Printing Photos: How to Match the Look on Your Screen

by Barrett

Quick… What are these six colors? Now print them. If you can’t make your home photo printer spit out a matching copy, you’re not alone. But don’t throw out your printer just yet. There’s still hope.

Quick… What are these six colors? Now print them. If you can’t make your home photo printer spit out a matching copy, you’re not alone. But don’t throw out your printer just yet. There’s still hope.

A friend of mine complained to me recently she finds it impossible to print a picture from her computer and match what’s on her screen.

Whether it’s from the original JPEG photo on your camera or a slightly enhanced version that you’ve tweaked in your photo editing software…
The hard copy never looks the same!

How hard can it be?!
Difficult enough for this home-tech everyman to struggle with the same problem.

I usually avoid the issue by boosting the chroma and brightness of the photo I’m about to create, because my Epson Artisan 837 typically prints it looking a little flat by comparison.

But it’s still never perfect.

Shouldn’t this seemingly simple task be WYSIWYG?

Then, we could move on to the next home tech challenge.
So what’s the problem?

$99 Can’t Buy a Window to the Soul
First off, reproducing color is complicated.
And it turns out the sensors in our eyes are really hard to replicate.

All of today’s remarkable technology that displays or prints a photograph can’t reproduce every shade of color Mother Nature gave the puny human race to enjoy.
(especially if it’s a $99 photo printer)

Each device has its own limited range of color representation or “gamut.”

Even Apple says it’s a hard trick to pull off.
Here’s a little quote I found buried in one of Apple’s printing support pages-
“Because computer displays are illuminated, images displayed on computers will tend to look more luminous than when printed.”

So my friend and I aren’t alone in our quest for a printed photo that actually looks the way we want it to.

(I feel so much better.)

Why Your Photo Prints Don’t Look Right

There are three main factors that contribute to this pesky problem:

#1 – RGB Vs. CMYK
Today, much of your home technology puts color together using two very different color models.

  • Your computer screen uses an RGB color model:
  • Many home printers use inks that follow the CMYK color model:
    Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Key (black)

So how does one color language talk to the other?
Through translation, of course.
(more on this in a moment)

My Epson Artisan has four CMYK ink cartridges, plus a light cyan and a light magenta cartridge
(which would seem to make the color translation from my computer to printer even more confusing!)

And to further complicate matters, many CMYK ink printers actually operate in RGB mode.

So how many levels of color translation do you have to get through before your printer even starts its dance?
(That’s a rhetorical question.)

#2 – Your Monitor Is Part of the Problem
Yes, it may not be your printer’s fault at all.

Your monitor may not be perfectly adjusted.
In fact, it probably isn’t.

So if that’s the case, your fabulous looking picture will always look different everywhere else in the universe, including on your prints.
(And what good is that?)

All computer monitors and TVs natively display their images with slight or sometimes significant differences.
And to make the problem worse, their base color and luminance levels will drift over time as they age.

Unsupervised, your computer screen will continue to display its own evolving versions of reality.
So it’s up to you to teach your display how it should look.
(more on that in a moment)

#3 – Your Computer Is From Venus. Your Printer Is from Mars.
Back to the translation question…
How does your computer translate its RGB color road map to your CMYK photo printer?

ICC Profiles
Back in 1993, some big-brain folks tackled the translation problem.
They created the ICC, which stands for International Color Consortium.
(Sounds a bit like S.H.I.E.L.D. from “The Avengers.”
Keeping the world safe from out-of-control color. Ooooh!!)

The ICC developed a vendor-neutral color management system (CMS) that would work across operating systems and software.
The resulting ICC profiles allow for matching colors when moving between applications, operating systems and devices.

And this system is supposed to match the colors between your monitor and printer.
This sounds really complicated, right?

Apple Simplifies with ColorSync
So Apple, of course, came up with its own color management system and called it “ColorSync.”

This is how Apple explains it:
“Devices such as scanners, displays, digital cameras, and printers each handle color differently. Matching color from one device to another can be extremely difficult and time-consuming. ColorSync takes care of color matching automatically.”

Now, that’s not so hard to understand, is it?

So ColorSync is Apple’s own color management system that interprets the different ICC profiles assigned to your devices.

Perfection Is an Art, Not a Science
So arithmetically, the translation piece is handled behind the scenes by your friends from S.H.I.E.L.D. (I mean Apple)
…while you go about your life happily printing out photos of your cat.

But as we all know, in reality, nothing is ever truly automatic.
You’ve got to help the process along if you want it to work exactly right.

Here’s What You Can Do to Help:

#1 – Calibrate Your Display
Even Apple admits, “You should calibrate your display regularly to ensure accurate color.”

There are two ways to whip your computer monitor into shape.
Control it with software tweaks or hit it hard with hardware.

Display Calibrator Assistant
Apple’s OS X offers a calibration assistant utility that can be found buried in:
System Preferences/Displays/Color
Click the ‘Calibrate’ button, which then opens up the utility.

And how good is this software ‘assistant?’
Invoking a little Jekyll and Hyde, I decided to take a dose of my own medicine and tried out the Display Calibrator Assistant on my 2010 iMac.

The experience felt uncomfortably like a recent trip to the eye doctor.
(“Does this lens make you see sharper and blacker, or blurrier and more confused about your home tech?”)

But in a few minutes, I had easily created a new display profile that was slightly different that my default iMac screen profile.
It was a bit warmer with a tad more chroma.

But was this an improvement, or simply a color shift in the wrong direction?
Who really knows?!

And that’s the problem.

I suppose if your monitor looked way off, this utility would be more helpful.
But if you’re looking for minute improvements, there’s really no way to confirm the veracity of your results.

So ‘eye-balling it’ can only get you so far.

Spin the Web of Control with a Spyder
Your other choice is to buy a third-party software/hardware solution.
Typically, you place a sensor device over your monitor and then do the adjustments from your computer.
(Kind of like forcing your computer screen to comply via an
“Alien” facehugger.)

A friend of mine, who is a graphic designer and animator, bought
the Spyder by Datacolor a year ago, and swears by it.
Currently, there are three flavors of Spyder display calibrators on the market:

If you only need to calibrate one monitor, the Express version seems perfectly adequate. (I may splurge on this cool device in the future, if I want to explore further down this rabbit hole.)

But unless your monitor is clearly the smoking gun, you should also focus on other solutions to the printing dilemma…

#2 – Use ColorSync Utility
This is another native color adjustment utility in your Mac that checks and adjusts the ColorSync profiles automatically assigned to your devices.

I’d never opened up this utility before, and I took a peak in researching this post.
If your photo printing capabilities have really imploded, this is a good place to do some research.
But unless you’re really in trouble, I would steer clear of messing with this utility.
(It looks like a huge time suck!)

#3 – Choose Your Printing Presets
This is where you should focus your efforts after you’re done dealing with your monitor.
You may not know this, but the limited powers you yield as a mere tech mortal suddenly reveal themselves after you select ‘Print.’
Here, you’ll find the more pedestrian adjustments that you may or may not be applying correctly.

The ‘Presets’ dropdown allows you to choose the type of paper you’re using.
Your choices will depend on the printer driver you’re using.

Most importantly, select the exact type of paper you’re using.
If you have the option of buying your printer’s branded paper product-
Just do it! (Different brands of paper absorb ink in their distinct ways.)
It can make a huge difference if you’re hoping for exact results.

#4 – The Holy Grail of Color Matching
Color Matching allows you to select between two important choices:

• Whether your printer should use the color profile assigned by your Mac’s ColorSync settings
• Or a generic color profile assigned by your printer, which you can then adjust

If you’re a believer in what your monitor is showing you, go with ColorSync and don’t look back!

Otherwise, you can go with your printer’s brain.
But be prepared to suffer the fate of endless tweaking.
(You’d better have extra ink and paper on hand.)

You can locate the Color Matching option in the third or fourth drop-down in the Print menu. (depending on what program you’re printing from)
Choose your ColorSync profile that includes your printer model and paper type.

From there, all that voodoo digital translation takes place that hopefully creates an accurate hard-copy replica of what’s on your screen.

Misinformation Courtesy of Your Friendly Luddite?
I know a bunch of big brains out there are shaking their heads right about now after reading my woefully inadequate diatribe on the world of color photo printing at home.

Hey, I’m just trying to get along here.
I’m not seeing the button that says
“Click here to print the perfect photo.”

Because it’s not there.
And there’s no official manual out there to follow.

That said, if anyone out there knows an easier way out of this prickly digital forest, I’m all ears!

The Quest for the Perfect Print: Don’t Forget to Pack a Lunch
How are you doing? Any of this making any sense?
(I barely understand it!)
I feel like I just consumed an eight course meal, and I’m still hungry!

After 1703 words, I’m not sure how much closer we are to creating the perfect photo print.

But we are closer.
(And don’t you feel better knowing S.H.I.E.L.D. is on your side?)

Remember, reproducing color is complicated.

So it’s okay if this is all digital voodoo to you.
Just rely on the automated ColorSync system,
plus your few manual (but important) tweaks in the Print menu to improve your photo’s look.

For the intrepid tech rebels out there, you are free to dig deeper down the rabbit hole in search of the truth to set your printer free.

But be warned:
The Spyder4 may not be enough to help your find your Tech Zen.
For starters, you’ll need to better understand the language of color.
Like what the word Gamma refers to.

Heck, you might even have to ignore everything I’ve said and instead begin a long and rewarding journey to other blogs containing their own
tried-and-true recipes for correct monitor color calibration.

Which will in turn will reveal little known
websites that display LCD reference images
you can use to perfect your calibration process even further.

Second Warning:
Be prepared for this quest to be a long and hazardous one.
Before you know it, the year could be 2019.

Let me know when you return from your deep space voyage.
I’m sticking with the digital voodoo.

My photo prints won’t be perfect.
But they’ll be close.

And At Home with Tech,
Close is often just perfect.