You've probably seen thousands of articles on screen calibration and you may strive to deliver perfect images and videos. Unfortunately, in the end, your client views them on their non-calibrated way-too-blue or way-too-orange screens. Sometimes they say "looks good to me." Other times the response may be "it's too dark," or "it's too blue." They may even edit your photos to make them look "better." How do you handle these situations and is it really critical for you calibrate your monitors?
The majority of visuals we as photographers and filmmakers produce are displayed on screens that are not and won't ever be calibrated. Watching the statistics from the last two years, it is clear that most people use mobile devices to watch images and videos. Forget about anyone calibrating these devices.
The Truth About Color Calibration
You are using a display that hasn't been calibrated for some time or hasn't been calibrated at all. Do you think it shows proper colors? Come on, don't be shy! Of course you do. But once you calibrate it, you get that "before-after" shock and try to get used to the more blue or more orange tint. A couple of days later you are used to the new colors of the screen.
That's exactly how our clients perceive the colors on their screens: as being normal. The most sensitive case is when you deliver saturated real-color images without any color grading, and especially when there are elements of known color, like skin tones. When viewed on non-calibrated screens, they may look with the wrong colors and you can't do much about it except for making sure your saturation is not way overboard.
If you know your images will be printed and you will present color-critical subjects (like products), there's nothing you can do about it when screens of the viewers are not calibrated. Probably having different images for digital screens and print is a good option.
If the images are with altered colors, that's clear even on a non-calibrated displays, and the viewer is more inclined to accept the grade technique as a form of art. But if you deliver real-color images, the client may think they are wrong. Not saying all of your images should be color graded, but when they do, it's less likely they look off on non-calibrated monitors. For video color grading is a must.
Brightness and Contrast
Hardware color calibration is something good, but it's of less importance than the brightness and contrast of the monitors you are editing on. For me, brightness and contrast of the screen are the most critical settings. Our professional screens, and especially the calibrated ones, are not of extremely high contrast and of high brightness, while the majority of the consumer displays are usually advertised at high contrast and high brightness settings which grab the attention of the average buyer. Most people have their screens at 100 percent brightness and at a very high contrast. This means if your images are overexposed or low-key, they will look awful on the consumer devices. In order to cope with that you need to distribute the luminosity density of your image so that the histogram is not too far to the right or too far to the left.
Below is an example of an image that is supposed to look like a nighttime shot. Although the histogram looks way to the left, the image looks more like twilight than nighttime.
If I wanted to have it look more realistic like being during the night, it had to be edited the way shown below.
The problem is that on non-calibrated screens, and especially on mobile devices, the second version would be 90 percent black. This is the reason I keep my low-key images with less contrast and the blacks are "lifted" from the real black point. I learned that technique from the examples I see in the film industry where they keep their whites and blacks a little more distant from the border values than photographers do.
Color calibration is a good thing especially if your work will be printed and you expect an accurate color. However, the more important factor is what is the amount of brightness of your final products and their contrast. You can do a proper judgment if your screen's brightness and contrast levels are in the ballpark of right values. Always think about the limited or extreme settings of the screens of your viewers. They don't really care about calibration.