Printing pictures

Why is the result different from what you see on the screen?

The quality of the printers is improving fast. Nowadays a lot of color printers have more than four cartridges, making sure all the tones are printed. Yet the extra cartridges are gray or black, never a color, which means there are still colors you see on screen that can't be printed on paper.

Taking pictures and printing them can be disappointing. Sometimes the result is not what you expected. I’ll explain the reasons for that disappointing result.

Color picker in Photoshop

Different blue
Credit: HM

Editing photos

I am a graphic designer. I have had Photoshop for over 20 years, starting with version 2.
For simple editing Photoshop Elements is a good alternative.

Cobalt blue

The most beautiful shade of blue

I collect cobalt blue glass objects. They are nice in my room as decoration and great to make still life pictures with. But I better not print them on canvas or paper, as I do with lots of my pictures, because the result is not good.

I tested the picture shown here on my inkjet printer and when I saw the grayish blue vases I was really upset. So I sent a little part of the picture to my canvas supplier for a test as well.

Needless to say he had a better result than I did, because his printer is a professional one, but still it wasn’t what I wanted.
But can I fix this?

Result on paper

Still life
Credit: HM


Two different color systems

The article “Colorful design” explains the difference between CMYK and RGB. Why is that important? Because your camera makes pictures in the RGB-colorsystem, but the four cartridges in your color printer are cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

RGB Red Green Blue

An additive color system

Each primary color of the additive system has a value between 0 and 255, as shown below. The order is always Red first, then Green and then Blue. All colors on the screen are a mixture of those three primary colors. As shown in the example.

Examples of values in the RGB color system

CMYK Cyan Magenta Yellow Key (Key=Black)

A subtractive color system

Printers have four colors in the subtractive system. Each primary color plus black has a maximum value of 100%, as shown below. In the example, the numbers show how much of each color is mixed to get the shown result.

By the way: the K is for Key and not B for Black, because the B could be confused with Blue in the RGB system.

Examples of the percentages in CMYK colors

Coordinate devices

PIXMA MG6350 - Multifunction ( printer / copier / scanner )
Amazon Price: $197.00 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 8, 2016)
I prefer to have one brand for all the different devices, because the techniques will match in the best way. So my camera, printer and photo paper are all from Canon.
I bought this printer very recently and especially love the fact that the connection with my computer is wireless.
This printer has 6 cartridges, making the pictures really bright and colorful.

Color Range

Millions of hues

Most CMYK-colors can be converted to RGB, but not all RGB-colors can be converted to CMYK. And our eyes see more colors than the printer or the screen can show us.

The color schedule below is a model to explain the differences. Although it doesn’t represent all colors, you’ll probably get the picture.

However, if you have Adobe Photoshop, you can see beforehand which colors will  not convert the way you want them to.

Color range of RGB and CMYK

Color Picker

A useful tool In Photoshop

In Photoshop select a color in your image with the tool Pipette and go to the Color Picker. In the example I selected a very bright green. As you can see there is a triangle in the middle with an exclamation mark in it, indicating that the RGB-color will cause problems when converted to CMYK. Clicking on the exclamation mark will show the CMYK-result.

Mind you, it’s still just an indication. If you really want to know the result, you’ll have to print it. Colors look very different on paper (subtractive color system) than on screen (additive color system).

Greens and blues are the biggest culprits. Another trick to know up front where you can expect trouble is by looking at the RGB-values: the higher a RGB-value (e.g. Green = 0-255-0) the bigger the chance that the conversion of the color will go wrong. As you can see in the example the RGB-value of 0-255-0 is 71-0-100-0 in CMYK. But the much darker green that is displayed after clicking the exclamation mark has the same CMYK-value and a totally different RGB-value.

Color pickers
Credit: HM

Can we fix the problem?

That's a tough one

The bad news is you can’t fix it completely.  The good news is you can limit the problem.

  • Using a professional printer is a wise thing to do. It doesn’t has to be your own. Not all pictures will cause you this problem so let the professionals deal with that couple of photographs that are giving you a hard time.
  • Use glossy paper or glossy varnish – that will enhance the image considerably.

Good luck!

Glossy pictures

Canon Photo Paper Plus Glossy II, 13 x 19 Inches, 20 Sheets (2311B026)
Amazon Price: $36.99 $11.00 Buy Now
(price as of Oct 8, 2016)
Colors are the brightest and the most beautiful on glossy paper. I have a Canon camera, that's why I use Canon paper.