Colour Reproduction Basics – RGB, CMYK …WTF?

Colour Reproduction Basics - RGB, CMYK .......WTF?

Ahh colour reproduction; the bane of every designer/photographer/printer’s existence. Although we regularly receive comments about how accurate our colours are, a 100% match to what you see on your screen is influenced by lots of factors, so let's cover colour reproduction basics.

But, fear not my friend!  Read on because this article will:

  • Explain colour reproduction basics in layman's terms
  • Describe the two biggest factors contributing to a perceived difference in colour
  • Help set your expectations when it comes to printing
  • Give you some tips on how to match what you're seeing with what we're printing
  • Immediately increase your intelligence by 0.0021%*

* Experiences may vary

Factor 1: RGB and CMYK

* Uber geek alert *


Images on your camera or computer (and most other screens) are created through mixing different colours of light called RGB - short for Red, Green and Blue.

Physics lesson coming back to you now?


Meanwhile, just to confuse things, printed materials use inks that mix together to make colours.

These colours are CMYK - short for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, BlacK. (K is used because it is the "Key" colour)

You’ll know this if you have a colour printer at home that yells at you every week “FEED ME MORE MAGENTA! NOM NOM NOM NOM”.

What makes the difference then?

The main difference here is that one uses light to create colour (RGB) and the other creates colour through the reflection of light off pigmentation (CMYK). This is why the colours on your final print may look slightly different to the colours you see on your screen.

We ask for RGB files and convert it to CMYK ourselves, so if you’re printing with us, you shouldn’t need to worry about any of the above unless your image has been edited to CMYK colours (e.g. by a designer).

Most photos are RGB, so unless you know someone has been fiddling with your image, you'll be fine.

Factor 2: Your Screen

BUT that’s not all; your screen itself might be causing the problem.

If you were to show the same image on 5 different screens, they’d all appear slightly different to each other.


  • Different brightness & contrast settings
  • Different temperature & saturation settings
  • Maybe they were turned on at different times… some screens take a while to ‘warm up’ while others are quicker
  • Different screen resolutions
  • The lighting and position of the screen in comparison to the lighting or any windows will have an effect on how the image appears

So many reasons why your print might look different on your computer and IRL**. Yay.

**In Real Life

How To: Basic Screen Calibration


The display calibration tool can be found in Appearance > Display Control Panel (if you can’t find it, just search ‘calibrate’ and it should pop up - God knows I can’t find anything on Windows).

Click the option to calibrate your monitor and follow the instructions to edit your brightness, contrast, gamma (here’s an explanation of what on Earth that is, if you don't mind slipping into a coma) and colour settings to match the test image you’re shown as best you can.

Choose ‘Current Calibration’ once you’re happy!

Colour Reproduction Basics - Basic Screen Calibration on Windows

Improving Colour Reproduction - Basic Screen Calibration on Windows


You can find the ‘Display Calibration Assistant’ in System Preferences > Displays.

The program will walk you through editing the brightness, contrast, gamma and colour settings.

At the end, press continue to save your new settings.

Colour Reproduction Basics - Basic Screen Calibration on Apple Mac

Improving Colour Reproduction - Basic Screen Calibration on Apple Mac

Serious Colour Calibration

Or, if you’re serious about getting accurate, spot-on colour for regular printing, you can buy a screen calibrator and let that do the work for you!

How much you spend is up to you, but we would recommend the following from price range approx $130 to $260 NZD (excluding shipping) 

If you’re printing a canvas with us, rest assured we calibrate all our systems regularly, but we’ll always let you know if something’s looking way off balance! So now you know colour reproduction basics....

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