My Prints Are Too Dark!

This is consistently the most common first complaint I hear in my Digital Printing course at www.bpsop.com. This is true even among photographers who understand the need, and have taken the time to calibrate and profile their monitors.

Your monitor is THE device you use to judge the progress of editing your images and preparing them for printing. Unfortunately, you cannot rely on your eyes to calibrate and profile it for good colour reproduction; your eye-brain visual system is just too good at to adapting to different lighting conditions to be a good objective judge of colour. To do this properly, you have to use a good hardware-software calibration tool such as the X-rite Eye-One Display (available from B&H Photo for about $250, (follow this link.)

Even when used properly a monitor calibration and profiling solution like the X-rite is not a big help when it comes to choosing the proper luminance level (brightness level) for your monitor. (see note below) The reason for is that the proper luminance level for your monitor is largely dependent on the illumination level in your work area. If you work under typical residential lighting, you will find that a lower luminance level for your monitor is best. If you work in a typical office environment, a higher luminance level will be needed. What will seem too bright in a darker work area will seem just right when the room illumination is higher (Ever try watching TV in a completely darkened room? Usually we are more comfortable watching TV with at least some room illumination.

So why is the luminance level of your monitor so important? For the simple reason that when it is too high, we tend to adjust our images darker to compensate. When these images are sent to a printer in an otherwise properly colour managed system... dark prints result. Setting a correct luminance level for your work area When you calibrate your monitor with a tool like the X-rite Eye-One, you get to choose a target for the luminance of your monitor. This is measured in candelas per square meter (cd/m2), but we will simply refer to it as a “luminance number”. In most residential environments, I recommend a starting target of 110 – 120; in brighter office environments – 140 will be a good starting point. The X-rite will measure and display the luminance number of your monitor... you can then adjust the brightness controls to achieve the target you have chosen. Once you have completed the process of calibrating and profiling your monitor using the X-rite Eye-One, you still need to determine if the luminance level you have chosen is appropriate for your work area illumination. The easiest way to do this is to check it visually using a step-wedge: an image you can create in Photoshop using a series of squares from pure black through dark grey, such as the one illustrated here (a downloadable version is provided as part of the course).

(Note that all the steps here may appear either as all black in your web-browser, or not; the difference between each step is very subtle, and web-browsers are generally not capable of good colour management). The idea is to load this image into Photoshop, and then turn all the Photoshop UI elements off by hitting the “F” key twice. You will be looking at a pure black screen with the step-wedge image in the center. You should NOT be able to see a difference between the black square (marked with a “0”, on the left) and the background of your monitor. If you can, your luminance level is too high. Dial the brightness down until the black square just merges with the background, and re-profile your monitor. If you can’t see all of the steps to the right of pure black, don’t despair. Many consumer level LCD monitors are not capable of distinguishing between very dark tones. You can try increasing your monitor’s luminance level in an effort to see more of the steps, but just don’t go too far an lose your pure black.

This problem of overly bright monitors has become more of an issue of late as we have all been converting to LCD monitors from the older CRT (tube-type) monitors. LCD monitors are capable of FAR higher luminance levels than any CRT monitor could ever hope for; in fact the latest iMAC monitors are so bright that many people are finding it difficult to get down to anything approaching a reasonable luminance level. There is a shareware utility available known as “shades” which will readjust the video card levels so than your can get down to a reasonable level, but I don’t recommend it for colour critical work as it tends to mess with the tonal gradations of your monitor. If you are having difficulty achieving a reasonable luminance level with your iMAC, the only thing you can do is to boost the ambient illumination in your work area.