Why doesn’t my print look like the project on the screen?

If you’ve ever created a colorful masterpiece of a graphic project only to feel deflated after seeing how it prints out, you may have fallen into the common RGB vs CMYK trap.  Knowing the difference between these color modes can save your project when displaying on screen and on paper.

RGB and CMYK are two of the most common color modes you can choose from when using programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.  Knowing when to use each mode will help your project be as true to life as you intend it to be.

RGB is an acronym for the color mode that includes Red, Blue and Green.  It is an additive mode, which means that as each of the red, blue and green colors are added together, they combine to form white, as seen below:


This mode is used when displaying for television or computer screens, mobile device screens, scanners, digital cameras as well as some stage lighting fixtures.  If your project is going to be displayed on screen (web design, for example) RGB mode should be used.

CMYK is, in many ways, just the opposite of RGB.  It is an acronym for the color mode that includes Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and ‘Key’ or Black (in most cases).  It is a subtractive color model, which means that as you add color, you take light away.  when all colors are combined, black will be the result.  This model acts just as if you were to physically add different colored paints or inks together.  An example is shown below:


If your project is to be printed, such as making invitations, flyers or business cards, CMYK color mode is what you’ll want to choose.

Will RGB print?  Sure it will.  You don’t have to convert it.  Behind the scenes, the computer will convert the color mode to CMYK in order to print it.  However, it won’t always look like what you’re seeing on the screen.  Here’s an example.



The two images above are of the same beach scene, however the top image was saved in RGB mode, and the bottom in CMYK.  Notice the difference?  You’ll see that some of the colors don’t seem to have changed at all, while some are a bit more dramatic.  The blue hues in the sky (especially the clouds) and the greens in the water seem much more subdued in the CMYK version.  The red hues of the sand in the shadows area are also not as rich, because of the subtractive properties of the color mode.  The lower image is a more accurate version of what will come out of the printer.

When it comes to saving an image for an on-screen application, what you see on your monitor will be pretty much what you get.  However, if your intention is to have a hard copy version of your project, using CMYK as early on as you can will display a better representation and save you from some unnecessary headaches down the road.