Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I haven't printed any of my photos yet but I decided to give it a try. I am thinking of getting a printer of my own but before that I wanted to see how they would look. So, I simply printed one at the office in the regular laser printer.

To my surprise the printed picture looked very different from what I see in the computer monitor. Can anyone tell me how can the colors look so different? Basically, they have lost their saturation and in some cases the yellows are orange etc. Also, do I need to look for anything in particular in a printer that I am planning to buy? Are printers for photographs different from regular printers?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 14 down vote accepted
+200

Color laser printers, especially the big high end office printers, have the color capabilities you need for printing the company logo and the occasional Excel pie chart — but they are truly bad for printing photos.

But the good news is that almost any of the current generation of ink jet printers, even the cheap ones, are pretty good at printing photos - but only if you print in the printer's high quality setting on photo paper, if you use the cheap office paper you will get the same desaturated colors you got at the office.

Now, the colors in print will never be the same as on screen, especially the brightness (because the screen is a light source and he paper isn't) but you can get good results results, here are the options depending on how accurate you want the colors to be:

1. Just print in high quality on photo paper

If you like the way colors look an screen right out of camera and you never calibrated your screen than it's likely you won't notice the problem from uncalibrated printer (but it will never be the same as on screen).

This should be good enough for most people and will probably match the results you get when you get the photos printed in cheap labs.

2. Calibrate your monitor

If you're serious about getting the right colors you first need to make sure what you see on screen is really what's in the file, this will probably get you predictable results (that is, the difference between screen and printer will be predictable and you can learn to compensate).

There are several systems that will let you calibrate monitors, some are not very expensive.

This should be enough for most serious hobbyists and pros

3. Use name brand paper that has profiles available

The next step is to use good paper and get printer profiles for that paper you are using.

4. Calibrate your printer

The next step is to get a device that can calibrate both your screen and your specific printer with the specific printer you are using.

Those are definitely not cheap and this should be good enough for everyone.

5. Know when to stop

This rabbit hole goes very deep, if you want truly accurate color you might find yourself in a black shirt (to avoid reflection) in a room with gray walls and special balanced lights (to avoid color casts) manually adjusting color space conversions.

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1  
+1 for the need to knowing when to stop. Sometimes reading the various resources one is led to think that until s/he hasn't spent a lot of money there is no point in even trying. This is definitely not true, be it for a lens, a camera, a monitor, a printer.. actually for a lot of things in life :-) –  Francesco Mar 18 '12 at 19:27
    
I would recommend against profiling a laser printer. They change too much as they warm up. Experience says it's an exercise in frustration. Also, yay for #5! –  Dan Wolfgang Mar 19 '12 at 13:59
    
I think the best advice as mentioned above is to know when to stop and don't try to achieve perfection between a monitor and a print. It's nearly impossible despite how much calibration you might do. If you're looking for a high quality print consider a pro who uses high quality paper and high end printers. Often times they might even send you a proof if you purchase a decent sized order. –  Jared Nov 14 '12 at 4:10
    
Double yay for #5. I worked at Kodak in late 80s mid 80s doing early monitor calibration work. We were showing some samples to a art director who hated our stuff, "It has an orange cast!" he said, while, of course, wearing an orange shirt. Sigh... –  Paul Cezanne Nov 14 '12 at 11:12

Printing a picture seems like it should be easy but there is a lot more involved when it comes to getting predictable colors from what you see on the screen to the print. The first step is calibrating your monitor. This ensures that your monitor is displaying colors correctly. You can purchase a calibrator from companies such as Colorvision (Spyder series) or the i1/Color Munki calibrator from x-rite. There are others, too.

These same companies also offer tools to calibrate your printer. When you print a test sheet the calibrator sees how far off the colors that should be coming out are from what was actually printed. It then makes a profile to record the differences.

Once your printer and monitor are calibrated then you will need to use those calibrations when printing and your prints will match your monitor much better.

Also, consider the color space you're printing in. Many printers use the sRGB color space. A lot of cameras and software programs use ProPhoto RGB or Adobe RGB. Those color spaces can display colors on the monitor that the printer is not capable of printing. In addition, if the printer is a CMYK based printer then there is usually a lot of difference between what a display can show and what the printer can print. Looking for a soft proof capability or gamut warning in your application can help identify areas where the printer will have difficulty.

Image/Color calibration can be a really difficult subject to totally master. There are many articles and tutorials out there, not to mention books, on the subject. A good place to start with are these articles from John Paul Caponigro:

http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/category/color/color-management-color/

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Will calibrating an office color laser printer help it to produce good results for photographs? –  mattdm Mar 18 '12 at 16:50
1  
It certainly does help but a general office color printer generally can't produce the same range of tones and colors that a printer designed for printing pictures can. –  nwcs Mar 18 '12 at 21:00

Actually I would be very surprised if they looked the same without a lot of work! If you think about it, monitors and printers use completely different technologies and ways of representing colors:

  • Virtually all LCD, OLED or CRT displays create colors by mixing 3 primary additive colors which are Red, Green and Blue. Each pixel is make of those a mix of those three components which add to the black of the monitor which makes your eye interpret the result as a specific color, saturation and color tone.

  • The most common personal computer (inkjets) printers are based on subtractive color which absorbs colors reflected by paper using color dyes or pigments. This fundamental different makes the colors you see on paper much more variable and dependent on the ambient illumination. Inkjets printers use between 3 and 12 colors where it takes multiple dots (sometimes over 100) to represent a single pixel by printing a tiny patter which varying proportions of each color.

  • Laser printers are far less capable for photos as they usually work with a much smaller (3) set of colors (obviously also in substractive color).

In order to be able to see and print something which looks close you have calibrate both the display and printer using the color profiles. These are software tables generated by special hardware and software which describes you to translate the display's representation of color into the printer's representation.

You are extremely unlikely to get the something that is an exact match between display and monitor unless they are both high-end units capable of display a good color gamut. That is because profiling does not make miracles, it can change which color on the printer maps to which color on the display but neither can display or print things out of there gamut.

To get your best chances of printing something which looks like what you see, you need the following:

  1. High-quality display with good color gamut (95%+ sRGB or even AdobeRGB) coverage. Good monitors quote this coverage in their specifications. If it is not quoted, it is probably bad.
  2. A hardware display calibration tool which you use to calibrate the display so that it shows accurately the colors of your image.
  3. A printer with a good color gamut. This starts actually quite cheap given that most desktop printers are based on inkjet and often use 5+ colors. You tend to pay more here when for larger print size.
  4. Printer hardware calibration tool. This is a tool which generated test prints which are then scanned into the computer to create a custom profile. It has to be run for each combination of printer and paper type you use.
  5. Printing software like Photoshop or Lightroom which is color-managed meaning it is capable of interpreting the color profiles you make in order to display and print things correctly.

There are a few corners you can cut here:

The easiest step to skip is the printer calibration since you can send printer samples to a profile creating service. For $100-200 USD, they will create a profile for you to use.

You can save time at the expense of money by getting a printer with built-in calibration. They are expensive but they do a lot of work for you automatically.

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I would recommend against profiling a laser printer. They change too much as they warm up. Experience says it's an exercise in frustration. –  Dan Wolfgang Mar 19 '12 at 13:58

Laser printers aren't made for printing photos. They're made for printing charts and such. Inkjet printers are made for printing photos (Not as good quality as a photo printer, but they can still print photos.). Also, some computer monitors do have different color settings than certain printers. What I would try is to calibrate your monitor and you printer, and the colors should look better when you print it. But, like I say, laser printers aren't made for printing photos.

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What technology other than inkjet might a photo printer use? –  mattdm Mar 18 '12 at 17:34
    
Well, there are printers designed for printing photos with glossy finishes and such, but for an amateur photographer, a inkjet is a good printer to use. –  J. Walker Mar 18 '12 at 19:11

Laser printers are particularly suited to solid-color jobs like charts and graphs, but not photos.

The most notable reason for this is that laser printers generate a lot of heat, and the heat changes what they can do. If you print 1000 (or even 100) copies of a photo and compare the first and last you'll see some stark differences, even with the best laser printer. In particular, the last print will show large patches of solid color, not smooth gradients of color. That is, the photo will appear blotchy. On a cheaper laser you'll also notice that many areas of the print have left the paper saturated and almost wet. The reason for this is that as the printer warms up the toner will also warm up, and the printer can't control the volume of toner being dumped onto the paper very well. So, you end up using way more toner than needed and getting poor results.

Another problem you'll notice is that the print looks different in different light: check it under fluorescent, incandescent, and daylight and you'll notice that some colors seem to look a little different. (A common one is that blues may look more/less purple.) It can be frustrating to be happy with the results when you first see them, and disappointed when viewed in a different environment! This change is known as metamerism and can be summarized as seeing a color shift in different light with a specific paper/medium combination. Changing paper may increase/decrease the amount of metamerism you see. This is something inkjets have pretty much solved with quality paper and effective inks, but toner in lasers is particularly subject to this problem.

The type of paper you print on is very important (and not just because of metamerism). Photo papers are designed to specifically absorb the medium without allowing it to spread. One of the reasons I bet you are seeing poor results is because the amount of toner being put out isn't just too much for the area, but it's spreading to make the surrounding areas feel muddy, too.

Working backwards, the next place to look at to controlling the print is the printer settings. Make sure that your printer is set to "photo mode" (which will try to better make subtle color changes to recreate the photo). Because you specifically see such a large yellow-to-orange color shift I wouldn't be surprised if the printer is set to "graphics mode" or "chart mode" (which purposefully tries to make the colors more bold and better suited to a handout at a meeting). Another place to be aware of in the printer settings is when selecting the "rendering intent." Use Relative Colorimetric or Perceptual (you might try both to see what you prefer); the others are not for photo use. Be sure to check other settings for reasonable values, too; most notably that the paper setting matches the type of paper you are using.

Are you sure the photo you see onscreen is a reasonable display of what the photo actually contains? You should really be working on a calibrated display to know for sure. When looking at the photo onscreen, move your head to the left and right, and up and down -- do you see any color shifts, most likely with colors becoming darker? If yes, your display simply isn't very good for color work because that little bit of change will make judging color very very hard. Most laptops have an unacceptable display, as will just about any cheap monitor. Visit dpreview.com and look at the bottom of one of their reviews and you'll find a black-to-white set of patches. Your monitor's brightness should be adjusted so that you can see every step of that gradient.

I assume you're using an LCD and not a CRT. CRTs are mostly gone, but there are a few holdouts, particularly at the office. IMO one of the best things about LCDs is how color-stable they are. CRTs will change color as they warm up at the start of the day, drift throughout the day, drift throughout the month, and continue to drift through their entire life. It's a constantly moving target to calibrate and work effectively on. LCDs on the other hand will take a little while to warm up, but are stable after that for most of their life. A quality LCD is going to do a better job of recreating color accurately out-of-the-box than a cheap LCD or CRT.

A worthy monitor should be calibrated for the best results. Using a hardware tool you can calibrate the screen to get the best possible results out of it and create a profile to help you see the best results it's capable of. Color management is another big topic unto itself, so I'll just say that if you're serious, hardware calibration for your monitor is an important step.

If you don't have a quality monitor (either an LCD that changes as you move your head, or a CRT), I would recommend getting one. If you can be confident that what you see on screen is an accurate representation of the photo and it's what you want to see in print, you've taken a big leap towards being able to get good results.

After you're confident you're seeing your photo accurately, get some good photo paper and the appropriate printer settings and arrive at the office early one morning before the laser has seen much/any use and print off your photo -- I bet you'll get acceptable results. (Not necessarily good, but acceptable.)

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According to David Brooks, the Digital Q&A columnist for Shutterbug Magazine, one big problem is that most consumer monitors cannot be calibrated well enough to provide a good representation of what your printer produces. The big culprit is screen brightness -- you need to be able to change it. Details can be found on Brooks' blog at http://www.shutterbug.com/category/david-b-brooks-blog (search the blog for "calibrating" and you will get several of his comments.

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