We look at some common problems that can cause prints to look different from expectations, and provide some advice on how to fix them.

Anyone who prints their photos can look at situations when the prints coming from their printer didn’t look the way they expected. Sometimes, the reason is simple and easy to correct; at other times you need to put in more effort. This article addresses the most common problems people are likely to encounter and provides some possible solutions.

1. Prints appear too dark.

The main reason this occurs is because the brightness level on the computer monitor is too high. It’s common with newer monitors, many of which are designed for gaming and have their brightness levels set higher by default.

When the monitor’s brightness is set too high, you will adjust the image to make it look good on the screen. However, the resulting print will be too dark.

Bright monitors let you see more detail in shadowed areas and this will influence your editing adjustments. Unfortunately, when you print the image that looked good on the monitor and view it in normal lighting, it will usually appear dark.

If you take the print out into the bright sunlight, it may not look as bad. But since most prints will be viewed in indoor lighting, it should normally be printed to match those conditions.

The simplest solution is to reduce the brightness level of the monitor. But it’s often difficult to judge how much to reduce the brightness. The best solution is to calibrate the monitor to a known (and recommended) brightness level.

2. Printed colours are slightly off.

Suppose you adjust the image’s colour balance on your monitor until it looks really good but when you print the photo it has a slight magenta cast? You return to the screen and dial in a touch of green to counteract the excessive magenta, only to find it looks greenish.

Regardless of the price of the monitor, it’s impossible to adjust screens accurately by eye because human vision quickly becomes accustomed to colour casts and will ‘edit’ them out without you being aware of it. Calibrating your monitor is, once again, the best way to eliminate this problem.

Unless you have a correctly calibrated image to evaluate colour balance against, it is impossible to pick up the magenta colour cast shown in the left hand image, even though it is relatively strong.

With cheaper screens you may find it impossible to totally eliminate unwanted casts because the screen colours haven’t been properly set – and many cheaper screens are non-adjustable. More expensive screens are generally more accurately calibrated and much more adjustable. 

Proper calibration guarantees that the image shown on screen matches the numerical colour data saved in the digital file. Even a simple calibrator like the X-Rite ColorMunki Smile (available for less than $150) or slightly more expensive Datacolor Spyder 5 Express will provide objective measurements to help you eliminate unwanted color casts.

The standard colour temperature setting for graphic arts work is 5000°K (also known as D50). This is closest to neutral white and simulates common lighting conditions for reading printed materials. For images that will be viewed on screens, the default colour temperature of the sRGB colour space is 6500°K (also known as D65).

The main reason to set a white point is not so that it appears ‘white’ to our eyes but to match the white on screen to the white of the material and environment in which your photos will be viewed. Fine art papers tend to be warmer so it’s best to calibrate your display to a white point between 5000K and 5500K. Calibrating your display to K syncs your hardware to Adobe Photoshop’s default settings, which makes it easier to convert and/or apply colour profiles and see accurate results.

3. Your image editor is below par.

What software are you using to edit your images? While the basic editor included in your computer’s operating system may be fine for simple tasks like cropping, resizing, rotating and renaming, it won’t guarantee colour-accurate prints.

The basic image editor included in your computer’s operating system won’t provide the range of adjustments you need and won’t support colour management to ensure colour-accurate prints.

Most photo enthusiasts won’t need complex applications like Adobe’s Photoshop or Lightroom. Simpler programs like Photoshop Elements will provide all the adjustments you need and also support colour management for your printing workflow. 

Recently-released editors like Luminar, DxO PhotoLab, Affinity Photo and ON1 will also provide the necessary adjustments and colour management support. So will the freeware application GIMP, which recently received a major update, adding support for up to 32-bit images, multi-threaded processing and an updated user interface.

4. You’re using an office printer.

 While it’s quite possible to make acceptable- looking small prints with a normal office printer and ‘photo paper’, they simply aren’t designed for serious photo printing. For starters, most have only four inks: cyan, magenta, yellow and black.  You can’t reproduce the full subtlety of tones with such a limited ink set when using a consumer-level printer designed for document printing.

The upper image was printed  with a four-colour office printer with adjustments available through the settings menu. The lower image was printed with a desktop photo printer that uses eight ink colours. Note the differences in dynamic range and the reproduction of the colours.

Office printers also tend to be restricted to A4 and smaller output, which means you can’t make larger prints. Photographers who want high-quality printing should invest in a printer from Canon or Epson with an ink set containing at least six inks. Check out the printer reviews on the Photo Review website.

5. You’re using the wrong printer driver.

If you’re sending your images to a printer via an AirPrint or Wi-Fi connection there’s a chance that it won’t access the correct printer driver. While wireless printing might be fine for printing snapshots, if you want high-quality output you should use a wired connection when you are making large prints. 

The screen grabs above show the differences between a photo printer driver and an office printer driver. Wireless printing may prevent you from accessing the correct printer driver.

6. You’ve set the wrong colour profile.

Always check the paper profile before committing to a print to make sure the profile matches the type of paper you’ve loaded. Canon and Epson provide ‘canned’ profiles to match each of their papers. If you’re printing on matte paper, make sure a matte paper profile is selected. If on lustre paper, choose a lustre profile. 

Photographers who print on larger (A3+or A2) papers often buy papers with different brands, such as Hahnemuehle, Canson and Ilford. These  paper suppliers provide free printer-specific profiles with their papers and make them available for downloading. You can check the profile in the Colour Management dialog box in your editing software.

7. You’re using cheap inks and papers.

You can’t expect consistent colours and durable prints if  you use cheap third party inks or get your paper from a discount store. The quality of the materials you use will make a huge difference to both the appearance of your prints and how long they last. 

Print durability expert, Wilhelm Imaging Research provides a downloadable guide to what can happen when you use cheap inks. It’s available in PDF format free of charge from www.bit.ly/pr77-wilhelm.

Results from the aging tests conducted by Wilhelm Imaging Research. The top row shows how prints made with the printer manufacturer’s inks can withstand the effects of time, compared with cheap, third-party inks (shown below), which show signs of fading within two years. (Source:  Wilhelm Imaging Research.)

8. You have unrealistic expectations.

It’s impossible to get the image to look exactly how you want it on screen and then replicate it in a print because the differences in dynamic range are simply too great. Screens and prints use entirely different technologies with widely differing dynamic ranges.

Basically, screens emit light while prints reflect it. Screens also cover a much wider range of brightness than paper prints. The screens on computers, TV sets and portable devices generally support a dynamic range at least 10x greater than the best photo printing paper. Their typical contrast ratio is between 1000:1 and 3000:1, whereas printing papers average approximately 100:1.

Interestingly, human eyes can actually encompass a dynamic contrast ratio of about 1,000,000:1 (equivalent to the difference between starlight and brilliant sunlight). But it takes approximately 30 minutes to adjust for the change in brightness levels, as the iris has to contract with increasing brightness and chemical changes occur in the retina, where the light is collected.

Under normal conditions, our eyes have a static contrast ratio of around 100:1 when vision is fixed on a single subject. Consequently, a print provides a natural balance of bright and dark tones that requires no special effort to view. With a print, the brightest white is the paper, while the blackest black depends on the ink used and how it appears on the paper.

When printing your aim is to fit the dynamic range of the image you see on your screen into the much smaller one of a print. You won’t get a perfect fit but you can achieve something that is close enough to look attractive.

Choosing the ‘right’ paper can make a great photo look great (although it won’t save an indifferent image). Glossy papers can encompass a wider dynamic range than matte papers and are therefore preferable when printing images where you want to preserve as much as possible of the original’s dynamic range. Matte papers work best for images with subtle and subdued tones.

Soft Proofing can simulate how an image will look when printed on different types of paper. But you must be aware that it provides an approximation of how the image will print.  The screen can NOT replicate the print’s tonality.

9. Your images aren’t good enough.

To obtain attractive, vibrant prints you need printable images. Too many photographers keep looking for ‘better’ papers because their prints fail to meet expectations, instead of investigating deep-seated issues in their print workflow.

Each print workflow extends from capture to output. If your images aren’t printing correctly there’s likely to be a problem somewhere along that path.

Start by looking at how well the image is exposed. Have you recorded details in both highlights and shadows? Are the intermediate tones evenly distributed? How well are adjacent tones separated? Are the important parts of the subject sharp?

Some photographs simply aren’t worth printing because the subject matter is uninteresting, the framing doesn’t do anything to improve it, the shot isn’t correctly exposed and/or it’s not worth the effort required to improve it with editing. This shot ticks most of these boxes.

If you start with an excellent original, there’s no reason why your print shouldn’t be just as attractive. But unless you understand your entire workflow, you are just guessing where the problem lies.

10. Know when to quit.

Sometimes a particular photo just doesn’t look good as a print. If you’ve checked all the issues listed above and still haven’t found a solution, then the problem isn’t with the printing, printer, paper or ink.

Some images that look great on a screen rely upon their dynamic range and vibrant colours for their impact. This is particularly true with photos taken with cameraphones, which have been set up to produce images for screen viewing. 

When you find one of your images doesn’t make a nice print, accept it, learn from it and move on. Don’t be tempted to apply repeated edits or tricks, filters and presets. No adjustments can make a mundane image interesting.

With experience, you will learn what types of images are worthwhile printing and begin to take more printable photographs. One fact worth remembering is that very few people will notice your choice of paper. Their response to a picture depends upon what the photograph is about, and what it means to them. 

Article by Margaret Brown –  see Margaret’s photography pocket guides  

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 77

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