Why your prints don’t look their best (and how to fix them)

One of the best pieces of advice I could give to any aspiring photographer, after “A photo’s not a photo until you can hold it in your hand,” runs as follows: “Every imaging sensor will produce color which is different from every monitor which is different from every printer which is different from every scanner.”

Unless you’re incredibly lucky, part of your learning process is bound to include a phase where prints just won’t come out right. In fact, thanks to tools designed to correct common “snapshot” problems and make them pop, you might even find that the quality of your print output decreases as you start taking better photographs, as you’ve eliminated the problems that are automatically correctable but haven’t quite gotten your editing process dialed in. One of the biggest culprits is the problem outlined in the quote (or warning) above. If you don’t know how to anticipate the differences introduced throughout your process, you won’t know how to get consistent results!

There are many possible pitfalls between lining up the shot and the final print, of course, not just inadequate monitoring equipment. Here are a few ways to improve your process. Keep at it, and pretty soon you’ll be getting great results every time!

The simplest solution


This one step will save you an indescribable amount of headache. Not only is a backlit screen inherently going to seem brighter than the reflective surface of a print, most monitors are extra-bright and very high-contrast by default. I’m not blaming the manufacturers—the reason they do that is that it makes most things look amazing—but if you compare your iPhone screen’s display to a print of the same image, you’re probably going to be disappointed. (We hear “Why doesn’t it look like it does on my phone?” on a very regular basis.) In an ideal scenario, you can print an unedited test print and adjust your brightness to approximately match under the the actual lighting conditions which will be used for display, but even if you just drop your brightness down 30% or 40% with no test print, you’ll find your print and display to be much more similar. (This is certainly no substitute for true calibration, but it’s the baseline for what everyone should do.)

The best solution

If you don’t want to mess around with quick fixes, take our masterclass in fine art printing, taught by our very own custom imaging specialists. Tuition includes a two-hour seminar so chock-full of info your dreams will be calibrated, a hands-on workshop to help you cement the knowledge, and your very own ColorMunki Display so you can keep all of your monitors in check. In addition to the calibration device (normally $169.99), you’ll go home with three 13×19 fine art prints (over a $120 value) and an 8 GB flash drive containing the course material for your continued reference and a library of ICC profiles for all the papers we use. Skip straight from puzzlement to prowess: click here to register!

More tips for pro prints

Calibrate your monitor

This one should be pretty obvious by now, but it bears repeating. A true calibration device like these will adjust your display so that it’s presenting colors in a way consistent with a true-to-life standard, and using one will make a world of difference. If you’re not sure you’re serious about your prints yet, both Windows 10 and OS X provide very basic built-in basic calibration tools.

Windows 10: Open the Control Panel. Open Color Management, then go to the Advanced tab. Click the “Calibrate display” button (you may need administrative privileges), then follow the on-screen instructions.

OS X: Open System Preferences, then Displays. Go to the Color tab in the Displays window, making sure that you’ve selected the correct display if you have multiple. (The window will also need to be displayed on the display which you are calibrating.) Click the “Calibrate” button, check the “Expert Mode” option, and follow the on-screen instructions.

The built-in tools won’t be as effective as a hardware calibration device (especially color-wise), but you’ll be another step up from simply lowering your brightness.

Check your settings (all of them)

Do you have the latest driver installed for your printer? Have you told it which kind of paper you’re using, and to print at the highest quality? That box that comes up between hitting ⌘/Ctrl-P and confirming “Print” has a multitude of settings, and you need to make sure that they’re all set correctly to achieve maximum print quality. (The type of paper, for example, will determine how much ink will be necessary to achieve a set standard of density, depending on how absorbent it is.) With the correct driver, you’ll be able to fine-tune your printer’s settings. Spend some time with each menu item until you know exactly what they all control!

Use the correct ICC profile

While this could technically be a part of “correct settings,” using the correct ICC profile is worth its own mention. These profiles define a specific color gamut, as defined by the International Color Consortium. Just as displays are limited to displaying a specific range of colors, printers are only capable of producing color within a specific gamut and varying papers are only capable of retaining colors within a certain gamut. Your printer driver will adjust to its own printer’s gamut, but you need to provide a profile for the specific paper type as well to make sure that you’re not attempting to print anything that won’t work. With a properly defined gamut, colors out of its range will be adjusted to look as correct as possible, but without a properly defined gamut, the out-of-range colors will print incorrectly (if at all).

Use a high-quality picture

The hardest problem to fix, at least emotionally, is a picture that simply isn’t good enough to print as well as you want it to. It only takes the tiniest focus miss or hand shake to keep a photo from being printable at any decent size. You also need a lot more resolution on a print than you do on-screen; at-size PPI should be a minimum of 150 or 300, depending on the type of printer. Especially if you crop the photo, it can take a lot of pure megapixelage to stay crisp. You can get away with a little more on a textured surface like canvas, which can mask inadequacies, but be prepared in your photographic journey to let some photos go. Remember Arthur Quiller-Couch’s oft-requoted advice about writing: “Murder your darlings.

Keep your expectations “in the moment”

At the end of the day, no matter what you do, you can never make a print that looks exactly like your screen. You can, however, manage your process so that you get the results you expect. Our class will bring you down the path to mastery much faster than figuring it out on your own, but either way the final steps will require a lot of trial and error. Because display conditions like lighting and contrast (with mats, with walls, with other art…) will introduce unique factors to every print, you’ll have to stay flexible, and the best thing for your confidence is lots of practice. Keep good records of how specific edits influence your final prints and (whether we print them or you do) eventually you’ll have a very effective understanding of how you can achieve the results you want, consistently.

Good luck on your quest for the best prints you can make, and remember that our imaging specialists are always available for personal consultation to help you get there!

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