I made a map with a terrain-colored relief-shading in the background. I then exported them as PDF from Print Composer in QGIS. But when I print the PDF onto paper:

  • the shaded-relief color in the background appeared way darker than it supposed to.
  • the colors of roads, symbols and labels in the foreground looked all right, though.

All of the colors in the PDF itself appeared correct.

Is there a way to ensure my print colors look right on paper?


3 Answers 3


Unless you have calibrated your printer to match your monitor, or have specified CMYK or Pantone colors, then printed output is almost certain to look different than what you see on your screen. The colors are even likely to look different on another monitor.



The primary reason is that the color on a monitor is ADDITIVE color (RGB) and the color on paper is SUBTRACTIVE (CMYK from a printing press, or pseudo-cmyk from an inkjet or laser printer)

Zero color elements gives you black on a monitor, while zero color elements gives you white (the paper color) on paper

In additive color, the color elements add light in subtractive color, the color absorbs incident light: cyan absorbs green light: all of a white light is reflected except the green wavelengths Magenta absorbs blue, Yellow absorbs red. Black is added because the inks have to be somewhat transparant so you can overlay them to get other colors, and 100% of each of the CMY components don't quite absorb all light (to make black)

The whitest paper you are likely to find will only reflect about 80% of the incident light (snow reflects more, but you cannot print easily on snow, and it is hard to store) Thus, you are losing light right off the bat, before any ink is added. As you add ink, you lose still more light.

This is why strong, saturated colors look good on screen but look like dark mud on paper.

Color balancing monitors and printers is a frustrating, endless job. It is better to establish a standard pallette (that can be as extensive as you care to make it), and print a color chart on your printer of choice. Adjust the color components so they look right on the paper. Now you can pick your colors off the chart, and you know what to expect when you use the color components you have specified.

You should also be aware that some software (think Arc...) will automatically convert your CMYK specified color to RGB components on the fly behind the scenes to send to a printer or plotter, this generaly does the colors no favors....

Pantone, by the way, is ONLY valid in printing on a press, and ONLY if you have specified separations to spot colors. Pantone is a guarenteed color definition system because the press-operator can open a can of ink of exactly that color. Pantone defined colors sent to a plotter are just rendered in the plotter's colors: not the same thing. To use pantone colors you have to be able to 1) identify the pantone spot color in the graphic, and 2) out put to color separations including separate layers for the spot colors.

Oh, yah, PDF... PDF has very bad color control; colors WILL shift with conversion to PDF. Your choice is: file portability (use pdf) OR exact color. Then again, most people are not quite that fussy, themselves.


I had a lot of problems with this. To aid with map design and colour choice, I printed out a sheet with a small square of each of the standard colour options for ArcGIS (i.e. all 120 colours that come up as 'fill options'). I kept this to hand as a reference for when I was choosing colours for a map to print. This worked particularly well because I was always used the same printer, but it was also amazing to see how much some of the colours varied.

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