Printing Surrealistic Color

Printing Surrealistic Color

Screen technology has dramatically changed the everyday consumption and expectations of imagery. Laptops, cell phones, and TVs are all so much better than they were just a few years ago. Instagram, especially, has even given your average user the ability to get a nice-looking image very quickly simply by applying a filter. The technology has also made the idea of making a physical print that matches or exceeds those color profiles much, much more difficult. Taking care and following a few guidelines can help you print your own photos and retain that pop of almost-surrealistic color.

Basics of Color for Print

Among the most common questions for someone just learning how to print is “how come the print doesn’t look like it does on my screen?” The simplest answer is that your screen and your printer/paper do not have the same ability to display colors. Getting these two things to work together is going to require some good editing and understanding of gamuts and profiles.

Let’s run through these terms quickly. Gamut is very similar to color space, something else you may have heard. Both of these represent a range of colors that can be displayed. The difference is that gamuts refer to the entire range of possible colors in a given situation, while color spaces are standardized sets of colors, such as sRGB or Adobe RGB. One thing to understand for printing is that displays and computer monitors generally have much larger gamuts than printers and paper. It also helps that they are backlit, and this allows them to have a more consistent appearance when it comes to saturation and brightness ranges. Another benefit is that displays can show a true white, whereas paper is limited to its original color, however bright or neutral that is. Once you understand these concepts, you can start working to get your prints looking as close to your photos as possible.

Working with Color

When you have an image you want to print, hopefully one that just pops off the screen, now you have to take this information and apply it to your edit. Yes, there will be more editing even if you have a perfect shot you have already been sharing all over social media. Primarily, you have to understand the limitations of your personal technology. Looking at the computer screen first, you have to ask whether it is calibrated or not, this is probably the biggest reason why many prints don’t look the way they do when they pop out of the printer. Using a Calibrite or Datacolor tool you can ensure consistency with many standards, though our recommendation is Adobe RGB, since it most closely relates to the color gamut of a modern inkjet printer.

The next part of the equation is ICC profiles. These help your computer translate the image information so that they know how to use their ink to produce accurate colors on your specific paper type. Since they are dedicated to your printer/paper combinations, make sure you are changing them if you decide to change anything else in the process, such as paper type or the machine on which you’re working. If you need to find some profiles, you can usually head to the paper manufacturer’s website and download them for common printer models. Many will even produce unique profiles for you if you send them a test print from your printer.

A huge benefit of profiles is when you use them to help in the editing process. Photoshop and other similar apps will let you load in these profiles to proof your images before you send them to print. Going back to the earlier statement that screens can be significantly better in terms of color saturation than your prints, this step is very important for getting the same distinct pop of colors that you get when you post your photos on Instagram. With proper software, loading up a profile will show which colors may not print out properly or simply cannot be reproduced with this specific color combination. By carefully editing your images, you can get the colors pushed to the printer’s absolute limit and still have them look great.

Finally, while you can use whatever paper you feel comfortable using. If you want something with the most vivid colors and excellent contrast, I have to advise going the luster and glossy route. Matte papers have an amazing quality, but this also means they cannot produce as deep blacks, which will impact the overall gamut. Glossy and high-end luster finishes will support deep, rich blacks and can produce colors that truly pop. Also, you may want to consider brighter/whiter papers since this will also contribute to the overall range of colors and contrast. You can only get as bright and white as the paper, so keep this in mind when you start your search.

I hope this information will make it easier for you to get the same pop and flash of color that you do on Instagram in your physical prints. Honestly, nothing can compare to holding one of your images in your hand and hanging it up on a wall. If you have any more questions about printing please feel free to leave a comment below!


Could you please comment on the color matching difficulties of editing on common sRGB monitors and printing on wider color space printers, particularly pigment ink machines?  Also, if you would, please offer some methods to resolve those issues short of purchasing a relatively expensive monitor capable of displaying the Adobe RGB color space.

Great question! If you only have an sRGB display there are two things to do. First, make sure it is well calibrated, because this will get you 90% of the way there. As long as your screen is properly calibrated to sRGB, you can then set your working color space for sRGB in Photoshop and when you print it should look very close. If you are aiming to make use of the wider color space available to you this is where it gets difficult. Working in Adobe RGB on an sRGB display means you are actually working with colors you can't see. This is impossible to fix without getting a better display, but if you are well calibrated you should be able to get close. Follow this up with test prints (save ink by printing strips/portions of important parts of your image rather than an entire print) and you should be able to approximate the edits you need through trial and error.

Also, since I forgot and it is in the article. Using ICC profiles for your paper is critical here and it can help show you areas that are out of gamut before you hit print.