— Dane Creek

Monitor Brightness and Dark Prints

One of the most common complains I hear from photographers printing their images for the first time is how dark the prints are. Very often they’ve spent quite a bit of time getting their images to look great for their online web gallery, then do an on-demand book or order prints from a shop like mpix or Costco. The prints come back and they are disappointed. All the detail in the shadows are missing and the vibrance is just gone. “But I’ve calibrated my monitor!” they say. And yet the prints are still dark.

The culprit is almost always a monitor that’s set too bright for print work. By default LCD displays are blindingly bright. Prints don’t have backlighting!

Monitor calibration is great for ensuring colour accuracy from display to print. But unless you pay attention it doesn’t help get your monitor to the right luminance.

While there’s no golden rule for how bright your monitor should be, most fine art printers I’ve read about aim for anywhere between 80 and 120 cd/m2. The actual value you use will depend in large part on the ambient light in your workspace that you use to compare the prints to your monitor.

How do you find out how bright your monitor is? Look for the luminance reading while you are calibrating. If you own a Spyder the value is shown during the calibration process when you adjust your red/green/blue channels to be even:

This is an actual shot of my monitor luminance after my most recent calibration. It’s a hair on the bright side for my ambient lighting situation, but there’s nothing I can do about it. The monitor backlight is set to zero, so there’s no darker I can go. Yes, it’s probably time to upgrade to a better display…

What do you do if you don’t have any calibration tools? Just set your backlight to zero. Chances are it will be close enough, and it will certainly be much better than the 50 setting your LCD is probably currently set to.

For those of you who do calibrate and print, what display luminance do you find works best for your workspace?