Images Look Darker in Print Than They Do on Your Monitor

and they always will. It’s an unavoidable reality.

The reason for this has little to do with color management, inks, paper surfaces, device profiles, or any other adjustment-related issue. The simple fact is that your monitor’s white is illuminated by a projected light source and the white of your paper print is illuminated by reflected light. This tone range difference takes its most egregious toll on the darker parts of the image; the three-quarter tones. The very tones that get slighted by your camera’s image sensor are also the most vulnerable in print.

As I often claim, detail is a product (result) of contrast. Contrast is the measured difference between two tones. On the printed page, this statement has to be further clarified… detail is determined by the perceived difference between two tones. Here’s the visible proof behind the statement.

ShadowTone Adjustment

Consider the visual extremes (light vs. dark) of both of these media vehicles- paper and the computer display for the moment. In the case of pictures in print, the white of the printed substrate (usually paper) is determined by the whiteness of the paper and the strength of the light reflecting from the unprinted part of the paper. The darkest color (usually a multi-color, composite black) of the print is determined by the density (or light-absorbing) opacity of the colorant (usually ink).

The computer display plays the contrast game by a completely different set of rules. While the black of the monitor does have its opacity limitations, the white illuminate of the display is limited only by the brightness of the (typically) LED (light emitting diode) elements; which in turn are affected by the brightness or gain dialed in by you, the user. Brightness directly affects contrast. With more light comes more potential contrast, and where there is contrast, there is detail.

Which system do you suppose displays the most contrast? Duh!

As a color separator in the litho trade, I faced this same type of problem when reproducing images from photographic prints versus photographic transparencies. It was always easier to capture detail from a transparency than from a print. In technical terms, a printed page typically measures a reflective contrast of 1.7 points of density, while a transparency can display upwards of 3.8 points of density, depending on the strength of the backlit light source. More dynamic range produces more steps (bits in digital lingo) in the tonal scale and thus more detail. With digital images, the spread is even higher. When prints are compared to LED displays, the contrast ratio is huge on the display but remain the same for print.

You simply cannot pour enough light onto a page to bring the reflected brightness to the level of a projected display, just like you cannot dial down the brightness of the display to match the normal contrast of a printed picture. It’s apples and peanuts anyway you “look” at it. The two methods of viewing a picture are simply, fundamentally, and totally different.

THIS is why you can see detail in the darker portions of a displayed image that you just cannot see in the printed version of the picture. The contrast ratio visible in print is simply not in the same league as your backlit computer display. It is woefully insufficient.

ShadowTone Adjustment2_1

So, what can be done to close this light range gap? Can you do anything to improve the detail in the darker portions of the image? Absolutely. But you must 1) recognize that this issue exists, and 2) you must learn how to effectively compensate the tonal range for the difference. You can make a significant difference in your printed images by taking the same actions that we litho folks have done for decades… you have to learn to shape the internal contrast of the images before they go to print, and that includes your inkjet.

Remember that camera image sensors record light linearly, one photon at a time, but your eyes/brain perceive light quite differently. Camera images record light with a serious bias toward the lighter side of the tone scale (an area we call quarter tones), while recording very little data in the darker portion of the tone range (the three-quarter tones). The result in print is almost always a lack of detail in the darkest parts of the image. When this lack of data is combined with the print’s lower contrast ratio, shadow detail takes the hit.

Tone Region ControlsHere’s the secret to maintaining detail in the darker (3/4) portions of your image. Slide the Shadows slider to the right. How much to adjust the image will vary with each image. Low key images will require more adjustment than full range images. Learning to adjust your images to print all available detail is critical for serious photographers. Pay attention to separating tones in the darker parts of the image where detail can be buried when printed.

Think about it!

Please leave a comment.  If you find this worthwhile, please share it with your friends and sign up for more. This ain’t rocket science, but it is information that is many times overlooked (and sometimes overstated). Take some time to get back to the basics and your photographic results will give evidence that you did.

That’s the way I sees it. If you have an argument with this position, take it to a higher court! In the mean time, sign up (above right) to get personal notices of future posts. You can’t beat the price.

I enjoy speaking to schools, photo clubs and organizations every month presenting programs on digital photography, post production, and color science. If you’d like me to speak to your group, drop me a line.

If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, go to http://gottaknowvideos.com and get Bright About Light!

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color video series at Gotta Know Videos.com.
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9 Responses to Images Look Darker in Print Than They Do on Your Monitor

  1. Blanche Stevens says:

    I have often wondered why the prints are darker, and I have been frustrated by it. I look forward to finding out how to adjust the tonal contrast in the quarter tones.

    • Herb Paynter says:

      Thanks for the comment/question Blanche. Two gremlins make the shadow tones print darker. One is the reflective-vs-transmissive lighting of paper and the other is the color/absorbance of the paper fiber. A little boost in lighting helps a lot. The quarter tones are affected by the relationship between the “Whites” slider and the “Highlights” slider. Separating those two tonal areas will deliver more detail on the high end of the image.

  2. Cudos Herb!
    Great explanation.
    Carol Orr Hartman fine art photography
    Cape Coral, Florida

    • Herb Paynter says:

      I appreciate your comment Carol. The shadow tones are the Achilles heel of the print process and need some special “love” to deliver that detail.

  3. David says:

    Wow, what a great post – love this stuff! I have worked to find that happy middle-ground – adjusting 1 file that looks good on screen and also looks good in print. Tricky and maybe depending on the image not always possible . . . a compromise on one side or the other. Also, never thought of it as quarters. Very interesting. Great article!

    • Herb Paynter says:

      Thanks David. Working with the pre-press end of image reproduction for many years taught me to address images in segments; three points (highlight- midpoint- shadow) and tone regions (quarter tone, mid tone, and three quarter tone). Each can be set/adjusted as needed. You might consider setting an adjustment layer for the shadow adjustment just for a print version of your file.

      • David says:

        That is a great point. If an image is worth adjusting, having an adjustment layer for a print version that applied as needed is brilliant. Honestly, I guess if we need an image to look right in different places (web vs. print) we have to export different files for each use. (You’ve probably written about this – I’m going to have to search!) All the best.

  4. danny izzo says:

    Great post, Herb. No different than in film days when we had to explain why prints looked darker than transparencies.

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