Who Should Calibrate Their Monitors?

As a commercial photographer who shoots predominantly for print, I need a very well-calibrated monitor and camera profile, but does anyone else need this?

As photographers, the shopping list of equipment we need can seem never-ending. With everyone telling you that you really must have X,Y, and Z in order to be able to take good images, it can be hard to work out what you really need and how to prioritize your purchases. After over a decade of buying kit, I have pretty much everything a photographer could want, and I use about 10% of it. However, as a professional photographer who works in commercial food photography for ad campaigns, color is incredibly important to me. I work with a screen calibrator as well as a color chart to calibrate/adjust my camera's raw file color profiling. 

I calibrate my monitor on the morning of every big shoot or editing session I shoot everything with a chart, light meter, and often a gray card just in case I have a disagreement with the software interpretations later on, but when it comes to uploading my images to Instagram, I re-edit the JPEG in Instagram's own software for a host of reasons that I go into in this video.

Although it is critical that my colors are correct, for most photographers, this may not actually be the case. There may even be a halfway point between monitor calibration and the test chart. I discuss which camp you may be sitting in and why as well as offering my opinions on accurate color.

What is your photography color management workflow? 

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16 Comments

Spy Black's picture

Color calibration today is somewhat of a joke. People have lost site of why to use color calibration, and how it is properly used in pre-press environments. You calibration means jack if you're not matching product while viewing that product under a 5k calibrated light sources. If you AND your client are not using calibrated monitors, along with calibrated light sources along your calibrated monitors, you'll be as off as if you didn't bother to calibrate in the first place. Who uses this system today?

Are there mixed light sources in the product viewing environment? Open windows? Tungsten lights? Florescent lights? LED lights? Have fun matching product color. Are you printing calibrated press proofs calibrated to the printing press, or are you just soft-proofing on your so-called calibrated monitor? If you are printing hard proofs, are you viewing that printed press proof under a 5k light source?

Also, unless they specify otherwise, the Datacolor Spyder is not calibrated to the X-rite chart. The X-rite chart s made to be used with X-rite calibration tools. Different charts made by different manufacturers use different color dyes with different spectral responses to the CCD and CMOS sensors used in spectrophotometers (and BTW, is that Datacolor unit a spectrophotometer, or a colorimeter?). You would need to use the Datacolor calibration chart to get the calibration Datacolor promises. The X-rite chart will give you different results.

While we're here this brings up another question, who is the calibration standard? It used to be Kodak, the closest source today I'm aware of is X-rite. X-rite is the new industry standard. Are the presses you're working with using Datacolor or X-rite for calibration? Are they using SWOP2, or GRAcol 2013?

As you can see, there's a lot of loose ends today in color calibration. I've been dealing with product matching and color calibration for over 40 years. Back in the day we had closed systems where we could control the processes at every step of the production chain. That doesn't exist today

Fortunately is doesn't matter anymore. The only thing that matters is that the client signs off on the "final" proof, whether it's a soft proof or an actual print. Even in the best systems it all goes to shit when the press runs. If your images are going to the web, than all you need is to calibrate to sRGB. I bet you're shooting all your stuff in Adobe RGB, right? You're wasting your time if so. Shoot, calibrate, and color correct in sRGB if you're going to web.

Color calibration? We've heard of it...

Tony Northrup's picture

Came here to say this. I'll add that your brain automatically adjusts to weird color, so if you look at an awful monitor for 2 minutes, it'll seem perfect. Once people start calibrating, though, they overthink it and waste a bunch of time with expensive gagdets and software trying to get it perfect. I think most people should just not think about it and let their brain do the calibrating.

But if you have 2 monitors and they're different, that's infuriating and I find I really have to calibrate.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Calibration is a simple thing to decide on. Whether or not clients or others are using calibrated monitors, we still need to calibrate ours.

Why...? Because we need to know the starting point of reference is correct. Or you could say, in the middle of all those possible errors.

A client's monitor could be warm, but let's say our was on the cool side. Then the error is magnified. So we calibrate our monitors to a known set of standards as a solid starting point.

As to who we trust, well I'm guessing the chaps who know how to produce calibration systems know a bit more than we do. I'm guessing they don't just make things up as they go along. And the aim is simple. Match monitor colours to a predetermined set of agreed colours. We choose the colour temp ourselves, and this tends to be 6500K across the board because of the balance of delivery systems. We choose our Cd/m2 according to our monitoring environment and there are guidelines for this too.

Discussions about charts and their differences are misleading. Different charts have different softwares or calibration requirements. We use the right one for each. (I've got both Datacolour and X-Rite). But the thing to remember with these is that they're not for calibrating monitors anyway, they're for trying to match the profile of the camera to the light source. (And if we're going to be very picky on this then really the best way to go is something like the Colorchecker Digital SG, and some time getting things just right).

It isn't rocket science at our end. We've got it quite easy, and it isn't expensive to do. Alas in our quest to have the sparest lenses and highest pixel count cameras, monitors often get left behind, and I'd argue in a digital world they might be the most important factor in delivering our images.

Amateur or pro, calibrating our monitors is one of the most important things we can do.

Stuart Carver's picture

i can edit a photo on my Macbook and have it looking as i want it to on there, i then view it on my phone (with true tone) and its different, then my ipad is different again, then both of my work screens are slightly different from each other and different to the others... i then post it online to the 3 people who view my instagram channel, 5 on flickr and 10 on 500px who all use variations of a screen to view it... making calibration completely pointless.

i guess for printing its massively relevant but otherwise im not sure.

Lee Christiansen's picture

It is a constant frustration. But if your calibrated monitor results in a neutral position, then errors everywhere else will be minimised.

Calibration is never about being able to have our monitor looking the same as everyone else - alas this is rarely going to be the case. We don't know how much or which way others' monitors are going to look - so we ensure ours is neutral.

Ironically for printing (if we're doing it ourselves), monitor calibration can be less important in some respects. Print it until you like the print... Although the combination of a correctly calibrated monitor and a correctly profiled printer makes life more satisfying.

The ONLY way of knowing what our image ACTUALLY looks like is to have a calibrated monitor. Otherwise we may as well just do all our post production work with coloured glasses and hoping for the best.

Stuart Carver's picture

Yeah fair comment Lee. In honesty for my situation I’m not going to spend money on equipment to do it as I’m just a hobbyist so it’s kind of not that important and I read somewhere that Apple screens are pretty good colour wise anyway (as long as True Tone is off). If I was ever creating photos that mattered or were being distributed then I guess I’d look into it. We don’t have room for a printer atm which is sad in itself.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I've got multiple Apple monitors and none of them are close to a neutral display.

I'm guessing as a hobbyist, you still colour correct your images, and you adjust exposures, contrast etc in post...? If your monitor isn't telling you the real story, then all your hard work can be for nothing because who knows what you are actually adjusting them to. Who knows if your monitor's errors are being compounded by someone else's monitor errors.

If you're taking the time to create an image and work on it later in post production, then it's worth the time to ensure they're looking great.

Stuart Carver's picture

Its not the time, its the expensive piece of equipment to carry out the calibration thats the sticking point for most Amateur photographers, i mainly shoot for my own purposes, look at my shots on a screen and im also colourblind so it really is a waste of time for my personal photography experience.

Spy Black's picture

"Calibration is never about being able to have our monitor looking the same as everyone else - alas this is rarely going to be the case."

Not when you're calibrated to the same SYSTEM. I used to have CRT monitors perfectly calibrated to hard copy press proofs, that were themselves calibrated to the presses. In other words, our monitors were calibrated to the presses. When everyone is on board and working together, you'd be amazed at the consistency across the mediums. I've been there.

It's different today. Unless you're going to be dealing with press, and that is something that diminishes seemingly daily, everything today goes to web. The best overall calibration you can have then is an sRGB calibrated SYSTEM. The cameras shoot in sRGB, you edit and process in sRGB in Lightroom/Capture One/etc, you retouch and color correct in sRGB in Photoshop/Affinity/etc., and you calibrate a monitor that allows you to work on all this, that can display the full sRGB gamut. Today such monitors are cheap and cheerful. And more than good.

If you're going to regularly deal with press, and specific press houses at that, you best communicate with them on calibration. They may be using systems you don't have access to, so you need to develop an effective system of consistency with what you do have. Sometimes the press houses are slobs and they don't give a fuck, which complicates matters, but most shops keep a tight ship.

It's at that time when you decide what additional gear you will need to maintain a reliable and working calibration system that minimizes loss for everyone and keeps everyone, from the press house to your client, and you, happy.

Lee Christiansen's picture

The you were working in a closed system where monitors were adjusted to make way for pricing errors - so of course you needed to have a system calibration.

But the other, better way is to renovate those errors at both ends.

So we have monitors that are neutral and printers that are profiled to remove their inherent errors. This is the recommended workflow by every colour management specialist that I know.

Indeed with all respect, you are the only person I've ever heard pushing the concept of calibrating to a particular printing press or printer.

Where we need to see any CMYK conversion quirks, we have soft proofing - but this is only valid on a neutral monitor.

At some point we need to trust the consortiums and groups who decide what these standards are, and it seems to be working very well when we're using trusted calibration tools.

(By the way, cameras don't shoot sRGB when we're shooting with oft recommended Raw. We only proof images as a particular gamut in our Raw convertors and they don't become limited to that gamut until converted to an embedded type such as TIFF, PSD or JPEG).

Alas there is far more than just gamut range the considering a monitor, so whilst the cheap ones may easily advertise a 100% sRGB capability, it doesn't mean all are good.

So we have multiple stages in the process - Shooting, Monitoring, Delivery, Maybe printing... and each requires its own calibration. Fortunately each solution is cheap and so we can easily ensure each stage has minimal errors. What we don't do of course is compound error with anti-errors to make it all come good in the end, (like the "system" you described earlier.

Monitor calibrators are not expensive when compared to the rest of our kit.
Getting custom profiles for our printers is a very cheap service offered by many.
Looking at a soft proof when working with an outside CMYK print house is free.

Calibration is simply another way of saying "neutral." We don't want any stage of our process to exhibit false information because we deliver images for multiple mediums, with varying dergees of processing.

I can never understand why such a simple and economical process gets so much objection.

Spy Black's picture

One of the printers where I was last working at required calibrating with their standard, so while I agree with your comment about commonality, it's not always the case.

I understand that "shooting in sRGB" with raw doesn't really matter. It's a frame of mind, it's just another step to take to have everything in the right place to begin with. The entire mechanism should be built from the ground up to be in the right place. If you work for web (or any final medium, actually), it would be foolish to have loose ends in another color space.

My comments simply point out to stay focused on your target and communicate effectively with your client and resource partners, and sometimes that takes more work than you (or some of your partners) would like to deal with.

Karl Petersson's picture

I really feel like an old school teacher here who has to correct everyone on their language.
Calibration is to adjust your display to a standard that is accepted in the area you choose ( a very common standard in todays digital image world is 120 candela (its "brightness" setting, D65 (its color standard) but this is a very rough explanation of candela and Gamma)
Profiling your display is to measure its unique way of displaying a color swatch and allowing a colorimeter (as used above) or a spectrophotometer (the big brother that can also measure printed swatches) to measure what is actually displayed on the monitor and through the icc profile created telling the graphics card how it should display the color correctly.
And yes this procedure is of extreme importance for anyone working in print but it is equally important when working towards a mixed set of displays like phones, iPads and laptops and/or a professionally calibrated and profiled display capable of displaying a high percentage of the Adobe RGB colourspace
Understanding the work of the display profile, work colourspace, input profile and hence the output profile that you might choose and how the work together and how one will effect the rendering of a another so you can work towards a control off how your client will view your images.
With the knowledge, skills and equipment you can take a much larger control over how the images will be displayed on the mixed plattforms they might be displayed on and at least work towards a lowest common denominator and thereby take a better control over your images in both the digital and printed world.

Evan Kalman's picture

I was gifted a BenQ SW271 monitor and SpyderX and would like to understand how to best set it up for me. I did some googling but find conflicting answers.

In the past, I have edited my photos (mainly for web and print, about 50/50) using the following settings and exporting them for sRGB as needed
---MacBook color profile = Adobe RBG (1998)
---Camera color space = Adobe RGB (raw)
---LR and PS working spaces = ProPhoto RGB

Now, with the BenQ, should I edit in ProPhotoRBG (to see alllll of those colors) and then export for sRGB, or should I create an Adobe RBG AND sRGB profile for my monitor (and switch depending on what I'm doing)? Lastly, what is the best option to mirror the color spaces between my MacBook and the BenQ?

Spy Black's picture

"...should I edit in ProPhotoRBG (to see alllll of those colors)..."
ProPhoto is a computational space, there are no additional colors. There are no monitors that display the ProPhoto color space. Most people don't realize this, but the human eye can only see about 5-7 million colors. That 's it. Luminosity is a different matter, and that's what high bit and wide color spaces are about, to reduce computational aliasing errors when dithering down to 8-bit color.

Unless you're dealing with a custom multi-ink printer, you're only dealing with 2 color spaces, sRGB and CMYK. That's all you need to concern yourself with. Pay no attention to anything else.

Evan Kalman's picture

Thanks for the reply. Since I was gifted with the monitor, I want to use it. Would you - in this case - recommend I set everything to Adobe RGB and export for sRGB or just go all-in for sRGB? I am shooting RAW (Adobe RGB) if that matters.

Spy Black's picture

What is your target audience? Web? Print? Video? Custom media? That's all that matters. If it's web, then sRGB is all you have to worry about, especially if you need to match product color. Any decent monitor today displays the entire sRGB gamut. The best use for calibration is for continuity in what you're doing in your environment. Even when doing everything right in any medium, web, print, etc. sometimes things can still all go to shit. :-)