Why are my prints too dark? This is one of the questions I get asked most often. You’ve invested in a decent printer, good media and downloaded a printer profile or had one made. You’ve got a good monitor and calibrated it. But still your prints are coming out dark. I must have heard this a hundred times but the answer is usually pretty simple. The prints are not too dark.You just think they are. In this article I will tell you why.
Before I continue with why so many people think that their prints are too dark when they aren’t I will quickly deal with a few very specific and rare examples where they might actually be an issue with the print. Firstly, if you are having your images printed by a lab using a photographic mini lab then there is chance that the print is dark. The colour space of mini labs are typically smaller than a good inkjet printer and they are often crudely colour managed. They sometimes do produce dark prints. If you are getting dark prints from a lab, try using a different lab. If you are having designs or images printed on a press or printer by a printing company then it’s worth asking them about there colour management and quality assurance procedures to be sure the problem isn’t there.
Secondly, I am assuming that you have calibrated your monitor with a colorimeter such as an i1 Display Pro or Spyder5 and that you have either downloaded an ICC profile for your inkjet printer and paper combination or had one made for you. Or if you have an in house laser printer or copier or other type of printer that it has been properly calibrated and profiled by someone who knows what they are doing.
If you haven’t and are relying on the printer default colour management, visual monitor calibration or some other type of guesswork then go away and get your colour management sorted. That said there is one thing that could still trip you up. Certain versions of Windows and Photoshop seem to interact badly when using version 2 ICC profiles and you can get a very dark print, but I’m not talking a little off I am talking very, very dark. It’s very rare but I have had a couple of customers experience it. If you fit that criteria try requesting a version 4 ICC profile from your profile supplier. Any other problem with a printer profile, such as not using the correct driver settings, will invariably result in colour casts as well as tonal variation so there isn’t really any other colour management issue that can cause prints just to be too dark.
But why do I think my prints are too dark?
So, assuming you are using an decent lab or doing your own prints on an good inkjet why do you think your prints are too dark? It’s probably down to a combination of two factors; the brightness of your monitor and the brightness of the lighting your are using to view the print.
Modern LCD monitors can be very bright. An uncalibrated monitor will make your images or designs look very intense and you may even be tempted to decrease the exposure or brightness as you process them to compensate. A very bright monitor will lead you to expect a similar level of brightness from image when it is printed. So it is your expectation that is at fault and not the actual print.
But I’ve calibrated my monitor I hear you cry! But have you reduced the brightness when you did so? Many of the cheapest monitor calibration solutions will do very little to actually change the level of brightness or the colour temperature of the monitor and will basically just create a basic calibration and an ICC profile for the monitor as it is. Some will say they are compensating for room brightness but even that won’t fix the problem.
The main issue is that the poor old print can only reflect the light that it’s given whereas the monitor is a light source in itself. Because your screen is emitting light it’s almost invariably going to the look brighter than something that’s merely reflecting it. You may have been told that you have to decrease the screen brightness to get a match but that’s a crude workaround that doesn’t fix the issue and can lead to other problems such as you raising the exposure on every image in the expectation of getting a brighter print but that’s just as much of a problem as darkening every image to compensate for a bright monitor.
If you are going to get a good agreement between screen and print then you have to tackle both sides of the equation. You have to properly calibrate and profile your monitor and also sort out the viewing conditions of the print.
The first step with any issue is a bit of diagnosis and testing. The best way to test your printer colour management and workflow is with an independent test image rather than one of your own images that you have edited on your monitor. This removes any influence the brightness of your own monitor had on the processing of your images. You can find loads of test images online and I’ll even send you a link to mine on request.
Output the test image from Photoshop or Lightroom using the correct printer profile and printer driver settings for the paper that you are using. Leave the print to settle down a bit and close the image on the computer. After maybe twenty minutes take the print to good bright daylight and let your eyes adjust for a few minutes before studying the print. A good test image should have tests for highlight and shadow detail, high key and low key images and many other components to help you judge print quality. Just looking at the print in isolation, without thinking about the image that was on your computer screen, does it look too dark? Probably not. Is it darker than the image you saw on your computer screen? Possibly, but possibly not if you have calibrated your monitor well.
Leave the print where it is and go back to your computer and open the image again in Photoshop or Lightroom. Use the soft-proofing feature to simulate the printed image on screen. If you don’t know how to do this then take a bit of time to find out how via google, youtube or the help files of your software. Let your eyes adjust to the new light source (the monitor) before you study the test image on screen.
The biggest mistake most people make is putting the print next to the monitor and flicking their eyes from one to another. If you do this you aren’t giving your eyes time to adjust to each light source and you probably aren’t using any kind of controlled or consistent lighting for the print.
The last thing I’d like to ask you before tackling the solution to this very common issue is simple, and applies to only photographers. Are you a good photographer? Do you know how to take a well exposed shot? Off course you do. Then just take a minute to consider the edits that you do to your images. If you are constantly adjusting exposure, either up or down, on every image then it could well be a sign of a problem with the brightness of your monitor. Look at what the histogram is telling you and think about if that is being reflected in the image you are seeing on screen. If the histogram is showing you a good distribution of tones but the image looks to dark or too bright it’s time to revisit your monitor calibration targets.
The first thing to tackle is the lighting for the print. You have two choices. You can either invest in a good quality viewing light of a known colour temperature and colour rendering index, preferably one with a dimming control. This solution will enable you to view the print close to your monitor and with a little work on your monitor calibration you should be able to get a very close visual match.
Your other option is to use daylight away from the monitor and rely on the human visual system’s natural ability to adapt to different light sources. Daylight is obviously free but a good viewing booth could cost £200 to £500 depending on size and specification. If you go for the daylight option you will have discipline yourself to only view the print away from the monitor after giving your eyes time to adjust.
Which approach you choose will influence the way you calibrate your monitor, but before we talk about that we must also talk about the quality of your monitor. There are monitors designed for general home or office use, such as an iMac, and there are monitors designed for image retouching and colour accuracy, such as the EIZO ColorEdge range. Not surprisingly the range of features, options and quality of the better monitors will make it much easier for you to get a good screen to print match.
Most monitor calibration and profiling solutions have a few default pre-sets for calibration targets. Typically they are a brightness level of 120 cd/m², a colour temperature of 6500K and a gamma curve of 2.2. This is a very good starting point for your monitor calibration if you are taking the daylight viewing approach or investing in controlled lighting. So, follow the instructions in your monitor calibration software carefully and calibrate your monitor to those settings ensuring that you do adjust the monitor hardware when the software asks you so that it can hit the targets accurately. Monitors that come with their own calibration software that communicates directly with the screen will do all the adjustment for you.
Then, if you are taking the daylight approach, take the test print that you did above back into daylight, let your eyes adjust and take a good look at the print. Then go back to your monitor, open the test image, apply soft-proofing and full screen mode and let you eyes adjust. You may still think the print is a little darker, depending on time of day, the weather, and the paper you are using but don’t rush to make any changes yet. View the print a few more times in different daylight conditions and then decide if the monitor needs to be lighter or darker to match the print. You shouldn’t have to vary from 120 cd/m² by very much. Maybe up to 140 or down to 100. The colour temperature should be OK if you are giving your eye enough time to adjust. The gamma value should also not need changing as applying the soft proofing should limit the contrast of the screen to the contrast of the print. If you feel you need to calibrate the screen to a new target value and try the print comparison again until you are happy with the match.
The procedure for matching to controlled lighting is similar but has the advantage of a constant light source making better matches possible, but it may take a few more iterations. Make sure you place the viewing booth or light far enough away from the monitor so that the two light sources aren’t interfering with each other. It’s helpful if you have to turn your head to look at the print since it encourages you to look at it a little longer and let your eyes adjust.
Start with the same starting point for your calibration targets but you will likely have to change both brightness and colour temperature to get a match. Most viewing lights are around 5000K and the best will conform to the D50 standard. However, that doesn’t mean 5000K is the correct target for your monitor calibration. Remember that you are viewing light that has been reflected from the print and this has an important influence on the perceived colour temperature. For example, with my own D50 viewing booth with most inkjet papers I find that a calibrating the monitor to around 5800K gives me the best visual match. If your viewing light has a dimmer then balancing between adjusting that and calibrating the monitor to different brightness targets will enable you to get a very good match. However, I would say that you shouldn’t have to stray outside of the 80 – 160 cd/m2 range. If you do then your lighting isn’t right. Likewise you should not have to drop lower than 5000K or much above 6500K.
So, are your prints too dark?
Hopefully if you’ve followed all these steps you should now have a good agreement between print and screen. Never expect the match to be exact because you are comparing an emitted light source and a reflected one and there is a lot of physics and biology that can get in the way of a perfect match but you should be able to get to a point where you no longer think your prints are too dark. If you are still having trouble then get in touch. I can help you with on-site training, remote printer profiling, on-site profiling, home visits for amateur photographers and general colour management advice and assistance.