For all the benefits of digital photography, one big downside is that it makes us lazy and for some reason we are always putting off printing our favourite images that we have spent so long working on creating.

But then at some point something is triggered inside and we get off our butts and send some files in to be printed – at last!

Then for the next few days we anxiously sit waiting until the call comes in to say that our works of art are finally ready to be picked up…

So we rush in, pay our fees, get the package in hand and we barely make it outside the shop until we’re hacking the package open to take a first look at our glorious new prints… Only to see…

They turned out like crap!

What the?

Your photos turned out too dark, or the colours are just wrong, or they are waaay too contrasty (shadows are black and highlights are blown).

Ok first things first – you are not alone!

Secondly – don’t worry, you can put it right.

In this article I’m going to give you some of the most common reasons why this happens and what you can do to fix it.

The first thing you need to do is this:

Calibrate your monitor

The most important thing that you can do when working on photos on your computer is to calibrate your monitor.

Because if your monitor is rendering colours incorrectly then it will be complete pot-luck whether your prints turn out looking the same as they do on your screen.

The problems that come with NOT calibrating your screen in this way stretch beyond printing too… The same goes for online sharing. Whether you use Flickr, share pics to your facebook page or on your blog, if you’re not calibrating your monitor then the chances are that nobody is seeing your images as you intend them to look.

And although there are software-only calibration tools, such as those that come with your operating system or graphics card, but these rely on you viewing certain images and patterns and adjusting the settings based on your perception of what’s on the screen.

The only way to be properly confident that your calibration is “correct” is to use a device that actually analyses the screen and measures what it sees against a common standard.

I personally use a Spyder 3 Express which I picked up a few years ago for around $150 (the newer spyder 4’s are about the same price).

It’s a little computer-mouse-type-looking-thing (otherwise known as a colorimeter) that you plug in to a usb port and then hold it in front of your screen whilst the software takes a bunch of readings. It then automatically adjusts the settings on your computer so that colours are always rendered correctly on screen (when using colour managed software like Photoshop and Lightroom etc).

For the vast majority of photographers, something like the Spyder 3 Express will do the job well enough. It does have some limitations however, relating to how much control you have over some of the settings such as the white point and gamma. (If you want to read more into the really techie details about white point and gamma then I recommend you check out this article on the Scientific American website.)

But like I said, out of the box and following the software wizard that comes with the Spyder 3 has done well for me and I suspect that if you’re not currently using a calibrated monitor then it will do wonders for you too.

So back to the printing issue, if your prints turn out looking different to how they look on your screen then the very first thing you need to do is calibrate your monitor. In fact, even if you’re not printing your images…. Calibrate it anyway! ๐Ÿ™‚


Set the mood…

One thing that a screen calibration tool cannot affect is the brightness setting on your monitor.

So if your photos are printing too dark (whether they are the correct colours or not) then one very likely reason is this:

Your monitor is probably too bright…

So you can simply do some trial and error, turning the brightness down until the screen matches the brightness of a print. However, there is more to consider when comparing screen to print. But I’ll go into that in a bit more detail later on in this article.

This tip is about creating the right viewing environment for yourself when you’re working on your images first time around.

As a general rule, you’ll want the brightest part of your screen to be the brightest thing within your field of vision (i.e. if you’re sitting next to a bright window, close the blinds :))

Other things that can affect what you see on the screen include:

  • The angle you are viewing your screen at
  • Glare from a bright light source shining on the screen
  • Anything in the room that might be casting a colour on your screen (like if your whole room is decorated bright red for example!)
  • The temperature of the light in the room… Do you have a light on, and is it a cool or a warm light etc?

All of the above can affect your perception of the colours that are shown on your screen, so aim to neutralise as many colour or brightness distractions as you can when you are processing your photos.

The article I linked to a moment ago also goes into how folks who are producing the majority of their work for print (rather than online etc) may choose to use a gamma setting that matches that of the printers they are printing on. But again, it’s explained much better in that article than I could explain here so click here to read up on that if you want to get really technical.

Ok – so all of the above suggestions are for everyone across the board no matter where or how you are printing your photos.

What you take from the next few sections will depend on where you are having your photos printed (I’m going to assume you’re having someone else print them for you because home-printing is a topic worth a hundred articles all by itself!)


Exporting / Saving Your Photos In The Required Colour Profile

A VERY common mistake people make when printing their photos (and sharing them online) is getting the colour profile wrong.

It’s good practice to set your “working” colour space in Photoshop to ProPhoto RGB because it has a wider gamut of colours than AdobeRGB and sRGB.

But if you send a file in the ProPhoto RGB format to a printer than uses say, AdobeRGB which is a smaller colour space (and if they don’t convert it for you) then the printer will end up clipping all sorts of colour information leading to unpredictable results in your finished print.

(The same goes for sharing images to the web – sRGB is the web standard colour space).

There’s a great article on The Luminous Landscape site which explains colour space and the benefits of larger ones really well, so again if you want to dive into the technical explanation then take a look at that here.

So without going into too much more technical detail myself here, I’ll summarise with some basic steps of what you need to do to get this right.

The first thing you need to do is call up your printer and ask them what colour profile you need to provide your photos in.

If they are a high-street or everyday mall type printing facility then they will probably tell you AdobeRGB. But check anyway!

If they are a professional print house then they may or may not have their own specific colour profile for you to install and use. If they do, then they will have instructions on how to install it on your computer. If this is the case, lets assume you’ve done this already ๐Ÿ™‚

Once you’ve established which colour profile you need to use, the next step is to save/embed it into your jpeg files.

In Lightroom you can do this in the “Export” dialog box


And in Photoshop you can do this via the “Edit > Convert To Profile” menu option


If the “Source Space” is anything other than what your printer requires, then choose the correct one in the “Destination Space” and click OK.

Then you can just use the Save or Save As menu to save a jpeg version that you’re going to give to your printer.



Soft Proofing

If you’re having your photos printed by a professional-standard printer then any difference in colour between the print and what’s on your screen may be a symptom of the paper and ink combination used.

In this case, the printer will probably have a number of profiles that you can download and install that will allow you to “proof” your images right there in Photoshop.

Essentially this allows you switch to a view in Photoshop that shows you exactly what your photo will look like when printed on a certain material with certain inks. You can use this to then adjust your image accordingly or at the very least, just be aware of what the printed result will look like.

So once you’ve downloaded and installed the profiles provided by your printer, you can proof your image by selecting that profile from the “View > Proof Setup” menu like so:


Then once you’ve put a tick next to the profile you want to proof, you can toggle it on and off using the “Proof Colours” menu option or (on a mac) pressing CMD+Y (which I assume on a PC is CTRL+Y).

In the screenshot above you can see I’ve installed 5 profiles each prefixed with “PixelPerfect” (the name of the print shop) and suffixed with the description of the print media. The same photo actually looks different when proofed on each one of the five, so it really helps to A) even know about this and B) have access to the profiles for proofing.

– One important point to note is that even if you have access to your print shops’ profiles for the purpose of proofing, they will still probably tell you to provide your image to them with a standard profile.


Ok, if you are using a high-street or mall printer then this one is a biggie…


Tell Your Printer To Stop “Enhancing” Your Photos

I definitely believe that you get what you pay for when it comes to having your photos professionally printed. But let’s be honest – you can still get some really nice looking prints from your local consumer-level print shop.

Let’s assume they’ve already told you what colour profile to save your photos with, you’ve calibrated your monitor and you’ve done everything else you can to ensure correct colours and brightness in your images up to this point.

When you come to place your order, there’s one thing you’ll need to ask them to do, which is to:

turn off their auto-enhancements

You see, the vast majority of people using these print shops are folks who just bring in their memory cards full of holiday snaps straight out of their consumer-grade cameras or cell phones.

So to spruce these straight-out-of-camera “snaps” up a bit, the printers will apply a bunch of auto enhancements (boosting colours and contrast) to all photos as standard.

For most people this will either be a welcome improvement or just go completely unnoticed…

But for folks like us who spend hours perfecting our images in Photoshop making them look EXACTLY how we want them to, these auto enhancements just completely screw our images over!

The added contrast will usually turn shadows completely black and sometimes blow the highlights too. And the saturation boost will send our colours over the edge as well.

So at the point of handing over your files, request that they turn OFF any enhancements that they would normally add.

On a side note, a few years ago I was dismayed at what I saw when a printer in my local mall invited me behind the counter to see their manual process for “enhancing” customers’ images.

Their particular process involved having a person flip through every single shot that was headed for the printer, with them spending around 5-10 seconds on each one quickly fiddling with some hue, saturation and contrast sliders to “improve” them.

All the hard work I had put into getting everything just how I wanted it was completely obliterated in just a few seconds by the heavy-handed use of some very basic sliders.

I don’t want to bag on these guys though, because I’m sure that for the majority of their customers this is a welcome enhancement but for anyone who expects prints to come back looking the same as they do on your screen, this is a step that needs to be skipped!

With that said, this is not something you need to worry about if you are shelling out for professional quality printing.

But like I said earlier, you CAN still get decent prints from these other places as long as you get everything right – and that includes asking them not to edit your photos for you.


Compare apples to apples

Let’s say that you’ve calibrated your monitor correctly and followed all the other relevant steps above to ensure a good match between your screen and your prints, but they are still turning out slightly different. Either the colours are still slightly off, or they are too dark (or bright)…

The last suggestion I have for you in this article is to make sure you’re making a fair comparison.

If you’re holding your print up next to your screen and it’s dark in comparison, remember that your monitor is backlit. Do you need to literally shine a light on your print to make it a fair comparison?

Many fine art photography galleries will display their prints either backlit or with gallery lighting shining on to the photographs to illuminate them. If you do the same will your prints brightness then match the screen?

To get a fair comparison try to light your print so that it’s brightest part matches the brightness of the brightest part of the image on screen.

Or if you’re comparing side by side and the brightness is ok but the colours are slightly off, could it be that the lighting conditions in the room are causing an apparent shift? I.e. are you viewing the photo under a “warm” light bulb, or in daylight, or are the walls or furniture casting a colour throughout your room that is affecting the print and not the screen?

(I neverย quite realised the affect of coloured furniture until I bought a deep red duvet cover for my bed and one day noticed that when the sun shone in through the window it literally reflected red onto my white bedroom wall, making the wall appear pink!)


Wrapping up…

That’s probably quite a bit to be getting on with! If you’ve done everything that I’ve suggested here in this article then you’ll stand a pretty good chance of getting better-looking prints.


Your turn…

Have you got a suggestion for better looking prints that I’ve missed here, or have any of these tips helped you out?

Then leave a comment below to share your experience ๐Ÿ™‚


Steve A