Why do photos look better on my phone?

Because, let’s be honest, they do. Look at those photos you took over time and they just get better and better. They just look more enticing, warmer, more realistic, than they do anywhere else. Try to print them out and they look dull and dark. Look at them on your TV or computer and you never know what you’re going to get. That’s one of the reasons so many of us just keep stuff on our phones.

Making sense of it all

You would think that a photo is a photo is a photo. It’s a representation of real life and in today’s world, it’s just a string of numbers. Numbers don’t look different on different devices, why should photos? The key is understanding how screens work.

The first thing you need to understand is that sadly it’s impossible to have a screen that reproduces all possible colors. Over the last decade there has been a lot of work done on this. Today’s monitors are better able to show colors than they ever have been. Still, there are a lot of colors that simply can’t be shown at all.

Stepping back for a second

In order to really have this conversation, we need to define what we mean by “color.” Color is sort of an all-encompassing term. You can look at color a bunch of different ways, but all of them boil down to the same thing. Color is the combination of how bright, what hue (red, green, purple, etc), how saturated or grey a color is, and all the components that go into making that color all across the spectrum.

In order to define colors on the devices we have, we use the term “gamut.” The gamut is the set of all colors that a device can show. Usually when you talk about it, you see a chart that looks like this:

For regular folks, this can be confusing. Heck, for experienced folks it can be confusing. It’s trying to show you which colors can be seen by which devices. Don’t let it get you down so much. All you really need to get out of it is that (for example) there are some colors, like robin’s-egg blue, that show up really well on screens and don’t show up well on printed pieces.

So why does everything look great on the phone’s screen?

Now that you (kinda) understand the basics, we can get to answering the question. It’s because of color management. Color management happens all the time because none of our screens are perfect. Any time there’s a new TV, phone, monitor, or anything like that, the manufacturer looks at the display panel that’s being used and creates a translation table between the way the photo would look in a perfect world and the way it does look on that device. This is called a “profile.” This profile is used to massage the math every time an image is shown.

In the case of TVs and computers, manufacturers usually just use a generic profile. Most people aren’t super picky, and besides, those devices have controls like brightness, contrast, and tint so you can make your own changes.

On the other hand, your phone’s manufacturer generally spends a lot of time working on the profile for their screens. Because they know which panel is going to be used, they can do a lot of work to make sure things look great.

And then they take it further

Scientists have a general agreement as to what makes a good image. But in real life, we tend to have a different feeling. If we accept the scientific definition of a “perfect” photo, most of us would think it looks kind of flat. It would be accurate scientifically, but it wouldn’t give us any emotion.

That’s why there’s usually quite a bit of tweaking of that profile to give people a healthy glow, give landscapes a warm and inviting appearance, and so on. It’s done on purpose so you feel good about the photos you took. And of course it works, because everyone loves the way photos look on their phones.

Oh and by the way…

If you’re looking for a new phone or just the best choice of accessories, call the folks at Solid Signal at 888-233-7563. They sponsor articles like these and they’re also AT&T Dealers.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.