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“Why don’t my prints look like the image on my monitor?”  That’s the question I most frequently hear from people who are new to the printing process.  One of the dirty little secrets of printing is that, even under the best of circumstances, you really can’t expect your prints to look like the image on your screen.  Monitors are light-emitting devices while paper and other printed media are light-reflecting.  As a result, prints will always be less vibrant than the screen image that serves as their source.  To anticipate anything else is to set yourself up for perpetual disappointment.

Once this point is realized and accepted, you can move on to a part of the process that you can actually control and use to your advantage:  color management.  There are other “the print doesn’t look the way it should” issues that can successfully be addressed and understanding and implementing a color management system is the key to solving them.

Color Management

People who charge into the printing process with their heads down often run into problems:  prints that are habitually much too dark (even after accounting for the light-reflective properties of the print media) and prints with unexpected color shifts are probably the most common of these.  (While, in the strictest sense, brightness issues aren’t part of color management, the problem can typically be solved via a color managed workflow.)

Color management addresses the problem that arises when various hardware and software components interpret and render colors differently.  Have you ever viewed the same image on two different monitors and seen significant diversities in appearance?  The images may appear warmer or cooler, for instance, depending on the monitor.  That’s a color management issue.  We judge an image’s appearance, naturally enough, by looking at it.  If we can’t depend on how the image is rendered, we’re flying by the seat of our pants in terms of judging and correcting it.  Having a color managed workflow addresses these kinds of issues by providing a means for all of your devices to be on the same page when it comes to rendering colors.  In a nutshell, color management produces consistency and predictability in the appearance of imagery.

The first part of a color managed workflow involves calibrating your monitor.  There are many calibration packages on the market today, as you can see at this link.  There are plenty of viable options.  A good monitor calibration system will help you adjust your monitor controls to their optimum levels and produce a color profile that will be stored on your computer’s hard drive and will load every time you boot your computer, adjusting your display accordingly.  You now have a consistent, reliable set of values upon which to depend.  You now have a predictable environment when making image adjustments using your RAW converter and image editing program of choice, and this covers brightness as well as color rendering.  Ideally, your monitor should be recalibrated monthly.

Printer Profiles

The next color management step is to acquire and implement a profile designed for the paper and printer model (if not your specific printer—more on that later) that you’re using.  The type of paper you use makes a major, major difference in terms of how color is rendered.  If you don’t believe this, try printing the same image on glossy and matte papers, without making any adjustments to the image itself and comparing the prints side-by-side.  That’ll make a believer out of you.

Much like a monitor profile, a printer profile is a small file that essentially includes color rendering instructions that are read by your printer, when specified in the program you use to produce prints.  In combination with a calibrated monitor, a good printer profile immeasurably eases the process of producing consistent printing results.

Most paper manufacturers produce what is known as stock (or canned) profiles that correspond to their papers, sometimes delineated by printer make and model.  Once upon a time, most of these canned profiles weren’t very accurate, but they’ve gotten significantly better over the years.  And they’re usually free of cost.  You may want to experiment with a canned profile to see whether that, along with a calibrated monitor, is providing you with adequate, consistent printing results.

If you find canned profiles insufficiently predictable for your use, you may want to invest in custom printer profiles.  These profiles are developed specifically based on sample results created with your printer.  There are services that will create custom profiles for you, or you can produce your own with the right equipment.  (There are some profile creation systems sold as part of monitor calibration packages; a few of them are at the above linked site.)  A custom printer profile is designed for a specific type of paper and your printer—not just your make and model, the actual unit you’re using.  Properly produced, a custom profile is peerless when it comes to providing reliable, predictable results and if you’re going to limit yourself to just a few types of paper, they’re easily (in my opinion) worth the modest expense of purchasing one.  If you use a lot of different types of paper and you want the reliability of custom profiles, you may find it to be most cost effective to invest in a system that will allow you to produce your own profiles, but be forewarned that there’s a learning curve involved with doing so.  (Also note that if your printer has a black & white printing mode, you’ll need a separate profile for each type of paper you use for both color and black & white printing.)

If you’re serious about printing and suffer the details of the process, I think you’ll find learning about and implementing color management solutions well worth your time.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday.  To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog:  Lightscapes Nature Photography.