How to get the best print color? RGB vs CMYK

How to get the best print color? RGB vs CMYK

As an online store owner, you might have experienced the difference between your design and the final product print color. While most of your customers buy your unique design products because of the emotional appeal and not color brightness, it is very important that the product they receive is the same color as the one they see on the screen.

In this article, you will find instructions on how to make sure the printed colors match your computer screen.

But first, let’s look at technical differences of screen colors vs printed colors to better understand why they don’t match always.

Print Color – visible light spectrum?

Color is the aspect of things that is caused by differing qualities of light being reflected or emitted by them.

Radio waves are observed by your eye and translated by your brain’s neural impulses into color, therefore the human eye can see a wide spectrum of colors.

How to get the best print color? RGB vs CMYK 1

Computer screen: RGB colors

In order to effectively and efficiently represent colors on your screen, practically every computer and mobile device on the planet uses the RGB color system. Red, Green, Blue are coded in computer-understandable language – using bits. Due to technical limitations, the RGB color gamut is smaller than that of what your eye can see.

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RGB is called an “additive” system – color tones are created by mixing Red, Green and Blue lights in various proportions. This system works well for computers because your screen emits light and can change the intensity of every color emitted.

How to get the best print color? RGB vs CMYK 3

Printed products: CMYK colors

To see color, you have to have light. When light shines on an object some colors bounce off the object and others are absorbed by it. Our eyes only see the colors that are bounced off or reflected.

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Printed products like t-shirts, mugs, and canvas don’t emit, but only reflect light. Therefore it is not possible to use the same additive RGB color system for printing.

Almost every printer in the world prints uses the CMYK system – even your home or office color printer. The CMYK system is called a “subtractive” system – each pigment partially or completely subtracts (absorbs) some wavelengths of light and not others. The color that a surface displays depend on which parts of the visible spectrum are not absorbed and therefore remain visible.

Every printer’s cartridge tray contains four different cartridges labeled Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y) and Black (K – as the “key” color for registering other colors). Mixing pure Cyan, Magenta and Yellow pigments would result in black by absorbing all colors. In printers Black (K) ink is added for better shadow density.

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Print Color limitations

As a result, CMYK has a smaller color gamut, than RGB. You should remember that with the CMYK color profile it is simply not possible to print bright red, bright green or bright blue colors.

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If you use the RGB color system to create your designs, the printed result can be quite disappointing.

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On the left, there is an uploaded RGB file with bright red print. On the right, you can see how it would look when printed using CMYK colors. Bright colors become less bright.

There is an easy solution to avoid unpleasant surprises. By setting your Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator image settings to CMYK you will see on screen colors close to the actual print.

Photoshop Before creating the art file click: Image-> Mode -> CMYK Color

Illustrator Before creating the art file click: File->Document Color Mode -> CMYK Color

File types and specs

PNG file type:
  • Supports RGB and sRGB Color Modes
  • Supports transparent background
  • Works for apparel, all other products
JPEG file type:
  • Supports RGB, sRGB and CMYK Color Modes
  • Does not support transparent background
  • Works for everything is transparent background is not necessary

For all products for which you do not need a transparent background – phone cases, mugs, canvas etc. – it is highly recommended to use a JPEG file with the CMYK Color Mode. This will yield a print output that matches the image colors as shown on the computer screen very closely.

For all products for which you want to have a transparent background, such as apparel, you will have to use a PNG file. Unfortunately, PNG does not support the CMYK color profile. However, that’s not a big problem, because you can design the image in CMYK color mode to reflect the CMYK color gamut. This way you will have a little discrepancy between what you see on screen and on the actual print.

When a printing company says that they print using RGB, what they mean is that they accept RGB format files. Before printing, every image goes through the printing device’s native raster image process (RIP) which converts the PNG file with an RGB color profile to a CMYK color profile.

Achieving the best possible results

When selling products online, the most important thing is to find a passionate niche and market products to your consumers. They care about what the product represents and not what exact tone the printed color is.

Unless you are a corporation with a strict brand book, there is no point in spending a lot of time in color calibration or management. All you need is to make sure that what the customers see on screen is close to the actual print that they will receive. We strongly recommend you to create and save your artwork in CMYK color mode – that will provide optimal output matching screen colors.

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3 comments

  1. Linda
    July 18

    What is the best color palette to use on a home printer for paper, as in printing a photo. I’m so confused as to whether to use RGB or CMYK. I read conflicting information.

  2. David Dube
    July 10

    CMYK has the smallest color gamut. If you want vivid colors, especially red, good luck. Check the gamut warning in PS. Go to View > Proof Setup > CMYK > then Gamut Warning. Adjust the colors until the warning color wash is gone and see what you’re left with.

  3. Ash
    March 22

    Hi , thanks for your detail explanation.
    Can we use adobe CS6 colour profiles to print good CMYK print?
    Please advise Can colour profile helps to print bright colours ?
    Thanks

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