The Ultimate Screen Calibration Guide

The Ultimate Screen Calibration Guide

Talk to a photographer long enough and the question of screen calibration will be brought up. Often many will say it's an incredibly important tool in your post production workflow, and often many more disregard it all together. So what is screen calibration? Is it still a viable issue within photography today, or is it becoming more and more obsolete, like sync cables and light meters? I'm here to explain it to you.

First, I stand on the "It's exceptionally important" side of the coin. For the first 3 years of my photography career, I was working on an uncalibrated monitor. I wasn't printing my work, so I had really no idea how my photos looked to others. It wasn't until I finally borrowed a screen calibration system that I learned how important the tool really was. Suddenly all of my photos that I thought were beautiful turned out to be really dark, and really orange in color.

There are two main brands of screen calibration software - The Datacolor Spyder system and the X-Rite ColorMunki. While both of these system do virtually the same thing, I've never had experience with the ColorMunki personally. The general use of these systems is to attach them to your monitor, and run a series of diagnostic software. This will read the output from your monitor based on color and brightness, and adjust them when needed. What you're left with is accurate colors and brightness to insure your prints look just like your monitor output.

However, another incredible and important feature among these systems is the ambient light readout. Essentially, these systems also have a sensor built into the front of the unit, and will adjust your monitor's brightness depending on your environment. So whether you're working in a cave-like room like I do, or in front of some ceiling to floor windows with sun shining through, you can be confident that your monitor is accurately displaying brightness and colors.

New Mexico Photograph

And color and brightness are the bread and butter to these machines. For the sake of making this simpler, lets instead think of them as white balance and exposure. With the default settings on your monitor, you're likely over exposed by about 1/2 to a full stop of light. This means your images are going to appear much darker to those with a calibrated monitor, and in print. In terms of your white balance, monitors aim for 6500K, but often miss the mark by up to 200K in each direction for their default settings. So while a photo might look great on your monitor, it could be much cooler or warmer in tone to those with a calibrated monitor.

Albuquerque Photography

Misconceptions About Calibration

Apple Monitors Don't Need Calibrated

This simply is not true.  While Apple (and many other brands) do calibrate all of their monitors in factory, this does not mean that stay calibrated, or are calibrated correctly. Most calibration software suggest that you calibrate your monitor(s) every 2-6 weeks to insure that everything is accurate. This is because color temperature and screen brightness will gradually change over time. So while the screen may be calibrated at 6500K white balance upon purchasing, it may be at 6300K after just a few weeks, resulting in incorrect color temperatures.

IPS Monitors Don't Need Calibration

IPS monitors are exceptional, and most preferred for graphic design and photography. However, they still need color calibration on the regular. The most important part of an IPS monitor is actually it's viewing angle. Most IPS monitors get their name for the ability to view them at wide angles without any color or contrast shifts, like you might see in an LED or LCD monitor. This just means more accurate color readings, even if you're a little off axis with the monitor. For an exceptional breakdown of monitor types, check out Pye Jirsa's article over at our friends from SLRLounge. With this said, color temperatures and brightness will still shift on IPS monitors over time, so calibration is still very necessary.

Calibrate To Your Phone/Tablet

Many people foolishly believe that a smartphone or tablet will have correct color temperature readings, and suggest that when in doubt, to calibrate to your phone's screen. However, more often than not, your phone actually has more color inconsistency than the average computer monitor. Aside from that, you're more than likely adjusting the brightness of your phone/tablet screen multiple times during that day, so how will you know what the correct brightness setting is for your monitor?

Why Bother Calibrating If I Don't Print/My Clients Don't Calibrate

The reason is simple, because it will result in better photos on both your screen, theirs, and look great in print if you choose to do so. The general idea is that all monitors try to get 6500K temperature and about 100 cd/m² (brightness) for their default settings. However, due to making manufacturing as efficient and cheap as possible, they often miss the mark slightly. So your monitor may be 5300K (cooler color cast), and your clients may be 6750K (warmer color cast). If your monitor is uncalibrated, the photos will look significantly cooler in color temperature to your clients, which may make the photo less appealing. By calibrating your monitor, you're assuring your settings are correct to what the manufacturer is aiming for.

When printing, a calibration system is essential, regardless of you are printing at home or through a lab. Often, calibration system will also supply you with a calibration file that you're able to send with your print order to insure all the colors and brightness will look as accurate as they did on your monitor. Tools such as this insures higher print quality, and less overseeing of the print process (No longer do I have to send my print orders to me to double check before sending them to clients).

Proofing-Calibration-System

Truly, there is no alternative to just purchasing a calibration system for your monitor. Web applications might be able to help slightly, but it still doesn't correct any color issues your monitor may be experiencing. For about $100, you can purchase a basic calibration system for your monitor(s) to insure that all of your photos are correctly exposed and toned.

However, any sort of calibration is better than no calibration. If you're curious on where your monitor stands and not interested in buying a calibrator, I recommend you getting a photo of yours printed from a major print lab, without any color corrections done to it. When it arrives, compare it to your monitor's viewing of the image and adjust your monitor to best match the print brightness and color calibration. Certainly this isn't the best method, but it'll get the job done in a pinch.

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52 Comments

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Zach Sutton's picture

That just says that it has great color reproduction of the sRGB gamut. It doesn't mean that it doesn't need to be calibrated. Infact, it was only a couple days ago that I was talking to Datacolor directly about this at WPPI...they said all monitors need to be calibrated, regardless of the brand

The sRGB gamut is really all that matters! Why? That's all we can display. That's also what major online printers use. My new 27" iMac monitor matches my MBP monitor, my iPhone, and iPads. I think if you buy quality gear that's already calibrated, you're good to go. Printing opens up a whole new can of worms. Honestly, most of what people shoot nowadays goes online anyways.

Zach Sutton's picture

Just because it can display a broad range of the sRGB gamut doesn't mean that it's correctly displaying it. The GIF above is from an IPS monitor that can display 99% of the gamut...Also, as stated above, your iPad and iPhone aren't as calibrated as you might think they are. Just because they're all producing roughly the same colors doesn't mean they're all correct.

However, if you're going to remain stubborn, then there is no sense in discussing this with you.

I get what you're saying. There's technical and practical applications for this. Zach, you're a pro and need perfect colors in everything you do. Most of the readers are people like me. Heck, many professional photographers never even mess with this stuff. If your goal is to display pics on the web, then you can get too involved with the minute details.

Zach Sutton's picture

The majority of our readers are semipro-pro photographers, and this actually applies to everyone. If you're getting a warm cast from your monitor, it's going to look drastically different to someone with a correctly calibrated monitor. This is going to result in you showing off subpar or incorrectly displayed work.

There is no excuse for laziness.

I agree there are several pro photographers that don't mess with this and it almost always ends with a disaster. As soon as they are using a printer that is not used to their "look" or send to a new publisher or a graphic designer not used to them they will deliver sub par work because someone did not fix their problem for them.
This business has changed since the advent of digital files but that is not an excuse to hide your head in the sand and hope for the problem to go away.
I think the basic misconception here is that if we can't see the problem it does not exist. There are Adobe RGB able monitors out there and we certainly can see difference in printing from a srgb and an Adobe RGB and a ProPhoto RGB files even though the CMYK profile has a smaller gamut then the RGB profile but that does not change the fact that the rendering alters the files to sometimes a disastrous result.
The quality of displays and the increase of gamut display is taking huge steps each year and if you don't have problem today you will surely have it tomorrow.

"The sRGB gamut is really all that matters! Why? That's all we can display."

Well that's simply not true. For example: The display on a 27" iMac has a gamut that is over all, slightly larger than sRGB and for some colors distinctly larger.

" That's also what major online printers use. ".

That is because sRGB is the smallest common denominator color space. It was designed that way on purpose in 1990/91: Before the internet, before Photoshop. Before digital photography really had made it out of the lab.

Not much a guide. More like an advertisement for Spyder Pro. Datacolor is a terrible company. They rarely update drivers for calibrators that are a few years old. You have to buy a new one if want it to work with the latest drivers and operating systems.

Not sure about this. I'm using a Spyder 2 on a Windows 8.1 machine. Works fine.

I'm afraid I have to agree with the other commentators; this is far from "ultimate" and would be better titled as monitor profiling.

When people say calibrated, I always wonder, calibrated to what? To whatever settings you just so happen to decide, or are you calibrating it to a known standard like ISO 12646? And what of viewing environment? I don't see anything in your guide about that.

As another commenter suggested, I would read Andrew Rodney's book as well as ISO 12646 and 12647. Reiterate the information from those sources and you'll have a solid guide.

I use a 32" HD Tv monitor for editing, have never worried about color calibration. Should I do? My prints get correct colors (depending on where I print them) Everybody talks about mac monitor but an HD tv is way cheaper and practical, am I missing something? Maybe I'm wrong?

Todd Becker's picture

My god, get a real monitor and calibrator. A 27 inch 1440p monitor that covers 99% of sRGB color space can be had for 300-600 on newegg.com. That's leaps and bounds ahead of an HDtv and about the same price.

So, should I buy a real monitor and calibrator because the colors are not the same? I'm seriously asking because I have never seen or researched this subject. I have been printing most of my pictures and they look ok. I just thought that been my screen an HDTV it'll have better quality.

So you convinced me that I need to calibrate, but where is the actual guide?

Ocean Blue Photography's picture

Thanks so much for the info!.. Once again, your insight has helped me learn.. I am personally not so concerned about it's title as some seem to be..

Calibrated display = calibrated hardware (monitor) + calibrated monitor profile (software). Then all of this will be less useful if you ignore the use of color managed application like using Firefox or Photoshop with proofing setup set to Monitor RGB.
http://help.adobe.com/en_US/creativesuite/cs/using/WS3F71DA01-0962-4b2e-...
"Monitor RGB (Photoshop and Illustrator)
Creates a soft proof of RGB colors using your current monitor
profile as the proof profile."

This is going to sound petty, BUT: ensure is to do or have what is necessary for success.

Insure is to cover with an insurance policy.

Rex Larsen's picture

This is a helpful article, but fstoppers, like other websites, has difficulty restraining itself from sensational and over-hyped headlines that the stories rarely live up to.
By the way, this is by far the greatest comment ever submitted.

Its also a pity that no one has mentioned Coloreyes and Basicolor applications at all here. I am well aware they are only software and will need any of the below (or other) hardware (colorimeter or spectrophotometer) but they are way superior applications (in my opinion) to the apps you get with the above mentioned hardware.

Not to mention if you're using multiple monitors, trying to eyeball them is simply impossible.

This is crap. The author should be ashamed. There is almost nothing here that could even be considered a calibration guide, yet alone an ultimate one. If you want a guide just look it up on AVS Forum.

I have read several of the comments below and I see there is some confusion between the actual colour management and Monitor calibration which is just part of the colour management process. Monitor Calibration is the process of trying to get your monitor to show colours to standard. So the images are as close to what they should be. Alot of people have mention soft proofing. Soft proofing is done to so what the colour will look like when you output to a printer etc. which is usually the last part of the colour management system where you need a printer profile to use to soft proof your work. When you send your images to a photo lab, you are usually given a printer profile to install on your computer, by using this profile in your soft proofing you can see what your images look like when it is printed. If you are not happy with the what the output will look like you can make changes to the image until you get the results you looking for. This profiles are different to the monitor calibration profiles created when you do your monitor calibration. If you have a 3 monitor system you want each monitor to display the same colours and that is where calibrating your monitor and creating a profile will ensure that all 3 monitor display the same colours. As each monitor calibrated will have different user input in the preparation of producing the monitor profile. As the monitor brightness and contrast setting may well be different from one another. Monitor calibrator measure the brightness of the monitor in relationship to the standards set, and asks the user, to make changes to the monitors brightness until the brightness is at the standard. Once the brightness is set to the standard, that where the calibrator goes through it paces and does a colour analysis of your monitor, and sets up the profile, for that particular monitor. Soft proofing has nothing to do with monitor calibration, it for the user to see what the output of the image will look like when it is printed, using a profile created for the printer being printed on, and a particular print media. eg, Epson Expression printer with Reflex copy paper or a Canon Pixmia pro 10 printer with Lustre fine art paper. I could go throught this more but I hope you get what I am trying to say.