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I printed some color designs on a laser printer and the results were surprising: MediumSlateBlue looks like DarkBlue, and Gold and Orange seem to me much closer on a print from that laser printer than on screen. Crimson and LimeGreen are noticeably darker on print, but that difference is similar to an inkjet printer.

Here are two images with part of the laser print and the design on screen:

part of design on laser print part of design on screen

The white of the print has a blue tint because of the indoor light but it the difference looks similar under other lighting conditions.

I found that laser printers are worse for color thank inkjet printers, for example on Wikipedia:

Inkjet printers are better at printing photographs and color records

and on a thread from this forum:

InkJet printers however tend to be better at printing color, especially photos.

but neither has an explanation, and the same thread has a different opinion:

In my personal experience (web and logo mockups for agencies and clients), laser printers consistently outperform inkjet

Why does color appear so different on a laser print compared to an inkjet print and to the screen?

  • Bounty looking for an answer addressing why this is not the case with high-end laser – curious Aug 8 at 14:52
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Lasers tend to be inferior to inkjets for raw color reproduction, especially on the low end (i.e. less than $25K).

That's because inkjets can cleanly render a single dot, allowing them to use sophisticated dithering schemes that finely spread microscopic dots (in the 4 or more ink colors available) all over the area in question. Not are the individual dots near-impossible to see, but the areal density of the dots can be adjusted very, very accurately and finely. Remember that the ratio of the densities of the different inks is what determines color, so accurate ink density leads to accurate color. For example, note that commercially-printed photos are all done with inkjet technology.

Lasers work by melting colored plastic powder into the fibers of the paper, aka fusing the toner to the paper. The problem is that melting causes close-by dots to slightly run together (clumping), and causes single dots to render poorly. These are basically the same problems that always existed with wet-ink printing, and the solution used in lasers is typically the same as well: halftoning. That involved placing groups of dots (let 'em clump!), where the print density is determined by the size of those groups vs. the amount of white space in between. The problem with that scheme begins with the fact that those groups of dots are quite visible--not a desirable thing quality-wise.

Laser printer designers accordingly try to keep the halftone dots' size to a minimum, but that comes at the cost of color accuracy. Remember that printers work with a grid of dots, with each dot either colored or not. (High-end lasers are a little different, but unless you have major bucks...) Let's say each group is 8 x 8 dots, 64 total, meaning you can only have 65 possible densities (64 + zero). Toner densities can only be varied in steps of 1/64th, whereas you really want steps of 1/1000 or better. There are schemes to stretch that 1/64th to the equivalent of maybe 1/250th, but that still can't touch inkjet color accuracy. And, you're stuck with ugly halftone dots.

On the plus side for lasers, inkjets use very thin inks that're absorbed into the paper. Those tend to slightly creep along the sponge-like paper fibers. That can make pages a little bit soft-looking unless you're printing on special non-fibrous paper like photo paper. Even after the page is dry, creeping can get a bit worse over time; humidity doesn't help. Of course printer makers have devised various fascinating tricks to minimize creeping on plain paper, but the problem's still there to a degree.

OTOH lasers melt the plastic toner just onto the surface, the toner's only molten for a very brief time, and the molten toner is relatively thick, so there's no creeping worth mentioning. Lines and text look crisp and stay that way.

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  • Very informative and comprehensive, thank you. Could you add a few references, especially to understand the problems with clumping on lasers? – miguelmorin Feb 20 at 14:23
  • Could you add a bit more about why high-end laser printers perform better? I've seen some stunning laser prints recently that seemed equivalent to the best ink jet prints out there and wondering why... – curious Aug 8 at 5:39
  • I’m not sure I’d set the cutoff for the ‘low end’ of laser printers at $25 – that’s fairly high-end to me! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 8 at 16:19
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Inkjet printers use pigmented liquid to provide colors. As such, it is possible to create colors which interact well with transmitted light as well as with reflected light, especially when considering bleed and color overlap.

Laser printers use pigmented particles (solids) which provide for reflected light coloration and virtually no blending/bleeding.

The screen colors are fully transmitted light which is created by the lighting panel within the display passing through the color devices within the display.

Displays use additive color creation (RGB) in which all three colors are perceived as white, and no pixels in the on state provide black while printers use CMYK, K providing black and the absence of print providing white (except in specialty printers which print white).

There's a good explanation of the difference between RGB and CMYK at the CreativePro web site. Curiously, they describe the CMYK process as additive and RGB as subtractive, based on the idea that CMYK starts with white and adds colors, while RGB starts with black and removes colors, leaving the desired color.

Half-toning plays about the same part in either method, but liquid ink jet printers will have some mixing where one color contacts another in the paper. Inkjet papers are supposed to limit the "creep" or bleed but it has to happen simply because the paper has to absorb the liquid. Today's paper production, based on what you see on the shelf is a universal product, something that provides good inkjet control while doing equally well on the melted powder front (laser printing).

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  • Could you expand on transmitted light, reflected light, bleed, color overlap, and the different effects of liquid versus solid pigments? For example, by bleed or blend do you mean that cyan and magenta liquid pigments mix well and make a blue dye, as opposed to color half-toning? – miguelmorin Dec 16 '19 at 13:24
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The low end inkjet printer is emulating a RGB device and the laser printer is most often a cmyk device. Doing color conversion for a cmyk device is more challenging.

But really there is no way of appraising your color reproduction ability since we know nothing of your color correction settings. It is perfectly normal for uncalibrated systems to be off, its the default state of things. I can certainly much closer.

Why is the laser better for logos? Simply, because its much more likely to be a standard cmyk device and because it has a more standard approach to rasterisation. The same thing, stochastic rasterisation, that makes a inkjet fabulous at photo reproduction is a possible problem when drawing vector edges. Where the laser actually clips the raster many cheaper inkjets seem to have omitted this info.

Inkjet tech is cheaper than laser tech so its cheaper to make a good inkjet, inkjet inks are also quite much better in terms of color vibrance. But they also are aimed at consumers so their only downsides are cheap drivers tuned to drive by printing and limited lifespan of inks that are more expensive than gold.

Now a laser can also use better pigment materials and once you go high end you get lasers that have really high resolutions and more inks these lasers again are exceptionally good quality.

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  • See my comment on the question, saw some high-end laser samples recently and the color was awesome, including in CMYK problem areas (purples for example) – curious Aug 8 at 14:54
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    @curious on the higher end you get lasers that have 8 or more colors – joojaa Aug 8 at 15:17

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