Comparing your screen to your prints

If your monitor is newly calibrated, or you’re new to printing, or you’re trying a new lab for the first time, you’re going to be eager to see how your prints match your screen.

Here’s a few words of unscientific advice …

The scientific, expensive, impractical method

The colour-geeks will tell you that the only way to judge a print is in a D50 viewing booth beside your hooded monitor, in an otherwise dimly-lit room. This is expensive, and largely impractical for all but the most ardent professional.

So what can the rest of us do to see if our prints match our screen?

Trust your first impression

When you first get your prints from the lab, don’t immediately hold them up to the screen to compare.

Just look at them.

That’s right, just make yourself a coffee, find a comfy chair in a nicely-lit room, open the packet, and look at them.

Your first impressions are invariably correct. If the prints are right, you’ll just know.

It makes sense. After all, you’ve already spent quite a lot of time staring at those images on screen, enhancing them to a point where you instinctively know they’re "finished". Then, when you look at the prints, those instincts kick in again. If you like them, and they look as "wow" as you’d hoped, then all’s well.

What matters, and what doesn’t

The truth is, it’s almost impossible to get a true side-by-side match. Don’t sweat it.

All that matters is (a) you get a good feeling when you finish editing your photos on screen, and (b) you get the same warm feeling when you see the prints. Whether the two match exactly is not important.

The human eye and brain are absolutely terrible judges of colour, and this is to your advantage. And don’t forget, nobody is going to be more critical of your photos than you. If you like them, everyone else will love them!

Ok, it’s time to compare

Of course I’m not saying you shouldn’t compare your prints to the screen at all. I just wanted you to take advantage of your instincts first.

Now you’ve had your first impression, either good or bad, it’s time to get a bit more analytical.

Boot up your computer, and open the images in Photoshop. Turn on soft-proofing if applicable.

Your ambient lighting

Needless to say, the light in which you view your prints is important. Read more about it here.

Don’t hold the print too close to the screen

This is the big mistake that lots of people make. They hold their print right next to the screen, or just below it, then complain that the print is too dark.

Your monitor is a light source. If you hold your print too near the screen, you’re effectively back-lighting it. Like a camera set to Average Metering mode, your eye "stops down" to allow for the light source, and the print appears dark.

So, you must hold the print out to one side, and turn your head when comparing it to the screen. This allows your eye and brain a fraction of a second to adjust and compensate for the difference between the illuminated and non-illuminated colours.

Again, we see how the human eye and brain are incompetent judges of colour, which is both a disadvantage and an advantage in this case.

What to do if the print is not satisfactory

If your instinct has told you something’s not right, and your analysis has pinpointed the problems, what do you do then?

Here are some important things to check:

1. Monitor calibration:

Is your monitor recently and properly calibrated? If not, then printing is hard, and identifying print problems is impossible. If you don’t have a hardware calibration device, get one immediately.

2. Monitor brightness:

If your monitor is too bright, you will tend to edit your photos too dark to compensate, and your prints will be dark. Calibrate to 100cd/m² or lower.

3. Colour profile:

Did you send the files to the lab in the right colour space? Double-check their requirements.

4. Soft-proofing:

Did you soft-proof your images, and if so, have you done it correctly?

5. Auto correction:

If your lab offers auto correction of images, did you remember to turn this off? This is so important.

And finally …

6. Lab quality:

Have you used a reputable lab?


If you have a question about this article, please feel free to post it in Ask Damien.