How to Calibrate Your Screen for Printing Without a Colorimeter

Lights between the fog and trees in Yellowstone during the winter in US. Black and white photo by Amar Guillen.
Lights between the fog and trees in Yellowstone during the winter in the U.S.

Tip #5: Decrease the Brightness of Your Screen

You certainly know that a screen emits light while paper absorbs light. These two physical occurrences thus impact your photographs quite differently

Even if you calibrate your screen correctly with a probe, it is not a guarantee that your prints will be correct.

Calibrating your screen ensures that everyone who has a calibrated screen will see your photos the same way you do. That is all there is to it.

To use a printer properly, theoretically, you should calibrate it. This is what all professional labs do. Indeed, they print pictures that are different from each other. By calibrating their printers, they ensure that the red, green, and blue colors will be printed with the same value.

That is kind of the problem with general labs. They average out the colorimetry. Your prints will not be treated separately. They will be printed with the same settings applied to all the others. That is one of the reasons why I recommend that you use a personal printer, so that you can select the settings for each individual print and achieve the exact results you want.

You do not need to calibrate your printer. Here is the procedure to avoid buying a calibration probe for your printer.

  • Before printing, lower the brightness of your screen. Set a value between one and ten.
  • Be sure to save the value you obtained after calibration. You will come back to it after printing. For example, the calibration of your screen has set you at a value of 54. Lower this value to one between five and ten with the brightness control of your screen. Your picture will appear very dark. This is normal. You have in front of you the photo as it appears on your paper.
  • Now print your photo. You will probably notice that it is dark. If this is your first-time printing, this is normal. Do not worry about it.
    Most photographers never print their photos. First impressions are often surprising.
  • Still keeping the brightness of your screen at a low value, you need to adjust the tone of your photo. Depending on the software you use to develop your photos, you can add some light. Personally, I use Adobe Photoshop to develop my photos. I add a curve adjustment layer. Then I increase the brightness of the mid-tones a bit, about 1.05. I will not go into detail about these operations, as they are out of the scope of this blog post.
  • Once you have increased the light in your photo, you print again.
  • You must repeat the process until the printout is correct.

If this is your first time printing, you will need to print four or five photos. This is quite normal.

Once you are satisfied with the result, you have obtained a printed photo whose lights are identical to the one displayed on your screen. Only judge the lights against your screen. This photo is a standard photo. It will always serve you as a baseline in the future.

If you reset the brightness of your screen to the value calibrated by your sensor, you will notice that your picture is very bright. This is normal. You must cancel the setting to return to the original photo.

For each printed photo, you have one photo for the screen and one photo for printing. Thus, you have two photos.

Moreover, this printable photo is valid for your printer.

If you send it to a lab, send the original screen instead. Indeed, if you send your corrected photo for printing on your printer, you risk receiving a bad print in return.

If you use a quality professional lab, they will do the brightness correction. This is part of their job, so you do not need to adjust it before.

Tip #6: Always Use Your Reference Photo

In the previous paragraph, I explained how to print correctly by lowering the brightness of your screen. The first perfectly printed photo is what I call a “master photo.”

When you print other pictures, you always use it as a reference.

The principle is simple.

  • Before printing a photo, you lower the brightness of your screen.
  • Then you place your standard photo next to your screen. You adjust the light of your screen to have the same rendering of the lights on the standard photo and on your screen.
  • All you need to do is modify the light of your photos to be printed so that the result on your printer is correct.

The reference photo allows you to always adjust the brightness of your screen to print correctly.

With this simple method, you can avoid buying a probe to calibrate your printer.

Tip #7: Use a Quality Professional Laboratory

In the previous paragraphs, I explained to you the interest of printing your photos with a personal printer. The advantage with this method is that you will learn to manage the tone and the light of your photos. You can believe me: when you print your photos, you photograph in a different way.

In the field, you will imagine your photos printed and you will understand how to use the light.

For me, it was one of the biggest shocks in my apprenticeship as a nature photographer.

When I worked for photo agencies or magazines, the screen calibration was sufficient. I delivered photos that were developed on a calibrated screen. It was up to those who bought my photos to make the adjustments to print them correctly.

When I decided to create nature art photos in 2010, I used a general lab to print the photos for my first exhibition. The printing cost was not high. I did a test with ten photos. I got my money's worth, but the photos were flat and the blacks were blocked. All my photos were dull, without any real interest. Yet on my screen, they looked great. I could not see myself displaying them at all. I still have these photos in a closet. They always remind me of that decisive step of printing.

After that disheartening experience, I decided to contact a professional lab that specializes in large photo prints.

This time I sent two photos for a 60 × 90 cm print. The result was extraordinary. I had real art photos. That is when I decided to buy a professional quality printer.

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I started to run some tests. I realized how difficult it was to print photos. I then understood that being a shooter required a lot of skill and expertise.

When I print in my studio, I can produce excellent quality photos, which I can sell. But I am limited by the size. That is why I use two professional labs. One of them is in the United States in the state of Arizona and the other is in France for my European clients. It took me some time to select each one. I weighed many factors. Here is my method for working with a professional lab.

  • Develop photos with a calibrated screen.
  • Always run test prints in the studio with a personal printer. I do this for each photo.
  • Choose one or two photos that will be printed by the labs.
  • Using a reference photo provided by the laboratories, make the necessary adjustments to two photos.
  • I never let anyone touch up my photos. I want to remain in control of my entire creative and artistic process. The principle of the standard photo for the lab is the same as that of the studio printer. When I receive the final prints from the labs, I look to see if my processes are correctly adjusted. Usually there are no surprises.

If you use a professional lab to print your photos, I recommend that you use good quality paper. Do not hesitate.


I hope that this article has helped you understand that printing your photos allows you to experience real pleasure by seeing the end result of your photographic activity.

Printing your photos will also help you to progress in the field.

If you were to retain only one major principle from this article, let it be this: retain a standard printed photo as a baseline, whether you are using a personal printer or the services of a professional laboratory.

Remember that a photo only exists from the moment it is on paper. Before that, it is merely an image, an idea that exists digitally.

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