Ink Jet Printers Tell White Lies and Flatter Endlessly

That photo of you coming out of your HP ink jet photo printer - you look so vibrant, so full of life. “Dahling," the photo screams, "You look mahvelous. Absolutely mahvelous!"

You look so good in fact that you may ask yourself: "Do I really look like that?"

Sorry, my dear.

With HP ink jet photo printing (and probably others as well), what you see through the camera lens is not what you get on that glossy photo print. The image created is deliberately rendered to be more rich and vibrant than in real life.

"We tune for what the customer wants, not for accuracy," says HP marketing manager Thom Brown. Hewlett Packard, like the smarmy Billy Crystal character on Saturday Night Live, is just showing you what you want to see.

I first noticed this trend a few years ago, when testing an HP printer in a head-to-head review against a Kodak model. While the Kodak photos appeared a bit washed out, the HP photos were noticeably oversaturated. Skin tones looked richer (nice tan!), that blue winter hat on my daughter's head was so bright that it practically jumped off the paper - and I have to admit that I gravitated toward the brighter images.

Apparently it's not just me. Brown says HP's "humanetric," or psychophysical studies back that up. "Most people tend to like the more vibrant photos. People tend to want to remember something that looks slightly better than reality," he says.

For HP, giving the customer what he wants is win-win. The more flattering the photo, the more likely you are to print more, which helps HP sell more paper and ink.

There's nothing smarmy about giving the customer what he wants - that's just good marketing. On the other hand, perhaps full disclosure is in order: Perhaps something along the lines of "Objects in the photo are less vibrant than they appear..."

However, if you'd rather face the cold, hard truth with your images, HP's printer software will let you dial back the brightness. But why buck the trend? As a culture we like our movies too loud, our colors too bright, our music auto-tuned to perfection.

These days reality is overrated.

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