My Printer Is Too Dark

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May, 2008

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My Printer Is Too Dark

by CHROMiX's Patrick Herold

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This reserved article originally appeared in CHROMiX ColorNews Issue 31 on May 15th, 2008.

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First off, I have a confession to make. The real title of this article is "My Monitor is Too Bright". But we've had a lot of articles on monitors recently and, given that we've had so many articles on monitors recently, you'd think we'd have exhausted the subject. However, judging by the volume of questions we get on this topic, it seems to be a hot button for many people right now.

We have dealt with the general subject of how to get the display to match the printer output in other ColorNews articles.

Monitor_to_Print_Matching

Printer_to_Match_my_Screen

But an increasing number of people are reporting problems with density and, specifically, that their printer is too dark compared to their screen. This article suggests reasons why that might be happening and what you can do about it.

We have a service called ColorValet where we make custom-made printer profiles. Occasionally a customer will call up and report that the profile is too dark. Upon deeper investigation, we find that the user is comparing the print to their display, and their display is a newer LCD (and perhaps recently purchased.) Perhaps the customer has confidence that the display is accurate because they have calibrated it with a colorimeter.

If you were that customer, you would have good reason to assume that what you see on your screen is accurate. If you get a new printer profile from CHROMiX and, when you use it, your printer prints out prints that are too dark, it's natural to assume that there's something wrong with the profile.

Well now hold on a minute.

White of display should match the white of paper

Without even printing anything you can see if your printer will ever be able to look like the display: Check to see if the white of your monitor matches the white of your paper. Think about it this way:

Suppose you have an image of a snowman, in front of a white house, with lots of puffy white clouds overhead - a picture with a lot of white. When it gets printed on an inkjet printer, there's not going to be very much ink on the page. Much of the color and brightness will be determined by the white background of the paper, and has relatively little to do with what the printer does. How can you ever hope that this print will match the display if the display is naturally a lot brighter?

You really have to get the white of the paper to match the white on the display if you ever hope to get your pictures to match. This is surprisingly hard to do. Emissive light (coming from a display) does not register in our eyes quite the same way that reflective light (bouncing off your page) does, but the idea is to do the best you can. There are two ways to accomplish this:

ADJUST THE DISPLAY

This is usually the quickest and easiest way to attack the problem. Turn down the brightness on your monitor. Calibrate again. Does it match the print white? If not, adjust the brightness and calibrate again.

Doing things by eye?

Q: Wait a minute - I bought this colorimeter so I could eliminate these subjective judgments and know my monitor is accurate. Now we're going back to doing things "by eye"?!

A: Well, yes. When it comes to setting the brightness of the monitor, the "correct" setting will vary depending on the environment. Once you have determined what your brightness should be, then your profiling software will make sure your colors relate accurately.

Surround the image with several inches of white border. This can make an image appear significantly darker. If you doubt how much this affects perception, switch to a black background and see how much lighter your image looks.

Q: I've turned the brightness on my monitor down to zero, and it's still too bright compared to my print white.

A1: See if your display has an "economy" mode, where it will use less power, and also produce less backlight.

A2: Turn down the Red, Green and Blue levels equally in the monitor controls. This usually reduces the overall brightness, but it does so by depending on the liquid crystals in the LCD display to block the light - not the ideal way to accomplish this. This will tend to reduce your contrast ratio, might reduce the color repeatability of your profile, and should only be used sparingly.

A3: Refer to the instructions for increasing your print illumination (below).

A4: Buy a profiling software package that can make use of your computer's graphics card to reduce the brightness beyond what the monitor's controls can do.

Most monitor profiling software has you turning down the brightness at the monitor, and they depend on you being successful at doing that. The rest of the calibration procedure determines the color adjustments that are made in the graphics card.

There are only a very few that can lower the curves in the graphics card in order to reduce your brightness. ColorEyes Display Pro, and the MeasureTool module of GretagMacbeth's ProfileMaker suite will do this.

ProfileMaker

The ProfileMaker suite, while very good, is a bit of an overkill for someone just wanting to get their screen looking good.

ColorEyes Display Pro

ColorEyes Display Pro is available as software-only, which is handy for those who already have a colorimeter device - although still a bit of a shock for someone who thought they had this color stuff all figured out until they bought their latest new LCD display.

Shades

Shades I mention this as an option rather than a recommendation. This is a quick little plugin, available on Mac only, that will reduce the levels in your graphics card evenly. Since your profiling software forcibly resets your graphics curves to "neutral" when it begins its process, you can't use Shades before profiling and expect it to result in anything usable in the end. Also, using Shades after the calibration effectively eliminates the accuracy of the profile, since it alters the graphics card curves. However, for those for whom color accuracy is not as important as brightness, this program might be used with success if you don't take it too far.

Editor's note:
The successor to ProfileMaker, i1Profiler, also is capable of using the graphics card to reduce brightness. In addition, a new software from Germany basICColor Display can do the same.

Watch out for banding

Another wrinkle to worry about while you're reducing your brightness on your display is that it will make banding more likely. When you let your video card handle the color adjustments without asking it to reduce luminance, it will have approximately 256 steps of resolution. But when you bring that curve down by limiting luminance, it will have a smaller resolution grid. It might have, say, only 200 or less steps to use to define a gradient from black to white. So transitions from one subtle color to another might not be very smooth. Displays with internal graphics cards have 10-bit or 12-bit processing ability, can handle these curve changes with more resolution, and make banding less likely.

(Now you're starting to see why those upper end displays cost a bit more.)

ADJUST THE LIGHTING

That piece of printer paper does not have some kind of inherent color or brightness in itself. Leave us not forget that reflective color is a process where an illuminant reflects off of a surface, enters our eyes and is interpreted by the brain. To a large extent, that print will be as bright as the light that is used to illuminate it.

Under a bright light, look closely at the print that you think is too dark, and you might very well find all the shadow detail that you see on the screen. Because it is not normally lit up as brightly as the screen, you perceive it as too dark.

Solux

There are various controlled lighting solutions available. We have an entire section of our online store devoted to lighting products. Those big, overhead florescent tubes, even if they say "daylight balanced" on them tend to have sharp spectral spikes. Try to stay away from those. A nice, budget-minded solution for the do-it-yourselfer is to use Solux bulbs in a track lighting setup. www.solux.net

White borders on prints

Typically, a print will come off your home inkjet with some white border around it. If this is what you're using to compare to the display, then your print will appear darker because of the white border. Cut off the white border or, better yet, mask the border with some black material so that only the image shows through. (This is essentially the opposite of what we did before with the monitor.) Give your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the scene, or go away and come back in a few minutes and you will be amazed at how much lighter the image got while you were gone!

Okay, now if you're about to skip what I just suggested because you don't really think it'll make any difference - just humor me on this. Go get some black cardboard, fabric or paper - and cover the four white borders of your print. It makes a difference.

Final points to keep in mind

Again, there is much more information on these subjects in our ColorNews archives in previous articles and color management myths, so check out the Reserved Articles section of www.colorwiki.com for more information.


Thanks for reading,


-Patrick Herold


CHROMiX


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