Help! My Prints are Too Dark!
It's becoming more common for photographers to get serious about printing their own work. But it's also becoming more common to hear complaints from those trying to do so that their prints come out too dark.
Every printer driver comes with an array of sliders and controls to adjust tint, brightness and the like. But fiddling with these can be an exercise in frustration. For one thing, they aren't calibrated to any real reference standard so you have to adjust them buy trial and error, by printing out a test image and deciding whether you like the result or not. But beyond that, you have to perform this paper and time wasting ritual for every image since these crude adjustments tend to affect the image as a whole. Images that start out being primarily different colors will need different tweaks. And printers need more help with "problem" colors than with those that match more closely to what their inks can easily reproduce. That is to say, not every image is the same nor is what is needed to correct their colors to print acceptably.
The only real way to be serious about printing your own work involves learning about and making use of color management. Some years ago this concept would make most photographers run for cover, but the acceptance of color management has improved over time. Many photographers at least try to implement color management. And that means using the right profiles for your printer and your monitor.
If you stick with mainstream inkjet printers designed for printing photographs, it's pretty easy these days to get good profiles. Either they came with the printer or you can probably download them from the manufacturer's website — so long as you use paper and ink from that same printer manufacturer. So it's hard to blame the problem of your prints being too dark on your printer profile.
Given this, most people assume they aren't using that profile correctly. After all, their monitor can't be the problem since it's the prints that are too dark. The monitor looks fine. Or does it?
Newer monitors are inherently too bright. Monitor manufacturers do this on purpose since they know most people will assume the brightest monitor in the store is the best. So year by year, monitor manufacturers work on perfecting brighter monitors. But if you edit your photos on a monitor that is too bright, your prints will end up too dark. If an image looks good on an overly bright monitor, it will print too dark on a properly calibrated printer.
When you profile your monitor so that it displays accurate color, you may or may not be aware of how bright it is. Less expensive monitor profiling software can't measure luminance (the technical term for brightness). So even if your colors display the correct hue, they may still be too bright.
I recently bought a new Lenovo ideapad laptop and profiled it with my trusty X-Right ColorMunki Photo colorimeter, the profiling system I've been using for the past few years. In the advanced mode, it has the ability to measure and help set display luminance. A generally accepted target luminance value for LCD monitors is around 120cd/m2. Never mind exactly what the units are (candela per square meter, for the curious), it's the number that matters. Values above that are brighter, and those below it are therefore dimmer. Out of the box, my brand new laptop measured an astounding 273 cd/m2. That's over twice as bright as it should be for photo editing. Chances are, if you have a new monitor, it's way too bright as well.
In the early days of LCD monitors, it used to be difficult to adjust brightness since every display driver had its own set of non-standard controls. Newer versions of Windows though make setting monitor brightness relatively simply. If you're on Windows 8, you can pull up the Charms bar (that fly-out panel of controls on the right side of your monitor) and click on Settings and then Brightness. Windows 7 users can do the same thing by opening the Control Panel and going to Power Options and then Screen Brightness. Unfortunately, neither one shows any sort of units but by relying on a better monitor calibration tool to tell you how bright your display is, you can iteratively adjust the Brightness slider until your luminance measurement close to 120. After this, let your monitor profiling software go through its normal sequence of color patch measurements and save the resulting profile as usual.
If you don't have a profiling system that allows you to measure luminance, you'll probably benefit from lowering the brightness anyway, even if you just guess at it. Be advised that if you've been using a really bright display for any length of time, one with a more appropriate luminance will seem dim and dingy by comparison. Don't worry, you'll soon get used to it though.
If you routinely use your monitor for tasks other than photo editing, you can always make note of what the "proper" Brightness setting is, setting it higher than when you want to and returning it to where it should be when you edit photos. This is why I wish Microsoft would show you what the exact Brightness setting is, so you can do this temporary adjustment accurately.
The exact value is available if you're not afraid of using the Registry Editor. Every article on editing your Windows Registry takes great pains to warn you that you can seriously break your computer if you use it incorrectly, and I'd be remiss if I didn't do the same thing here. But in this case I'm not suggesting you change anything but rather only look. Either search from the Windows 8 Start page of click on the Start menu on earlier versions to search from there. Type "Regedit" to find the program. Once you open the program, carefully navigate to "HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Brightness" where you'll see the "(Deafult)" value in both hex and decimal (the decimal value is in parenthesis following the equivalent hex number). The value here is basically a percentage from 1 to 100 and not an absolute luminance value, but once you calibrate your monitor you'll know what the magic number is you want for photo editing. In my case, a target luminance of 120cd/m2 shows in Windows registry as 48 decimal. So if I raise the brightness I can accurately put it back by checking what shows in the registry. You might think you could just edit this value to adjust brightness, but doing so doesn't seem to work. You have to adjust the actual Brightness slider, then View >> Refresh (or hit F5) to check the saved registry value. You can tweak the slider as needed until you get the registry result you are looking for.
The bottom line is that if your prints are coming out too dark, your monitor could easily be too bright. As I said at the outset, this is an all too common problem these days. I'm betting many of you need to check their monitor. My new monitor was more than twice as bright as it should have been.