It’s Not Your Eyes: Reasons Screen and Print Colors Look Different

There’s nothing worse than perfecting an image on your computer to find it’s a completely different color once it’s printed. With so many technical aspects involved in printing, it can be hard to know how to get your pictures right and ready for printing.

Whether you’re sending your work to a print supplier or you’re printing your own images, it’s important that you understand your files so you can achieve the correct color.

The Definition of CMYK, RGB and PMS

To grasp color printing, you’ll need to know what the following mean:

CMYK – This is Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black and will often be referred to as “full color” in a printing process. A lot of printed marketing, books, magazines and newspapers will use this as CMYK is created using dot patterns to create the colors that you see. Take a look at a magazine under a magnifying glass to see what we mean.

RGB – Red, Green and Blue is used for on-screen images that you see on your smartphone, tablet or computer monitor. Using a dark background, light is added to it to create color, so will provide a very different result to the one you’d find on printed paper. This is not used in production printing.

PMS – Pantone Matching System is a very accurate way of matching colors and can also be referred to as Spot Color printing. In this, a consistent color match is achieved by blending the colors to a numbered formula provided in the Pantone swatch. This is popular in offset printing.

It is possible to get a close match to a PMS color when using the process of CMYK, and as a more cost-effective solution, this is preferred by a lot of businesses. However, for specialists like fine art photographers, this may not be accurate enough.

Printers and Paper

The overall look of your print can also be affected by your choice of printer and the paper you use. For example, for fine art photographers, a fine art paper or specialist canvas. You will want to make sure you maximize the quality of your print by accurately reproducing original colors. You can learn more about ICC profiles to achieve desired results by choosing the best setting for your printer.

As far as printers go, there are two popular choices – inkjet or laser printers. Inkjets use ink for their color and will distribute this onto paper using a number of nozzles that create droplets of ink. This droplet is expanded through heat and essentially “explodes” onto the paper before the printer moves onto the next dot. For the image to be produced correctly on the paper, the printer will rely on the paper being of the right absorbency.

In laser printers, a toner is used instead of ink. A laser moves backwards and forwards across the drum unit in the print, which creates static that attracts the powdered toner to it in the pattern of the image. Once there, it is then rolled onto the paper before a hot fusing unit helps to make sure the toner sets in place on the paper.

These two printers provide very different results, which is why it’s important that when you’re producing or buying fine art, you understand which is going to provide the better result for what you want.

Georgia Brewer is a graphic designer who also enjoys photography outside of work, mostly capturing precious moments of her toddler. She enjoys visiting galleries and art exhibitions as well as writing articles about design and photography.