Everyone understands that screens are not paper. So when our photo prints come back looking flat and muddy compared the vibrant image on our monitor, we are disappointed but not exactly shocked.
Can this be prevented? Using the same color profile for both screen proofing and print output can go a long way the ensuring that we’re not trying to print colors that are unavailable to us.
But it’s in the nature of printed images — especially when printed with ink as with most books and home printers but even with photographic (light-based) printing as well — to fill in dark areas. Analogy could be made to the discovery by early Renaissance printers that if counters — for example, the enclosed space in the letter e — were too small they would fill in and render the type less legible.
The best fix for this problem is to brighten the darks, generally from the darkest point up to the midtones. Fortunately, there is a simple way to do this, and it will make your printed images brighter and more vibrant. I do my post processing in Photoshop because I have long experience with that program, but similar processes are available in Lightroom & other applications. Here I will show the work flow in Photoshop.
Let’s start with this image, taken at Foz in Porto, Portugal. If we were to send this image to print, the tree at the right would likely turn into a solid mass of dull color. To fix this we will select the dark tones. In photoshop, you can do this by first control-clicking RGB in the Channels pallet.
That actually selects midtones through highlights, so we must inverse the selection.
Now add a curves adjustment layer in the layers pallet. Just add it, don’t modify the curve.
Change the layer mode to screen.
This will brighten all the darks in the image. The effect will probably be more than you want, so choose the amount of brightening by adjusting the layer opacity. I like to start at the left (zero opacity, showing the original image) and move the slider to the right until reaching the desired amount.
For this demonstration I have brightened the image more than I otherwise would, in order to better show the effect. Before printing I would probably darken the sky and the walkway a bit.
Here is a comparison of the original image, on left, and the image with the darks brightened, on right.
Here’s a detail to better show the effect of the brightening.
You can play with the amounts of the adjustments to get what works best for you. But your printed images will surely look better with this sort of adjustment. Have fun!