your program, choose the relevant profile for the paper you’re printing on. The specifics of how to do this change for each system and program you’re using, so again here a quick Google search using your specific setup will tell you exactly how to do this.

4. Turn off the lights and get your monitor away from the window. When ambient light, meaning light that happens to be around you, shines on the monitor it can interfere with the way it looks to you when you’re editing. Some monitors also adjust themselves automatically depending upon the light that it is detecting and this can result in a variation that will interfere with print consistency.

5. If you know how (and if you don’t then skip over this) you can use Photoshop to proof your image by effectively simulating it in CMYK to get a rough idea of what to expect. Now remember that our monitors are still working in RGB and as such they are only simulating CMYK, not truly showing it, so even this will still not show you exactly what will print.

So what does Imaging Arts Printing do?

1. We calibrate our monitors.

2. We calibrate our monitors. I mean, we use good monitors (one of them is the built in monitor on our iMac and we’ve no complaints about it).

3. We calibrate our monitors. Sorry, I’m not sure what keeps happening there. What I meant to say is that we build our own custom paper profiles for each type of paper or canvas we use and we re-calibrate them regularly. This helps to cut down on variations of prints from one medium to the next. It also means that if you order a canvas print from us 6 months from now it will look as close as possible to the one you just got, so you know what to expect.

4. We work in a darker room.

5. We use custom camera profiles built specifically for our camera/lights combination for more consistent color.

Great! Now we’ve gotten a decent monitor, calibrated it, and made sure our papers are profiled. This means we should have perfect color always and everywhere, right? Sadly, no. Why not? Well, it’s an imperfect system. Different monitors have different capabilities, different printers have different color gamuts, slight manufacturing variations can create color differences, etc. This means there’s simply going to be some variation in the system. Still, doing these things can majorly cut down on print problems and have your prints come back looking more like what you’re wanting.

That should give you more than enough to chew on for now, but if you have any questions about color calibration and making your prints look more like you are expecting you can always get in touch with us.

We hope this has been helpful and happy printing!