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Monitors, On-Screen Color, and Color Reproduction

The problem of color monitors, on-screen color, and color reproduction is a complicated subject that involves a number of very different technical problems and different technologies. Let's get this discussion off on the right foot by stating right up-front that you can never accurately match your monitor's color to your print job. OK, with that out of the way we can start to look at the problem and examine some partial solutions.

RGB vs CMYK Color

The first problem to deal with is the way that computers display color is the exact opposite of the way that color appears when printed on paper. For a more detailed explanation of RGB vs CMYK color please refer to our CMYK Color page in the Help section.

Computer monitors create images using combinations of just three colors: Red, Green and Blue (RGB). These are the primary colors of visible light. This also how televisions display images on their screens. RGB colors appear brighter and more vivid specifically because the light is being projected directly into the eyes of the viewer. The monitor literally shines the colored light directly into your eyes.

RGB (additive) Colors

RGB (additive) Color

RGB color is an "additive" process in which the three colors are combined in different amounts to produce various colors. It is called "additive" because you must add varying amounts of two or more colors to achieve hues and values other than the three basic red, green and blue colors.

Professional printing presses print full color pictures by using the colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK). In this "subtractive" process the various inks absorb the light reflected from the underlying white paper to produce the colors that your eye sees. The colors that you see are those colors which were not absorbed by the ink. It is called subtractive because when you subtract the other colors, the color that is left is the color that you see.

 CMY (subtractive) Colors

CMY (subtractive)

Because the perceived CMYK color is made by light reflected from the printed page it can never be as brilliant and intense as the backlit color on a computer monitor. It is also affected by the underlying paper color, reflectivity, and the lighting conditions in the rooms where the page is viewed. As a result, CMYK is never as intense as color when viewed on a computer monitor.

Computer Monitors Have the Blues

As a general rule, all unmanaged computer monitors are too bright and as a rule they are too Blue in color (this may vary by manufacturer). To begin to approximate print production color is is necessary to take some degree of control over the color that you monitor displays. There are some basic free tools that come with some systems and Adobe supplies a Gamma color adjustment tool with Photoshop. We recommend however that if you want to have more precise control that you make the investment in one of the relatively inexpensive devices designed to analyze your monitor's color and to make a customized ICC profile which then adjusts that color to the printing industry standard for color displays.

Monitor Calibration Tools

To calibrate you monitor to the greatest possible degree it is necessary to use a specialized calibration device such as the ones listed below. These are reasonably priced devices well and should be within the budget of any design professional. If used regularly, any of these will make a big difference in the day-to-day accuracy of your monitor. It is a good idea to seach the internet before puchasing one of these devices because the price will vary by as much as 10-20%.

Any of these mentioned above will adjust your monitor without a large investment. It is possible to spend much more on a calibrator which will also be able to help with printer calibration. The prices rise can above $1500 very quickly.

Basic Monitor Calibration Without a Calibrator

We recommend that you consider purchasing any of the devices mentioned above. It is quicker, easier, and the results are much better. However, if you choose not to invest in a calibrator then there are some basic things that you can do to help your monitor display color. If you have Photoshop then you should use the Gamma tool to make some basic adjustments.

In general you should always set the Contrast to 100% and then adjust the Brightness down. The Gamma tool will give you a black and dark gray target that you use to adjust Brightness. Usually the goal is to just be able to make out the dark gray square on the black background. The Gamma tool will then lead you through a series of adjustments designed to neutralize the colors of your display and to remove any cast that us usually present (remember the Blues I mentioned earlier). It is a very good idea to set the desktop backround to a neutral gray to remove any influence that the background or wallpaper will have on your color perception. Yes, I know it's not a cute as your children's picture but it will really help.

The standard target gamma for printing is now 2.2 (older Macs were often set to 1.8 but 2.2 is the current standard). The color temperature goal is 6500K.

If you don't have the Adobe Gamma tool then you can use whatever adjustment tools that may have come with your system (Macs have something similar to Gamma in their OS X). The goal is the same no matter what software you use. You can even use the controls built into the monitor itself if you have nothing else. Be certain to use a neutral medium gray desktop background when making any adjustment. You are trying to make this gray absolutely neutral. Small adjustments will shift its overall cast from Red to Blue to Green very quickly.