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Why Won’t My Printer Print the Right Colors? The Transition from RGB to CMYK

Matthew Watkins

It’s really frustrating to spend countless hours designing a document or packaging only to discover that your printer has the audacity to print the wrong colors. The issue is not necessarily with your design. The problem is that not all printers use the same information or interpret data in the same way.

It turns out that the best way to define colors is to use numbers associated with various pigments. Numbers don’t lie to us because the number values don’t change. Instead of recognizing red, green and blue (RGB) values, for example, high-end digital printers use a color wheel of cyan, magenta and yellow (CMYK). These variances make a big difference and result in different secondary and tertiary colors.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at why printers don’t all print the same and what you can do to get the best color output possible. 

Why is This Happening?

First, let’s consider that in a typical desktop program like Microsoft Word, the colors you choose are represented by the RGB system which is intended for viewing on a computer monitor, not the printed page or products. Now imagine you invented a product that contains both plastic and metal components, and both materials need to be bright red. You found a manufacturer who can build your product, however, you want both the plastic and metal to be the same, exact red color you specify.

With so many shades of red available, how are you going to do it? The good news is that you can specify the color of your product based on the CIE Chromaticity Diagram, also known as the LAB color space. In this diagram, all colors in the same location in this color space look the same to a standard observer. The LAB color space is the Universal Translator for different devices. This includes printers, but because your desktop program might use different starting values than your printer (RGB versus CMYK), the colors you expect to see on your printed document are often disappointing.

How to Get It Right

If you print to an inexpensive desk jet printer from a big box store and I print the same document on a printer that costs thousands of dollars, you’d certainly hope to notice a marked difference in print quality and expect the higher-end printer to perform better. And it would. That’s because most printers intended for higher-output business or commercial purposes have the right translators to take the device information from the input source to the output source. Without the right color translation, even the most capable high-end printer will have problems.

Production print specialists with a printer that can sometimes exceed $100,000 in cost will use a Color Management Module (CMM), a software that does the calculations to convert files from one color profile to another. Examples of CMMs include Adobe ACE, Heidelberg CMM, Kodak CMM, Agfa CMM, and others. On a $100 desk jet printer, you have very little control over what the CMM is doing, but on the high-end printer, there is quite a bit of CMM control of input and output color space profiles.

Considerations When Designing Print Collateral

office-printer-color-accuracy-exampleTaking a step back, consider what color space you work in when designing your document. You’ll likely work in the RGB color space. We can, on higher-end printing systems, set the raster image processor (RIP) for the color space profile based on your input source. That means we can set the RIP for RGB, but when your file is processed, it can keep the original color intent and translate it into the correct CMYK output profile.

Because of this, you will likely see a significant color difference between the desk top printer and the high-end printer. Once you tweak your formula to get exactly the results you need on the better printer and lock in your settings, you’ll get the color you want each and every time.

You may need to make some tweaks to get the print results you want. It’s important to have realistic expectations from the onset and understand how the world of printing works as it relates to color management and color translations between different color spaces. Having a consistent color management system in place, whether it be big or small, will help you see the results you desire when printing in color.

Overcoming the differences between on-screen color and what ends up on the printed page is just one of the issues facing production print shops. Learn how to tackle other issues in our infographic, Overcoming the Top 5 Production Print Challenges. Just click the link below.

The Gordon Flesch Company is the largest independent Canon dealer in the nation, and we’d love to show you how our print experts can help you manage the entire color space and achieve vibrant, consistent results. Reach out to us today for a no-cost, no-obligation assessment of your print production needs.

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