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As I mentioned in my last post here on, one of the most common questions I’m asked by photographers is “Why don’t my prints match my monitor?” In this article I will cover the importance of calibrating and profiling, and how to use standard test images effectively (especially when viewing images on monitors). Print testing in general and with standard images will be covered in more detail in Part 3 of this series.

Calibrate and Profile

Profiling is the creation of an ICC profile that “fingerprints” your monitor, projector or a printer/paper combination. The main goal of custom profiles, which are best created using hardware devices like the X-Rite i1 Display 2, X-Rite ColorMunki or ColorVision Spyder 3, are to help your monitor, projector or printer display or output color accurately. However, even with a calibrated and profiled system in place, you may not be happy with the results. That’s when a standard test image can save the day. Common complaints after calibrating and profiling include color that’s too saturated or not saturated enough, or prints that are too bright or too dark relative to the display when viewed under daylight-balanced lighting.

The other item I should note is that in order for all of this to work, you will need to be working with RAW files in a RAW workflow application, or files that have an embedded working space profile (for example sRGB or Adobe RGB (1998)). You’ll also need to be working in an application that’s ICC-aware (a.k.a Color Mangement-aware). Most image editors, including Adobe Photoshop, Apple Aperture Adobe Photoshop Elements and Apple iPhoto, are ICC-aware.

Test Images to the Rescue

The image shown above is a simple but very valuable 21-step neutral step wedge. The reason why it’s so valuable is because if we are able to make the neutral tones in the step wedge display as neutral and with proper brightness and contrast on our monitors and in our prints, the rest of the colors in the image will generally display or print accurately.

To access a group of test images available free for download, visit this page on and see the links next to L2.2. One of the files you’ll find there is the PhotoDisc Target. It’s an excellent test image because it is very sharp, contains many different images and colors, and is large enough to fill a large monitor or an 8.5×11 inch sheet of paper for print testing. It also contains a 21-step neutral step wedge. The link that reads “Andrew Darlow’s target” will take you to a page where you can download a file that’s a composite of about eight images plus a step wedge at the bottom (I recommend selecting the Adobe RGB-tagged image). It’s small enough to display at 100% without looking huge on most screens, and it can be printed four-up for print testing, which can save both paper and ink.

Once you have a test image open in an ICC-aware application, you should be able to see some tone in the step-wedge box that’s one step darker than pure white, and you should also see some difference between the third darkest box (two away from pure black) and the two darkest boxes. If you see no difference between the two brightest boxes, your monitor is set too bright, and if you see no difference between the three darkest boxes, your monitor is set too dark.

Once you determine if a change needs to be made, either re-profile using a hardware device and choose different luminance or brightness settings (recommended), or manually make some adjustments to your monitor. Some monitors have a lot of different modes and options, so you may need to experiment a bit until your display looks good.