Why Don't Printed Colors Match What I See on the Monitor?

Tips for Getting Truer Colors in Print

Color Setting in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements
Photoshop (left) gives you much more control over color settings compared to Photoshop Elements (right). © S. Chastain

Question: Why Don't Printed Colors Match What I See on the Monitor?


Why Don't Printed Colors Match What I See on the Monitor?

John writes: My problem is my printer does not print the colors as I see them on my monitor. The picture looks very good on the monitor, but does not print true to the screen. I have read somewhere about a setting [in Photoshop Elements 3] to tell the printer not to choose the colors and hues that it thinks best, but to print what I have on screen. I know there is more to the subject than that, so where do I learn the basics of this problem?

Answer: If you go to Edit > Color Settings, how is Photoshop Elements currently set? The first thing I would do is try setting it to "No color management" and see if you get better results. If this works for you, you're in luck, because color management gets tricky.

If setting "No color management" does not produce acceptable results, you will have to start reading up on color management and color calibrating your devices, particularly your printer. You might want to also read Photoshop Elements Help topic "To print using color management."

Most graphics software has setting for color management, but personally, I have always gotten the best results by simply turning color management off. Color management is primarily intended for people in a pre-press environment. Not everyone needs it. If you're not doing professional printing, first try working without color management before you assume you need it.

Another member also has some worthy advice:

From Eggles: You have to understand that it is almost impossible to replicate the colours you see on screen with those in print. They are two entirely different media - the screen displays colours according to transmitted light in the RGB (red, green blue) gamut, the paper displays colours according to the absorption & reflection of light of CMYK colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black).
See: Important Information About RGB and CMYK

If you are new to this topic the above advice might seem a bit convoluted. The bottom line is the number of colours available in a Colour Space. Colour printers such as the Inkjet printer in my office have Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black cartridges. These are the traditional printing inks and the color is made by combining those four colours. With ink, the number of colours that can be produced fall roughly into a maximum of a couple thousand distinct colours. Images on a computer screen use a totally different colour space- RGB. The colours created are made with light. In broad terms the number of colours your computer monitor can display total about 16.7 million colours. (The actual number is 16,77,7216 which is 2 to the 24th power.)

If you draw a circle on a sheet of paper and put a black dot in the middle of that circle you will get a good idea of why colors change. The sheet of paper represents all of the colours- visible and invisible - infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays - known to modern man. That circle represents the RGB gamut and, if you draw another circle inside the RGB circle you have your CMYK gamut.

If you move from a corner of that sheet to the dot, that indicates how color moves from invisible to a black hole which is the dot.The other thing you will notice is that as you move towards the dot, colours get darker.

  If you choose a red in the RGB colour space and move it to the CMYK colour space the red will darken. Thus RGB colours output as CMYK colours are pulled to their nearest CMYK equivalent which is always darker. So why does your printer output not match your screen? Simple. You can't print light.

I would just add that if you are printing at home on a desktop printer, it is not necessary to convert your photos and graphics to CMYK color mode before printing. All desktop printers handle this conversion for you. The article referenced above is intended for those doing 4-color process printing on a printing press, however it does a good job of explaining why you will generally never get a perfect match between on-screen color and printed color.

Your paper and ink selections can also have an enormous impact on how true colors reproduce in print.

Finding the perfect combination of printer settings, paper, and ink can take some experimentation, but I've found that using the printer and ink suggested by the printer manufacturer often provides the best results.
Before You Buy Inkjet Photo Paper

Updated by Tom Green