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Why do my scanned or digital photos look better on screen than when printed?

The Appeal of a Print

The images on your screen are beautiful, but exceptional photographs belong on the wall. You may enjoy flicking through a photograph album or just want to hold a print in your hands, or share with family and friends. These tangible objects hint at our stories and invite conversation.

Sadly, scanned photographs often go from sensational on your screen to bland on paper. If you want an outstanding print, there are three main issues to consider.

  1. Color Conversion
  2. File Resolution & Size
  3. Choice of printing lab

The Photo Restoration Center can help.

When you scan a photograph and view it on a screen, the vibrancy and level of detail bring the past breathtakingly close. Optimizing images before printing means the results won’t fall short of the luminosity you admired on your screen.

Understanding Color Conversion

On an electronic device, the colors in a photo are projected light in the RGB spectrum (red, green, and blue). A printer has to turn this into something tangible, like a tube of paint. It converts the information in your photo to what is known as a CMYK color space. If you’ve replaced cartridges in a color printer, you will know this stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and yes, “K” means black. You can read more about it here https://www.bluestripecreative.com/what-the-k-in-cmyk-stands-for/

Printers layer inks to create over 16,000 different color combinations. Higher-end printers have more pigments to mix, such as light black, light cyan, and light magenta. These create an even broader visible color spectrum. The human eye can see millions and millions of colors.

The problem is the medium

Watching paint colors swirl together is something we all enjoy as children. But when the game goes too far, and the paint mixes too much, we end up with just one shade: brown. This is because blending the paint removes some of the light waves that our brains perceive as color. The same thing happens inside a printer when ink is layered. This process is called subtractive color mixing because it takes away light.

A computer screen projecting RGB works the opposite way. Black pixels emit red, green, and blue light waves, and mixing light gives you a brighter color. If a child could daub colored light with their brush, mixing would not turn their swirls brown, but white. It is a process called additive color mixing because it adds light.

Color Conversion: additive vs. subtractive color

Subtractive and additive color mixing are different languages. When a computer sends an image to a printer, some things get lost in translation. It happens to a degree even if you use the very best printer.

You can use this interactive tool to try out subtractive and additive color mixing.


Resolution Matters

In printing and on a computer screen, images are made up of tiny areas of color arranged in a grid pattern. On a screen, these areas are called pixels per inch (ppi). In printing, they are referred to as dots per inch (dpi). These days the two terms are for most purposes interchangeable.

Most digital devices display images at 72-96 pixels per inch of screen. For example, a 300 x 300 ppi image is about 4 x 4 inches on a digital screen. You work this out by dividing the 300 ppi by 72. This tells you that the image will use 4.16 inches of the screen. If your display device is 96 ppi, the same image will take up less screen space. 300 divided by 96 is 3.125, so the picture will use just over three inches of your screen space.

When you send the 300 x 300 ppi file to a printer, you need at least 300 ppi/dpi per inch for an optimal print. The file will print at 1 x 1 inch.

pixel interpolation in photos

Quality prints require more densely packed pixel information to show detail than a screen does.  A printer can use guesswork to fill in some pixels. This process is called interpolation.  Software analyses the colors of the original pixels and estimates what color pixel would suit the gap. In the example above, the purple areas in the ‘before’ image represent missing grid squares. The software will guess the color of these pixels. If you want an image printed at two inches instead of one, the printer will interpolate grey pixels between black and white pixels. This means that an enlarged photo generally appears more blurry. Without interpolation, it may look ‘pixelated’ like a mosaic.

For a great image, your printer needs enough information to print at least 300dpi at the size you wanted it printed, without using interpolation. For an enlargement, your image file needs to contain more pixels. For an 8×10 photo, your file would need to be at least 2400 x 3000 pixels.

Pixel information can only be captured during the scanning process, so when scanning your original photograph for restoration, consider how large you want your print to be. It is better to over scan than under scan. Getting the resolution and size right means you can successfully print and enlarge it. To help you scan your images at the correct resolution, use our scanning calculator https://thephotorestorationcenter.com/scanning-calculator-and-guide/

Printing at a Drugstore vs. a Professional Lab

Mass market printing services are available online or in the drugstore. These options are accessible, but the process is automated, so prints are rarely faithful to the original.

If you try printing your great-grandmother’s cabinet card at a drugstore, the results might be a surprise. There is a good chance she will return looking an embarrassed shade of lilac, or a sickly green. These services set up their machines in different ways and keep their printers in different conditions. Variables like these will change the appearance of your print.

Originals are one of a kind. If you need to restore or replace a photograph that means a lot to you, it’s a task that deserves the care of an expert.

The Photo Restoration Center can reproduce a faithful print and achieve the best color match with your photograph. We also choose an appropriate photographic paper. The final product can resemble the appearance, feel, and weight of the original.

Displaying Your Print

After you receive your new print, there are steps you can take at home to keep it looking great. Plan how to minimize the light around it and keep it out of direct sunlight. If you are framing your photograph, you can protect it from fading and discoloration by requesting Museum Glass®. Our advice on framing will help you keep your print in perfect condition for years to come.

How to prevent fading: https://thephotorestorationcenter.com/faded-photos/