What You Print may not Look Like Your Screen

If you have ever tried to print marketing materials or menus from your computer, there is a good chance you have been unpleasantly surprised with how they came out. When you go to pick up your prints, what was bright and lively on your screen is dark and dull in print.

When making your artwork or layout you need to remember that computer screens are a light source with analogue controls built into the monitor. What colors, how much saturation, and how bright your image looks on a screen is affected not only by the file you have created but also what your monitors settings are. If you have your monitor set to dynamic, movie, video game, or some custom setting your file will look differently under each of these settings without the source file itself changing. In addition to your settings, the quality of your monitor is another reason for some degree of difference between what you see on the screen and what you print out.

Since a screen is a light source, images almost always look much brighter on screen than they do when they are printed. A monitor projects light outward for your eyes to register and process. Printed materials are a series of pigments that absorb and reflect different aspects of light that your eye then registers. This direct light emission verses light reflection causes a major difference in vibrance in what you see. Think about a neon sign (emits specific-colored lights) verses a sign painted in colors similar to the shade of the neon, which then has a light shined on it. For you to have a similar effect on a painted sign as the neon sign, a powerful accent light would need to be set directly on the sign to make a brighter reflection. Since most printed menus or marketing material don’t allow for mounted spotlights, you need to take variance in screen to print coloring in mind.

So how do you handle difference between screen and print representation? The truth is that color management and ensuring that an image appears as bright in hand as it appears on a screen is a challenge even for professional printers sometimes. We use histograms to ensure our work isn’t too dark (left) on the histogram or too right (highlights) and edit the raw file to change the colors as needed. Once we have an exported file, we lighten the exported file by 25% to 35% so that the representation of what we see on screen is closer to what we will print. We then print proofs, fine tune the color levels with print and screen side by side, and then repeat the process as needed.

Lastly, this is the part of a “how to” that no self-printer ever wants to hear. Some of knowing how to adjust color levels for print is just based on experience. Knowing how dark the printers you regularly use run, knowing how bright your monitors are, and knowing the relation of what you have on screen to what it will look like comes with experience. The more you print materials with the same equipment, the more you know how things work. So if you need prints that will look a specific way, and you don’t have the ability to spend time getting to know your equipment and software, then you may be best off letting someone else do it for you.

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