Frequently asked questions

My prints are too dark

More often than not, when someone says that “my prints are too dark” they are comparing a print to the same image on the monitor.

Monitors display a picture by emitting combinations of red, green, and blue light from hundreds of thousands of triads of red, green, and blue light sources. The combined light emitted from each triad represents the colour and intensity of light at that spot in the scene. The luminance (brightness) of the picture on the monitor depends on how much light the sources emit.

Unlike a monitor, paper is not a light emitter (you cannot see a photograph in the pitch dark). Ink-covered paper reflects some of the light that shines on it. You see different colours at different points in a print because the paper-and-ink absorbs some of the light that falls on it, and reflects the rest. The colours you see are the result of the combinations of red, green, and blue light that are reflected from the ink-coated paper.

The brightness of a printed photograph is determined by the brightness of the light it is viewed under. Under normal room lighting it will appear darker than in full sunlight.

If you think your print is too dark, take it into bright daylight – near a window – and look at it.

If the brightness is OK you can conclude that the lighting near your computer is simply too subdued to reflect enough light from your print to match the luminance (brightness) of your monitor. If you increase the brightness of the light you view the prints under you may get a better match. Keep in mind, though, that ordinary tungsten bulbs have a yellow colour cast that may affect your perception of the colours of the print! Some people go so far as to have a little ‘light box’ with a bright daylight bulb alongside their computer just for looking at prints. That’s probably over-the-top for most of us.

If the print is clearly too dark even when viewed near a window, the most likely explanation is that you have adjusted tones in the image downwards to compensate for an overly bright monitor.

New LED/LCD displays are often sold with brightness turned way up because they look good in brightly lit shops. Computer marketing people see bright displays that compete with ambient light as a big selling point, but it’s not necessarily helpful for photographers.

The easiest way to address the brightness mismatch is simply to turn down the brightness of your monitor until the brightness of a white image on the screen, is about the same as the brightness of the reflected light from a piece of printer paper! Try it – you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

If you'd like a more technical explanantion of this question, see article.

It is possible that simply adjusting the luminance (brightness) of your monitor will have fixed some perceived colour problems too because the eye’s perception of a light’s colour is strongly influenced by its relative brightness. For example, relatively un-bright white is perceived as lightish gray, and relatively over-bright white is perceived as bluish. Correcting for the latter may well have introduced a warmish cast into your image and print.


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