Why Don’t My Colors Display Accurately?

Why don’t my photos on the back of my camera look like the ones I transferred to my phone, tablet, or my computer?  Why don’t the iPad pictures look like the photos I print out?  Why do photo lab photos look different from the photos I print out at home?  And why doesn’t anything ever seem to match?

It can certainly be a bit frustrating – the same image often looks very different on various devices, media, and printers.


Lets start with monitors.

Your camera, iPad, laptop, and desktop computer monitors are all different.  Not only in the company that manufactured them, but the way that they operate.  The most popular displays of today are LCD, High Density LCD (such as Retina), and OLED.  Each of these technologies produce different ranges of color and contrast in their general display and function.   As a result, a monitor with the latest OLED display will definitely outpace your Laptop with a standard LCD screen, as OLED is capable of displaying a wider and more diverse range of colors.

To add to the confusion of monitor diffrentiation, each manufacturer calibrates their colors differently, and device screens fade over time.  If your device is old, your screen is likely dimmer in varied color ranges, making color matching to other displays almost impossible.

Work spaces.
Where you look at a monitor will affect the colors you see.  Reflected light from the walls, your shirt, and even the ceiling will all subtly change the colors on the screen.  In addition, there is no standard fluorescent bulb color, leading to great variations in the warmth and coolness of ambient light when indoors.  Looking at monitors under these different conditions will skew your eyes to see slightly varied color ranges.  The overall brightness of the work space will also affect your perception of the darkness, contrast, and colors of your subject.  Working in a darkened room will yield completely different results than working outside in bright sun.  Don’t believe us? Try it – Edit the same picture in both conditions.

Printers, Inks, Paper, and Printer Profiles
Different brands of printers and inks have different color & contrast ranges that they display.  Dye inks look different from pigment inks. It is all in how the ink is made, what it is made of, how it reflects the light and consequently the color ranges.  

Different papers have different reflective ranges, based on the type of fibers used, the process that makes the paper, and the amount, or lack, of optical brighteners.  (Click here for definitions)  Rag paper papers will almost always look flatter and less colorful than coated RC papers.  It is the nature of the materials.  Papers for use in a color laser copier will not look the same as a coated canvas fabric or a rag paper.  The ICC profile you use, (or the default ICC profile of your printer) will also affect the amount and levels of ink put to paper and the range of contrast it provides.

Professional Printers
I’ve heard old-time photographers refer to a “K” factor that was in film cameras to correct for the deficiencies of amateur photographers exposure errors.  Like the “K” factor of film photography, many drugstores and online printers utilize an algorithm to “adjust” your images. The “algorithms often used in some labs are there to sharpen, lighten and saturate the colors to generally improve the image.  But if you, the photographer, have already adjusted the image; its saturation, contrast range, vibrancy, or general sharpness/blur, then this extra will only make you work look worse –  oversaturated, lightened and sharpened.  Not every image needs improvement, and adding an algorithm to your prints takes away from your skills as the photographer.  This is why we print the files we receive.  If we make any adjustments, it is to correct lightness/darkness and white balance and is performed on a photo-by-photo basis.

Your camera.
Older cameras do not have anywhere near the range of color tones and color response of modern DSLRs.  If your camera is 5 or 10 years old, you will simply not get what you see.  Not only because of the older technology, but because of the aged sensor, the firmware running the camera, and even the lenses you are using.

How you are shooting.
If you are setting your camera to always under-expose for saturation or over-expose to soften the colors then, you are skewing the range and tonality of the scene.  As you darken and lighten the image you will be changing the scene contrast range to get the colors to look more or less saturated. This will ultimately affect how the photograph looks when printed.

Your perception.
How you perceive colors is based on where you are, the color or cleanness of the light you are viewing, and even your ability to see those colors. Back in the old days, when printing was much more manual, we had a technician that always did an excellent job matching colors before lunch, but following lunch his colors would be off.  He often came back from his break and said that he had to start over because the jelly doughnuts he ate for lunch changed how he perceived colors.  This is actually a warning sight of more serious issues with your eyes, macular retinopathy.

So, after all this, what can you do?  Making sure you use a color calibration system for profile your camera, monitor and printer will help you get as close as possible.  You may not get it right the first time either.  We often print multiple copies of color sensitive prints and adjust the color spectrum for each color as needed.  It can be a lot of work.  But if the results need to be highly accurate and more than just a pretty picture them you can do it.  But just know that no management is going to be an average of all the variables.

Want to know more? Check out our sources:

Monitor Color Matching

Print v. Display Colors