One of the most common problems I hear about from photographers is that when they have their images printed by a photo lab, the images come back dark.

The Problem

The chances are that the cause is an uncalibrated monitor.  The problem isn’t that the lab is printing you images too dark, but that your monitor is too bright which allows you to see detail in the shadow areas that (as far as the lab is concerned) isn’t really there.

Not only will the lab send you dark images but anyone who has a correctly calibrated monitor who looks at your image will see them looking dark.  Only this week I had a photographer send me some images from an event at my studio to ask my opinion of them.  One of the things I picked up was that the images were a little dark, and there appeared to be a lack of detail in the shadows.  I very quickly asked the question, and was pretty sure I knew what the answer was going to be.  “Is your monitor calibrated?”  It wasn’t.

The first time I calibrated my monitor, I really couldn’t believe just how much I had to turn the brightness down.  All of a sudden the images on my screen look dark… and somehow strangely similar to the images I was getting back from the lab!

Reprocessing the old images and all the images images I worked on from that point on, when they were printed came back looking correct.

Hardware Calibration

So I know what you are thinking.  Ian’s about to tell me to go out and spend money on hardware to calibrate my monitor.  Well, to be honest, yes – if you are serious about creating great images then you really do need to calibrate your monitor.  Until you do, it will be a bit of a lottery as to the quality of the images you get back from the lab.

Calibration Image

[slb_exclude]However, if you are just starting out with your photography or money is a bit tight, there are things you can do that will improve the images you get back.


[/slb_exclude]Click on the above image and download it to you computer.  It’s a calibration image from Fuji – I actually got it from DS Colour Labs who I use for all my printing and I highly recommend them.

Next you need to do two things.  Firstly open the image in whatever program you use to edit your image (if it is Lightroom make sure you DO NOT apply any develop settings on import).  With the image as large as you can make it on your screen adjust the brightness and contrast on your monitor.  I can’t tell you how to do that as the controls are different on each monitor but it is usually a set of buttons on the front or the side of the monitor.  You want to set your contrast to 100% or as high as it will go.  Look at the image and make sure you can see a difference between each adjacent square on the right side of the image.  The top right square is black and should appear to be deep black, but you should still be able to see a slight difference between it square to its left. Reduce the brightness until it is as dark as you can make it and still the difference.

Secondly send the image to your lab and get them to print it.  Again I recommend using DS Colour Labs – when you get the print back adjust your monitor’s colours (read the manual for your monitor to learn how to do this) until the image on your screen is as close as possible to the print in your hand.

The above method will never give you as good a result as hardware calibration, but it is better than nothing.

If you are really technically minded and use DC Colour Labs for your printing you might want to take a look at this article on their website on calibration and colour profiles.