What Your Mama Never Told You About Color Printing

This tutorial concerns color printing's Dirty Little Secret: that you can have a color managed monitor and still get prints that do not match what you see on your monitor. Of course, the print will never exactly match the monitor under the best of circumstances, but I've found that prints can be woefully underexposed. Great color, but underexposed. However, this does not occur all the time. When I send a file to AdoramPix or to West Coast Imaging, the prints come back very close to what they look like on my monitor.

AdoramaPix is an inexpensive, but good, color printing company run by Adorama, as the name implies. Unlike most inexpensive color printing sites, you can convert your files to their printer's profile, so you can work in a color managed environment. The main drawback to AdoramaPix is the 40MB file size limit, which is just too small for many of my files.

West Coast imaging is a high end color lab used by many professional photographers. The prints that I have received from WCI are stunning, and I do not need to make any file corrections prior to submitting the file to them. Calypso Imaging is another high profile color printing lab, used by the late Galen Rowell and other professional photographers. Calypso uses Lightjet printers, in contrast to WCI, which uses Chromira printers. However, the prints from Calypso will always be very dark compared to my monitor, unless I make corrections to the file as discussed below. In addition when I print from my own Epson R2880 using Epson's latest drivers/profiles, I also get the same degree of underexposure in the print that I get from Calypso's prints. So what the heck is going on?

I discussed this issue with a technician at Calypso Imaging. He said the problem was that the Lightjet made much darker blacks than monitors can reproduce, and that this leads to underexposure in the print. Maybe, but the blacks look pretty good to me on prints from WCI as well. I suspect that the difference is really in the color management systems used by the two companies.

Regardless of the cause of this underexposure problem with certain printers, there is a simple solution. Adjust the monitor's brightness level until it matches the brightness of the underexposed print. In my case, using my Samsung CRT (cathode ray tube, or old style) monitor, I adjusted the brightness level from 59 units down to 18 units. Then you can adjust the levels in the file until it is at the desired amount. The resulting print is usually right on.

The discussion above will not do you any good unless you are using a good monitor for printing and are working in a color managed environment.

Zion Moonrise

Zion Moonrise, from the Zion National Park portfolio, which can be found here.


The old style cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor is the best, affordable monitor for color printing by far. Unfortunately, they are very hard to find new. Some Amazon resellers have a 17" HP or Dell CRT monitors that are new. Forget about finding them at Best Buy or Fry's. The monitors sold at most large box stores these days will all be cheap LCD monitors that are not suitable for critical color printing. This is primarily because the brightness of the picture varies greatly with just a slight head movement. These inexpensive LCD monitors have a TN (twisted nematic) display type. Since all TN monitors have the same problem with viewing angles, they should not be used for color printing. Most all laptop computer screens are a TN display type as well. Not sure if your monitor is a TN or not? If you paid less than $800, odds are very high that it is a TN monitor. But the ultimate test is to see how the monitor performs as you change the viewing angle.

The types of LCD displays which can work well for color printing are S-IPS, used in Apple monitors, H-IPS used in the highly regarded NEC LCD2490WUXI (recently discontinued, but I assume the new LCD2490WUXI2 is very similar) or S-PVA displays, which are used by other manufacturers. These types of displays are discussed in more detail here. A very useful list of IPS type monitors can be found here. Be aware that the cheaper IPS models listed here have various problems, according to reviewers.

In summary, if you currently have a CRT monitor, keep it until it dies, unless you want to fork over $1000 or so for a good LCD monitor for color printing. If you need a new monitor and are on a budget, I would try to track down one of the new HP or Dell CRT models online.

Monitor Calibration

I am not going into details here regarding monitor calibration, as this topic is covered by many other websites. Suffice it to say, it is important that your monitor be adjusted to an international standard of color, brightness, and contrast for serious color printing. This can be done by rather inexpensive monitor calibration devices consisting of a colorimeter and a software package that guides you through the calibration process. I use the Monaco EZ Color system, which is no longer available. Other monitor calibrators are made by Datacolor or X-Rite, among others.