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Printing by numbers

Reproducing tonal values in a print can often lead to results that appear flat or dark, this is often due to the false expectation that a print will have the same luminous properties as a modern screen.  Up until the point we make a print, out screen, our memories and ideas are how we connect with our image.  Once a print is created we can see in different light (pardon the pun), our creation is now an object, and is bestowed with the properties of a real life object as well.

Creating depth and light is about more than absolute numbers, it’s about the relationship of light and colour to each other.  Mapping of lightness values from a screen to a print is also important and a trap for the uninitiated who commonly work with monitors that are much too bright to represent a print, and that’s only the start.

This table is just a ballpark guide if you fall into this category. I created this table because I occasionally come across images that are simply too dark, it indicates that they look fine on the monitors on which they are viewed.  To use this, compare the lightness values in your image with the values below, if they’re very different, adjustments may be needed before printing.

As I stated, lightness is a relative illusion not based absolute numbers but relationships, so please use this as a reference only, or perhaps a thought starter.  This table is a starting point and was put together fairly quickly from information in dozens of files I have printed.  I can’t promise that it’s perfect just yet, but it’s not bad.

For more information on printing and applying this table, this article might help.

LAB Brightness range Type of light Examples
98 Light sources with no texture Sun, star burst, bright cloud highlights
85-95 Lighter colours, illuminated. Snow, sand, white cloud
70-90 Bright areas, not light sources Bright sky, light coloured fur
60-80 Light areas Caucasian skin, (skin highlights 80-90)
50-80 Medium to dark colours illuminated Grass, fur, rock, earth, lower sky range.  Light shadows in Caucasian skin (50) to lit face (80)
25-70 Textures open shade Wood, rock, grass, foliage, dark textures 25, light textures 70.
25-55 Dark colours in a range of lighting. Includes dark skin range, (dark skin highlights 70+)
30 Shaded areas Shadows that are opposite sunlit areas.
0-20 Deep shade with little detail Backside of tree trunk, foliage in shadows.  This range holds little detail.
1-10 Darkness, little texture Deep shaded areas approaching blacks


Here is a more complete list


 Range Low

 Range High

blue sky – bright 70 90
Dawn sky 65 85
deeper blue sky 40 75
night bright area of milky way 30 65
dark night sky behind stars 1 10


sunset orange and reds 85 95
sun burst 98
sunset orange deeper (estimated not actually checked) 70+


cloud whites lit by sun 92 98
happy cumulus cloud underneath 60 70
storm cloud underneath 25 35


snow in sun 85 95
shadow of sunlit snow 60


bright reflection in water 80 95
white froth on ocean not sunlit 75 85
water with reflections (highlights) 65 75
water with some reflection 50 60
darker reflection 60
even darker area of reflection 30
deep blue water and water in shade 30 35


direct sun on mist 85 95
sand in sun 90
light coloured fur in sun 75 90
shiny reflections on rock 75 85
grass in direct sun with detail 60 85
red sunlit surface on roof 60 80
lion fur In sun 65 80
earth in sun 55 70
bright grass 50 80
grass in sun 60 75
brown rock 30 40
another grass in sun 40 60
lighter brown rock 40 60
texture in wood 20 60
grass in open shade texture 30 60
lion fur variation 30 60
green tree with parts in sun 30 60
grass in shade with detail 20 40
bitumen 35 50
earth in shade 8 35
shaded area on rock 3 30
foliage in shadow 4 20
rock deep shadow 10 20
tree trunk in deep shadow little detail 3 8
lion fur deep shade 10 20
shaded area on rock 3 30

Caucasian skin

skin bright reflection 80 90
skin in sun 70 80
luminous skin in soft light 60 80
skin in open shade 50 60
contrasty shadow in sunlit face 30
skin in deep shadow 20

Dark skin

skin bright reflection (highlights) 70
skin in sun (except highlights) 30 55
luminous skin in soft light (except highlights) 25 50
skin in open shade 40 50
contrasty shadow in sunlit face 10 10