Screen to Print Match for Photographers – Updated/Revised March 29 2012

Most people have experienced an issue with screen to print match at one time or another. Some have told me that they have just given up on the idea. But screen to print match can save you a lot of editing time, and wasted paper making proofs (you know: proof-tweak, proof-tweak, etc.)

This is an issue that can usually be solved without breaking a sweat. Think of this article like a cooking recipe – put it all together, and cookies turn out fine!

Examples of Issues

1. It is hard to see the screen in my office or studio

2. Colors I’m familiar with don’t look right on the screen

3. Screen brightness does not match print/print looks too dark

4. Screen shows highlights and/or shadows differently than the print

5. Some colors differ on screen vs print

6. All the color in the print just looks wrong, compared to the screen


1. It is hard to see the screen

This is a big cause of headaches and fatigue.

I suggest that if you need glasses or an updated prescription, get them. Bright light in the room, whether ceiling lights, windows, or other sources, can cause reflections on the screen or cause you struggle with differences in brightness. I use a room that has a big window with a set of louvered blinds. Not expensive, and effective.

If you are using a laptop, you should know that most laptop screens are just not good enough for editing color in digital photographs. The color palette is too narrow. Also, the screen has a small sweet spot, or angle of view – if you move around a bit the appearance of color and/or contrast may change. If your budget permits, get a decent flat screen display and plug it into the laptop.

Another issue – your room setup is important. The screen should be the brightest light source in the room. Competing light from windows and such can affect your perception of color, and cause eyestrain and fatigue. Here’s a photo of a room that does NOT get the job done!

2. Colors I’m familiar with don’t look right on the screen

First, you usually get what you pay for. A bottom-dollar low end screen probably can’t get the job done.

Next, the screen has to be calibrated – this means adjusting the screen so it shows color accurately as possible. The tool used for this is a display calibrator. (I discourage use of the display calibration software included with Mac OS or Windows OS. They improve things, but not enough for editing photographs).

Display calibration is one of the easier things to do. Open the box, follow the directions, and voila!

Spyder4 Elite from Datacolor

I have some recommendations for settings. Some may disagree here, but these work for me. You will see the adjustment screen for these if you choose the “advanced” option in your calibration software.

Use color temp of 5500k, or 6500k, depending partly on which color space you use. Adobe 98 white point is 6500, ProPhoto RGB is 5500.

Use luminance of 90-120 cd/square meter to start. Use gamma of 2.2.

When you set up your display like this, it will look kind of dull compared to its previous state.

By the way, most new displays come new out of the box set up to much higher color temperatures, close to 200cd/sqm, gamma native or 2.2. That’s useful in an office where one is working on email or similar stuff; near useless for photography.

You can, of course, experiment until you find a set of adjustments that suit you. These have worked for me for a long time.

One last thing: capture RAW whenever practical, and work with your images in Adobe 98, or ProPhoto RGB,  rather than sRGB.  The only reason to keep an sRGB workflow is if you are a wedding or event photographer and your lab requires it.

3. Screen brightness does not match print

The screen will always look brighter than the print. Put another way: “the print looks too dark!” Think of the screen like a lightbox with a big transparency on it – it gives off light. The print can only reflect light.

The answer comes in three parts: Control your room lighting, use the screen brightness settings provided above, and control the light used to view the print (view the print in indirect daylight, gallery halogens, or a dedicated light box).

4. Screen shows highlights and/or shadows differently than the print

Two of the biggest reasons in the matching screen-vs-print category for this are 1) a cheapo screen, and 2) a non-calibrated display.

Other causes usually involve editing techniques used in Photoshop or another editor, when preparing to print, or in settings used in the printing software dialogue box. That’s a subject for another article.

5. Some colors differ on screen vs print

First, think about display calibration. Got to do it – at least once a month.

Next, think about setting up Photoshop so you can actually see what the printed image’s colors will look like. This kind of preview is called “Soft Proofing”. Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote on the subject:

You can set Photoshop to display a simulation of how your your print will actually look, using the paper/ink/printer combination you’ve chosen. This is often called 
“soft proofing”.

The benefits? You can see, in real time, what color impact your editing will produce – in other words, each time you adjust color you’ll see what it is going to look like in the final print. You can also choose different soft proofing setups to see the impact of changing papers, or even changing printers!

With your image open, click View>Proof Setup>Custom, as shown below:

Step OneThe next dialogue box that appears will look like this:


Note that just below the tag “Proof Conditions” there is a title “Device to Simulate”. This designates a drop down menu that looks like the screen shot shown below. You will see a list of the ICC profiles that you’ve installed, either along with a printer driver, or manually. Scroll down and choose the one you want.


Once you have chosen the correct profile, you can save this as a pre-set for your convenience. Click on Save, and name your pre-set, and click save again. Click OK to close this out.


For most photography purposes, Perceptual rendering intent is fine. Enable black point compensation, and leave the others alone – don’t need them. As long as “Preview” is enabled, your calibrated display will show you what your image is going to look like in print!

6. All the color in the print just looks wrong, compared to the screen

The biggest reason this happens to me is that, somehow, the display calibration goes haywire. This usually happens after a system crash.

The first thing to do is to check the printer – is the right paper loaded? Are you using the right printer settings? Have you performed a print head check for clogged nozzles?

If the problem continues, reboot the computer and recalibrate the display. Sometimes settings files go haywire, or get corrupted. If the display is over three or four years old, and the problem persists, try another monitor on the computer and see if that solves the issue. You may need a new display.

7. SPECIAL NOTE: This post is Photoshop-centric, and the screen shots are from CS5. However, soft proofing in CS6 is identical, as far as I can tell (I’ve had CS6 for a day and a half!). In the next week or two, I will make another post that describes soft proofing in Lightroom 4.

Additional tips and tricks:

Remember that you can always change your display calibration back to the way it was, or re-calibrate using different settings.

Color editing that seems impossible late at night will usually be easy after a good night’s sleep.

Use manufacturer’s ink, not a substitute, in your printer.

Experiment with different papers, but often the manufacturer’s paper will look the best.

If you have trouble with color on a print, try making a print from an image that has done well before. If that also looks different, it is the printer or the printing settings.

Change the background on your Photoshop screen to grey or white.

Let the screen warm up for 30 minutes before you start work.

When you are printing, try using ICC profiles for printing instead of printer managed color.


NEW WORKSHOP: Join us in the Palouse in June 2012 for a combo photography/image editing extravaganza! Go to the top of this page and click on the WORKSHOPS tab!

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