Why Published Images Will Look Different than Inkjet Prints. Part 1

A four-part post on preparing images for publication.

It is a known fact that images viewed on computer monitors don’t always match what comes out of desktop printers. This is because the color pixels captured by digital cameras are defined quite differently than pixels portrayed on the computer monitor and the monitor’s pixels differ quite significantly from the inkjet patterns that are literally sprayed onto the paper.

Laser Dots and Inkjet Spots

Color halftone dots (left) and Inkjet spots (right)

Inkjet, Halftone, Monitor Cells

Digital pixels (left), Halftone dots (center), and Monitor pixels (right)

But do you know that images that are printed on inkjet printers usually don’t deliver the same appearance when printed in publications? This is quite true, but why?

The answer to this mystery eludes many of today’s magazine publishers and even many publication printers. This is a problem that the digital imaging community (photographers, image editors, and pre-press operators) have struggled with for decades. Color Management Professionals (CMPs) undergo rigorous color science studies to understand how to maintain the same look in color images that are reproduced on different substrates and a variety of printing processes. Since you may want to produce your images in print, we’ll look at a synopsis of what the challenges are and some surefire ways to produce the results you’re looking for.


Original image (left), Digital pixels (middle), Halftone dots (right). View these images from a distance of 7-10 feet away to see the visual illusion of similarity.

Viva le difference.

The inkjet printing process is completely different from the print reproduction process. As a matter of fact, the two systems are overtly dissimilar. If your images are headed for print and you are not sure of which printing process will be utilized, you might be headed for trouble. Here’s why.

The possible surfaces for inkjet printing vary wildly and include everything from paper to wood , from metal to fabric, and on virtually every surface and texture in-between. To accommodate this range of printing applications, inkjet “inks” are basically translucent liquid, and they must be sprayed onto the surface of the substrate. The colors printed by an inkjet printing system can range from basic black to more than a dozen colors. The inks are translucent because they must blend create other colors, and they are liquid so that they can be applied somewhat evenly to accommodate irregular and uneven surfaces.

Ink Absorption and Absorption

Ink absorption. Inkjet inks: Uncoated paper (left), Coated paper (middle), Laser toner (right)

The extremely small droplets sprayed appears more like a mist than a pattern; each pixel value (0-255) creates a microscopic and irregular pattern so small that the human eye perceives the dots as continuous tone. Due to the smoothness of the tones and graduations of color, inkjet images require a bit of sharpening to deliver detail (detail remember is a product of contrast, and contrast is not a natural inkjet strength).

Both the inkjet and publication processes convert the RGB (red, green, and blue) values of each pixel into equivalent CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) values before printing those colors onto paper. But then the two processes take decidedly different paths to delivering ink on paper. While Inkjet printers utilize micro-dot patterns that are sprayed onto a surface, printing presses use grid-based, well-defined dots that are impressed into paper surfaces.

I’ll describe the two reproduction process in more detail in Part Two of this series.

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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3 Responses to Why Published Images Will Look Different than Inkjet Prints. Part 1

  1. danny izzo says:

    This is some great information. I’m looking forward to the next entry. I understood most of what’s in this article but it’s always helpful to have other ways to try to explain these things to “normal” people who have no understanding of this stuff.
    PS There was a famous college band director with the same last name. Any relation?

    • Herb Paynter says:

      Thanks Dani for the comment. Digital images mutate through several different technologies on their way to print. We’re gonna look at several of them.

      While I was very involved in band in high school and college and still love brass ensemble’s, I don’t know of anybody in my bloodline on the collegiate level who is currently a band director.

  2. danny izzo says:

    “Digital images mutate through several different technologies on their way to print.” Yes, I’m aware of that. It’s why I am so looking forward to the other three articles.
    John Paynter passed away a number of years ago but was the band director at Northwestern University (Chicago) in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and a family friend.

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