Matching your Monitor to your Prints

» Posted on February 25 2010 in Calibration

Getting your monitor to accurately reflect what a print will look like is one of the most important parts of digital photography.

Our lab has been printing digital images since 1999 and we have just about seen it all: Adobe 98 images that won’t print properly on a Fuji Frontier; improperly tagged profiles; flat out horrible color and density; and more images shot with the wrong white balance than you can shake a stick at. But that was then and this is now, and things have changed quite a bit, and getting a print that looks like what you see on a monitor now is not that hard to do as long as you keep a few things in mind.

Use a Quality Monitor that is Known to Display Colors Accurately

Your monitor is one of the most crucial pieces of the color accuracy puzzle, so spend some time researching what others have found to be good monitors - there are tons of articles out there about this, with some great recommendations. Sure, some of them are for totally amazing Eizo monitors that are out of your budget (some Eizos are affordable), but there are also highly rated monitors by Dell, Samsung and others that are surprisingly affordable. I was just looking at a 19” Samsung 943T LCD that was $250 new (I think it has been discontinued though), which others have said is an excellent monitor for color accuracy. Finding recommendations for a good monitor is as simple as googling “photoshop monitor”.

What about laptops? well, we do not use any laptops for color correcting - we have calibrated them and they are much better than they were out of the box, but they are still no where near as good as they should be - shadow detail/density is impossible to judge for one. Our guess is that your particular laptop monitor is not going to give you a very accurate display of color in your images.

Calibrate your Monitor!

Once you have a good monitor, the next step is to properly calibrate it. This is critical as most monitors sold are for the general public who is either playing video games, surfing the web or using MS Office - and these users want lots of contrast and punchy colors. The average Apple Cinema Display comes with the brightness and contrast pumped all the way up, which is great if your are playing the latest and greatest video game, but horrible if you are using that to judge your images. A properly calibrated monitor usually looks kind of dull and flat. Once you open up a good image it will look great.

Your Monitor Viewing Environment

Having a good calibrated monitor is a huge step in the right direction as far as color accuracy is concerned, but don’t forget your viewing environment. Some people say to work in a dark room, which we think is not necessary, but better than a brightly lit room for sure. We prefer a middle ground - the lights are on, but not direct; there are no bright back lit things in the background, and we use hoods on our monitors to cut down on any glare or direct ambient light on the monitor itself. Whatever you do, keep it consistent.

Here again is a big problem with laptops - you can easily move them around, which changes your lighting environment. So maybe your laptop works well at home in your office, but take it on location and your lighting environment will totally change, and likely your accuracy will changes as well. One other big problem with laptops is that they generally change the brightness of the display based on whether you are plugged in or running on batteries. This is not good!

Viewing Prints

This is one of the hardest parts - where you view the print will likely change what you think the print looks like… so if you are outside in bright sunlight, prints will look different than if you look at them in a room by candle light - yes, an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. Our prints are made to be viewed under neutral lighting conditions, which in reality is pretty much impossible. The best you can really hope for is some sort of mixed light. Not too much fluorescent light, not too much incandescent light etc. So keep this in mind also when comparing prints to your monitor.

Paper Whiteness

One thing that is often over looked when comparing an image on a monitor with a print is the paper whiteness achievable by the print. Different prints are made on different types of paper, each with their own best possible “white”. Then think of your monitor and what it thinks white is - a bright glowing lightsource. If your monitor thinks white is pure white yet your paper is slightly off white then how will you judge the accuracy of your prints? For this reason, if you can get a sample white print for your primary paper you might try to set your monitor brightness and contrast to match this (open a document in photoshop that is a pure white image and use that to compare to the paper white) - do this before calibrating your monitor.

Color Space - sRGB, Adobe 98 or ProPhoto RGB?

The color space you used when sending your images to the lab for prints used to be critical - the first real work flow for labs printing digital prints was not color managed, and assumed all images were sRGB. This worked as long as the images were sRGB, but if they were Adobe 98, it failed miserably. These days, most labs including our own are fully color managed and can handle just about any file as long as it has the profile embedded. Now it is important to understand the printers themselves have a color space most similar to sRGB. So while our lab can handle an Adobe 98 image no problem, the reality is the image will look the same as if it was sent as sRGB - the larger color space of Adobe 98 will not be able to be reproduced on a photographic print simply because the paper and light source are not capable of creating it. So what does this mean? If your work flow is set up for Adobe 98 or ProPhoto RGB, feel free to send your files with those profiles embedded, your prints will look great. That said, we still recommend that you use sRGB because it is closest to what the color space of a photographic print is (traditional chemically developed photo paper that is). Also, the web is sRGB only for the most part. So if two of the main mediums are tied to sRGB, the extra color info in Adobe 98 is not all the useful. There is more to it than this simple explanation, but you get the gist of it. Adobe 98, ProPhoto RGB, sRGB… they are all fine when sending images to the lab for prints, just keep in mind that the printer itself is closest to sRGB.