The Monitor Colour Display Difference Problem

Why do images display differently on different computers ? This is a common issue in regards to online ordering where clothes and art is purchased. Many factors weigh into how the end user sees an image make standardization of colour a complex issue. This draws on the article by Alyssa Mertes in compiling the issues involved.

If you’ve ever received an online order that shows up looking drastically different from what you saw on the screen when you ordered, this can often lie with the monitor or screen.

Ideally all monitors would show colours in the same way and as true to life as possible, however, different monitors and screens display colours differently. The following is an aggregate of a conversation on Stack Exchange:

Usually you have to configure a new computer and tablet, for example brightness etc. Different screens, different configurations results in different colours. This is a fundamental physical limitation of colour displays. Even the same screen will show different colours under different lighting conditions. Even changing the viewing angle can change colour. The best you can hope for is that your colours are fairly close to what you want on the majority of screens.

Here is the thing I’ve learned from working in a room filled with screens from the same brand: No two screens are usually identical, when it comes to colour. Normally, you’d have to adjust your screen colours manually, to get the “right” colours. Your average user will probably use the default settings and the ones who do choose to calibrate their screens will typically do so with different settings, so one with a higher brightness, the other with less saturation, and so on

Such is also the case on other devices. Usually, you won’t get the exact same result you were seeing while designing, being perfectly the same on all other devices. The problem is that there are many factors that can make your image look different from the screen you designed it on (brightness, calibration, light from the environment).


How colour is typically produced on a monitor

The way colour appears on a monitor is made up of bits of information communicated to the hardware. A monitor screen is made up of pixels (derived from ‘picture element’), and the overall display resolution of a screen is the number of pixels wide by the number of pixels high. For example, 1024 x 768 means the width of the total display is 1024 pixels and the height is 768 pixels.

Each pixel will display a colour according to the ‘bits’ of information stored in the image file. The number of bits each pixel can display is called bit depth. With 24-bit bit depth, eight bits are dedicated to each of three colours – red, green, and blue (commonly abbreviated as RGB as versed CMYK) which make up digital displays. It is referred to as “true colour” because it can produce the 10,000,000 colours perceptible to the human eye. The more pixels a screen has combined with the bit depth reading capabilities, the more colour combinations can be displayed.


colour reproduction



Colour reproduction in print media

When it comes to colour exact promotional materials the greatest accuracy would come from producing a professionally taken photograph in the most data rich image file type (The Tiff [.tiff]) and that would have to be worked with to colour correct to the medium (the photographic process and materials used) so that high quality prints were produced.

CMYK are other colour options to design in aligned for the print industry. CMYK refers to the four inks used in colour printing: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). In print the pantone system was designed to create a universal standard in the print industry enabling correct branding colour processes to be applied across different textiles.

When it comes to determining if the product you have seen online is a specific pantone or another there are few things you can do to provide true-to-life colour representation of art and objects. Technology has greatly advanced however with high value products being sold over distance the most authentic representation of the product would come from producing professional quality photographic prints.

Ordering of a proof for distant customers could be a contemplation via Loxley’s colours professional printing if you are doing in house photography with an integrated digital order platform with a range of print on demand options available:


Loxley colour printers link


Factors which come into play

There are several issues which come into play when trying to make perfectly matched colour across the internet especially when it comes to image reproduction. Combinations of several things affect how colour shows up on screen, including the age and type of your monitor, as well as the kind of graphics card being used:

  • Hardware used to display
  • Settings on the physical display device
  • Colour Callibration of devices
  • Age of monitor/display
  • Performance of graphics or video card
  • LCD vs CRT monitors


Colour Callibration of devices

Professional photographers work on callibrated monitors which are specialised in being as true representation of colour and form as possible. Calibration is a way to ensure accurate colour representation on a given device however an image is ultimately only as good as the device it is being viewed on. Calibration techniques vary slightly from monitor to monitor but allow you to set your screen to a particular brightness, colour, or tint.

Craig Hull writes a good article on how to callibrate your monitor for photography on Expert Photography and you can use software like Calibrize colours, that will analyse the way colours appear on a screen and tune settings to match a predetermined standard. This information is saved so that colours are adjusted for the monitor every time the computer is restarted. You can also find out what resolution your current monitor is displaying in your Windows options panel.


Age of monitor/display

Brand new monitors sometimes cast a blueish tint over the screen, making lighter blue shades appear white and red shades appear purple when compared to another monitor or printout. Over time monitors and displays can become faded as inks on screens fades or burns out leaving red hues dominant.

As Scientific American put it when producing a How To on calibrating your monitor:

“Even a high quality monitor may not display colors accurately, especially as it ages. All monitors change over time, so calibration must be done on a regular basis. Most experts recommend doing it every few weeks to every few months“


Performance of graphics or video card

The same monitor can display different colours when connected to two different computers running with two different graphics cards.

A graphics card is a circuit board that has a processor and memory built into it which powers the display of graphics on the screen. Graphics cards vary in how much processing speed and memory they have, and graphics cards with more power can display a greater range of colours loading images more quickly. A comment on Stack Exchange:

“Essentially an old, low-quality graphics card might for example only offer low resolution, low color depth, few color spaces and color formats, etc. when compared to a newer and/or higher-quality graphics card. “


LCD vs. CRT monitors

Flat screen (LCD) and tube-style (CRT) monitors use different technology to display colours. A Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) works by passing electrical currents through liquid crystal molecules causing them to align in different ways letting light pass through varyingly to create colours. LCD

CRT monitors have phosphor dots which glow when struck by an electron beam that travels across the screen to create colours or images. These different display technologies can create colour variances from screen to screen.

Displaymate have a good comparison chart showing the exact differences between the types of display in colour reproduction


Key Message

To get a sense of how your images are going to look on the internet you need to view them on multiple machines and displays to get a sense of the variance which takes place.  It helps to calibrate the monitor/screen on which you use whilst editing your images with a program like photoshop though this does not guarantee consistent experience across the internet.

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