Lightroom Adjustments for Correct Prints

Let me guess. You’ve done these following things:

  1. You’ve adjusted your monitor(s) so you’re viewing colors and brightness correctly on your screen(s).
  2. You’ve adjusted your photos in Lightroom (or some other program) so they look great on your screen and across the world wide internet web.
  3. You’ve done some soft-proofing (see a previous post of mine for this one), but your photos look dark and off-color when soft-proofed.
  4. You’ve printed one/some of them and it/they look dark and off-color (similar to the soft-proof but maybe even darker).

You are in a baaaaaaaad spot my friend. You can’t print anything because it’s going to look like crap! And, if you make some adjustments, you’ll screw up your well-adjusted photos in Lightroom.

Never fear. Here’s what you can do!

  1. You have done everything right so far – calibrating your monitors, making adjustments to your photos and then soft-proofing are absolutely the right things to do.
  2. Make a virtual copy of the photo you want to print and that you have soft-proofed in Lightroom.
  3. Work on the virtual copy. It has all of the good adjustments that you made to it already, and it looks good on your screen and on the web. All we have to do now is to tune it up to print well.
  4. So that we don’t mix it up, use Lightroom’s color tagging/flagging feature and tag this photo with a purple tag. I use purple for print. Get it? P-urple and P-rint? Use whatever you want though.
  5. Soft proof this photo and save it (stack with original). It will have a purple tag on it also, but you’ll know what it is because of the awful color and darkness it has.  Look at it. It probably has some common traits with almost any printed photo:
    1. It looks dark.
    2. It has a yellowish tint to it.
  6. Now switch back to your good but purple-tagged photo. You have to make adjustments to compensate. Namely they are going to be
    1. Make it lighter.
    2. Remove the yellow by adding blue (opposite area on a color wheel).
  7. Resist the temptation to mess with the luminance and white balance settings. These won’t work like you think they will. I tried it and let me tell you, it’s a mess if you go that way. You would think it would work though because if a photo looks too yellow, for example, normally an adjustment to the white balance makes it better. But because the color cast of printing is so severe, that if there is any white area in that photo, you have to go so far into the blue range to get rid of the yellow, that either the white area is going to look blue or its going to look yellow and the colors everywhere are going to be off. You’ll never get it right and that’s not what you want.
  8. Instead, go to the gradient tool. Apply a gradient of color to the photo, but start it at the bottom of the photo and go downward. By doing that, it is not really a gradient, but instead applies itself to the entire photo. You can see in this screen shot that I applied two gradients to the whole image and you can see the two dots at the bottom of the image that show these. This is because you want to primarily color the image to correct it for printing. There’s also some other adjustments that will increase the brightness so that it will not come out of the printer too dark.
  9. The first color gradient (not really a gradient) you will apply should have some settings like as shown here. I called mine “soft proof 1.” You will note that my first gradient has color of blue, clarity +30, contrast +30, and brightness +15. I did a lot of trial and error to achieve these settings, and printed several photos before I got it right. (I still have some adjusting to do.) Use these settings to get you started and adjust accordingly to match your printer.
  10. Next, apply another gradient similar to what you did with the first one. Why? Because not only do you have to increase the blue, you have to add some yellow. You may be asking why if you just added blue to counteract the yellowing of the printing process would you want to add yellow back into the photo. This is because you have to control the color cast of yellow to be what your original photo had in it and not what the yellow color of the printing process adds. These two yellows are not the same. Also, some sharpening is needed to counter the blurring effect of the printing process. I use another color gradient starting at the bottom of the photo and I called mine “soft proof 2.” The settings are a light yellow color, with  sharpness of +10.
  11. Now do a soft proof in Lightroom again on this adjusted photo (with the two color gradients). Compare the output to what your original (not the gradient adjusted one) looks like. They should almost match. Keep adjusting the gradient tool settings until you get a match (every printer is different and my settings may not work perfectly for you).
  12. Send the adjusted, gradient-added photo off to the printer and check the results (hard proof) with what you originally wanted. You may have to do a bit of back-and-forth until you get it just right.

Adjusting photos in Lightroom for good-looking prints is difficult the first time through, but once you have settings for your gradient tools used as described, you will have a shorter time of it.

Now you can feel comfortable sending your photos to the printer or printing house because you know you will get back exactly what you see on your screen!

Update January 2012: I just heard that Lightroom 4 will have soft-proofing built-in!