How to Get Print and Monitor Colors in Sync for Great Digital Photos

By Julie Adair King

Aside from poor picture quality, the number-one printing complaint is that colors on the computer monitor don’t match the ones that show up in print. When this problem occurs, most people assume that the printer is to blame, but in fact the most likely culprit is the monitor. If the monitor isn’t accurately calibrated, the colors it displays aren’t a true reflection of your image colors.

To ensure that the monitor is displaying photos on a neutral canvas, you can start with a software-based calibration utility, which is just a small program that guides you through the process of adjusting the monitor. The program displays various color swatches and other graphics and then asks you to provide feedback about what you see on the screen.

Both the Windows and Mac operating systems offer built-in calibration programs. If you use a Mac, look in the Displays section of the System Preferences dialog; the utility is called Display Calibrator Assistant. Windows 7 and 10 offer a similar tool named Display Color Calibration.

Software-based calibration isn’t ideal, however, because people’s eyes aren’t that reliable in judging color accuracy. For a more accurate calibration, you may want to invest in a device known as a colorimeter, which you attach to or hang on your monitor, to accurately measure and calibrate the display

Companies such as Datacolor and X-Rite sell this type of product along with other tools for ensuring better color matching. Here is the X-Rite ColorMunki Smile, for example, which has a suggested retail price of $109. As shown in the image, some products work with both laptop and desktop monitors, and some companies even offer tools designed for calibrating tablets. (Check the product specs to ensure compatibility with your screen and your computer or tablet’s operating system.)

colorimeter
Courtesy of X-Rite, Incorporated For precise monitor calibration, invest in a colorimeter such as the ColorMunki Display from X-Rite.

Whichever route you go, the calibration process produces a monitor profile, which is a data file that tells your computer how to adjust the display to compensate for any monitor color casts. Your Windows or Mac operating system loads this file automatically whenever you start your computer. Your only responsibility is to perform the calibration every month or so, because monitor colors drift over time.

If your monitor is calibrated, color-matching problems may be caused by any of these other, secondary issues:

  • One of the print nozzles or heads is empty or clogged. Check the manual to find out how to perform the necessary maintenance to keep the nozzles or print heads in good shape.
  • You chose the wrong paper setting in your printer software. When you set up the print job, be sure to select the right setting from the paper-type option — glossy, matte, and so on. This setting affects how the printer lays down ink on the paper.

Some paper manufacturers provide ICC profiles, which are small data files that help your printer and computer better translate your image colors to the specific paper you’re using. (ICC stands for International Color Consortium, the group that developed the universal color translator on which this system is based.) After you download and install the profiles, you should see the related paper types in the list of options in your printer settings dialog box.

If you’re using paper made by the printer manufacturer, though, you don’t usually have to take this step; the profiles are automatically added when you install the printer software during initial setup.

  • Your printer and photo software are fighting over color-management duties. Some photo programs offer features that enable the user to control how colors are handled as an image passes from camera to monitor to printer. Most printer software also offers color-management features. The problem is, if you enable color-management controls in both your photo software and your printer software, you can create conflicts that lead to wacky colors.

Unless you’re schooled in color management, let your printer handle things. However, it’s wise to do a few test prints to see whether results are better when you hand the job to your photo software. Check your photo software and printer manuals to find out the color-management options available to you and how to turn them on and off.

Even if all the aforementioned issues are resolved, however, don’t expect perfect color matching between printer and monitor. Printers simply can’t reproduce the entire spectrum of colors that a monitor can display. In addition, monitor colors always appear brighter because they are, after all, generated with light.

Finally, be sure to evaluate print colors and monitor colors in the same ambient light — daylight, office light, whatever — because that light source has its own influence on the colors you see. If your prints will be displayed in a gallery, you also should make sure that colors look good in whatever lighting the gallery uses. Ditto for prints you hang in your own home, of course.