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Digital Photo Printing: Getting what you see on the screen to what you get on the print.

Posted on: 03-Oct-2007

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Mastering the Digital Darkroom
So you’ve mastered your digital camera and now you want to make fine art prints . . . or just prints that look like what you saw. Print making turns out to be one of the most frustrating parts of digital photography. An image can look great on your monitor and yet, washed out and flat on the print. The digital darkroom is also one of those rare places where the more you spend the worse things get. So this article is intended to speed you down the long path to getting high quality prints no matter what your application. I will take your through a series of levels so you get to where you need to be.
Level One: Everything image you shoot is in sRGB, you do no color adjustment when processing the image (including saturation), and your printer is a consumer grade photo printer. Consumer printers come reasonably well calibrated from the factory and as long as you are using the manufacturers inks and paper, you should get reasonably good results as long as you let the camera and printer do the work. The key is to avoid adjusting colors. Most importantly, are you happy with the output? If this is the case, spend no more and go no further.
Level Two: It looked perfect on the monitor, but awful on the print. Color problems usually start with images taken on grey days that wash out the color. So you boost the saturation in Photoshop to get it to where its right. My problem started with a picture of a tiger taken on just such a day. It wasn’t right on the print until the colors on my screen were hideous . . . and that was after lots of wasted prints. Most people think the printer has gone bad and waste their money buying a new one. The problem is not the printer, it’s because the monitor and the computer are not speaking the same color language.
Your computer only knows numbers. Pure red to you is 255,0,0 to it and that what it sends to your printer and your monitor. Consumer photo printers are calibrated (some professional grade printers are not, but that’s for later). The problem is that monitors are not calibrated. Most are over saturated. Plus because light shines through them rather than reflects off them, they will always appear brighter. So, the first thing to do is to print something and then open Adobe Photoshop™. From the drop down menus click on Edit\\Color Settings. Over on the right is a box called Advanced Settings. Click on that and you’ll see a box titled Advanced Controls with a check box and the label Desaturate Monitor Colors by ___%. Click on this and play with it until the level of saturation you see on the monitor comes reasonably close to matching what you see on the print.
Level Three: Still not happy? Then the next step is to buy a monitor calibration tool. Though there are others, I can recommend gregtagmacbeth’s Eye-One,.because that is what I use. The important thing is that these tools come with a colorimeter and software that sends a series of color signals to your monitor (say 255,0,0 from above to name one) which is measured directly off your screen by the colorimeter. Both are then compared. So lets say your monitor is really outputting 236,11, 28 to your eyes. The colorimeter sees this as well and the software creates a set of curves that inverse this so the monitor is displaying the correct color (monitors drift in time, so recalibrate whenever you have a problem or every month just to be safe).
Level Three: Want more? The next step in this process is to buy what’s called a Reference Monitor. These monitors are far more expensive, but they are designed to be accurate. You will still need to calibrate them, but the results will always be better than an average monitor. That said, most people have a hard time telling the difference between a reference monitor and a standard one, but as your eyes become more educated you will be able to tell the difference. This is especially true if you are doing product photography where colors have to be exact. It’s also true if you have an LCD. As for standard LCDs, I’ve had the best luck with Samsung and ViewSonic. For reference monitors, I can recommend LaCie and Eizo. Eizo even has an Adobe 1998 monitor. It’s the only one in the world, but it is amazing. You can get these for either the PC or Apple and they make a great improvement to you digital darkroom. Sony used to be the standard, with it’s Artisan. If you can find one, they are great too, but the software doesn’t work with 64 bit operating systems (be sure to check this with the others as well if you plan to upgrade someday).
Level Four: Want even more perfect color or want to use higher grade papers? The next step is start using profiles, which you’ll also need to learn if you are moving on to a professional level printer. You can start by simply downloading profiles for you paper and printer from the paper supplier. Look for ICC profiles. Follow the directions for installing them. When you print, use the print preview command. Click on page set-up and set your printer’s software to ‘no color adjustment’ and when you print. Go back to the print preview screen and the Options\\Color Handling box select ‘Let Photoshop Determine Colors’ then select the printer profile you installed.
By the way, I am assuming that if you have gotten this far, you have set Photoshop’s color preferences up to work in Adobe 1998 rather than sRGB. sRGB is a limited color space designed for the web and monitors. Your printer can image a color space that is well beyond this and Adobe 1998 maximized this.
Level Five: If you and exact match of your printer to the paper you are using, the next level is to profile your printer. Printers are generally fairly stable, so I use a professional service to handle this. To do it yourself, you’ll need a photo-spectrometer, which can set you back another one-to-two grand for a decent one. Another investment to make at this level is a RIP or Raster Image Processor. This replaces the one in your printer with a much more sophisticated computational engine for even more accurate color. If you’ve gone this far, you can open your own print service.
For more information on this, these three links will help you out:


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About weQuest:
weQuest's are written by G Dan Hutcheson, his career spans more than thirty years, in which he became a well-known as a visionary for helping companies make businesses out of technology. This includes hundreds of successful programs involving product development, positioning, and launch in Semiconductor, Technology, Medicine, Energy, Business, High Tech, Enviorntment, Electronics, healthcare and Business devisions.

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