The Key To Creative Image Control


Whenever you open, select, or edit the digital images you’ve shot, or creatively correct or enhance them using post-production software such as Photoshop or Lightroom, you are relying on a display device—a monitor connected to or built into your computer, tablet, or smartphone—to show you an accurate representation of the colors, color saturation, monochrome tonality, contrast and other characteristics of the images captured by your camera. If what you see on the monitor does not match what the camera captured, the prints made from these files will never look quite as you had envisioned them—the color balance may be off, certain colors may be washed out or overly intense, or the pictures may have an overall color cast. That’s why photographers who are serious about creative image control, maintaining an efficient workflow and minimizing frustration always make sure their monitors are correctly calibrated. These days, that’s easy to do, and the hardware and software required is intuitive and very affordable.

There are ways of getting a poorly calibrated monitor closer to the mark using apps included in various post-production software programs or by downloading them from the Internet, but all these methods are time-consuming and none of them provides the degree of accuracy or consistency of true calibration. By far, the best way to calibrate your monitor, and keep it accurate by recalibrating it at regular intervals, is to acquire a good monitor-calibration tool. This usually comprises a package that includes calibration software to install on your computer, a calibration device (essentially a precision colorimeter) that plugs into the USB port and reads directly from the monitor screen, and simple step-by-step instructions. All the devices mentioned in this article can be used to calibrate multiple display types, are Mac/PC compatible, and detect changes in the ambient light viewing conditions for the most consistent results.

Monitor Calibration by the Numbers

The basic procedure for using one of the current generation of monitor-calibration tools couldn't be simpler, although the more advanced models also offer a range of step-up features that are explained in their manuals. Here’s the basic drill.

1. Install the included software on your computer (most will run on older PCs and Macs, but check the system requirements if your computer is more than 5 years old.)

2. Turn on your monitor and let it warm up for 30 minutes, to stabilize it.

3. Connect the screen-reading device (calibration colorimeter) to your computer by plugging it into the USB port and hang, attach or point it at the monitor screen as indicated in the manual.

4. Start the program and follow the prompts. You may be asked to adjust your monitor’s screen resolution or other parameters to certain standard values when possible. Typical recommended starting points: Luminance, 120; Gamma, 2.2 for PCs, 1.8 for Macs; color temperature, 6500K; Color display, 24-bit, etc.

5. Active calibration. As the program runs, the monitor screen will display a sequence of patterns that includes colors, color scales, brightness and grayscale targets, which are used to calculate an ICC profile and save it to your computer. A light in the calibration device will typically flash as each calibration is being calculated, and will stop flashing when calibration is completed. A graphic screen display will track the scan’s progress.

6. Name the completed file, indicating it’s for the monitor you’ve just calibrated and, depending on your computer, your software and how you like to work, either store it in a convenient place so you can locate and activate it when viewing images, or set it as a default so it will automatically activate every time you use the monitor for image evaluation.

7. Recalibrate regularly. Color accuracy fanatics do it daily or weekly, but monthly calibrations are recommended, especially if you have an older monitor. Most systems will display a warning when it’s time to recalibrate, and recalibration may be faster if you activate the saved profile and use it as the starting point.  

Color calibration hardware/software packages are available in a wide variety of configurations and sizes, and at prices ranging from around $100 to well over $1,000 for commercial systems. Here are four popular examples that will meet the needs of most creative enthusiasts and professional photographers. We’ve included two broad spectrum entry-level models, and two more advanced models that provide step-up features for greater flexibility and control. Check the full product listings for additional features and complete system requirements.

Broad-Spectrum Display Calibration Systems

Datacolor Spyder4Pro: Featuring a single, patented full spectrum 7-color sensor covering both wide-gamut and normal-gamut displays, it works with monitors, laptops, iPads and iPhones, provides automated color and brightness calibration and adapts to ambient-light conditions to give accurate readings. The ReCal Assistant feature makes recalibration easier and faster. System requirements: Monitor with a minimum of 1024 x 768 resolution, 24-bit video card, powered USB port.

X-Rite ColorMunki Display: Ergonomic and multifunctional, it calibrates LED and wide gamut LCD screens and can be used to profile projectors as well as monitors. It’s also spectrally calibrated, making it field-upgradeable to support future technologies, features easy and advanced calibration modes, flare correction, a rotating diffuser arm and a standard ¼"-20 tripod socket. Before-and-after images load instantly and there’s an automatic reminder when it’s time to recalibrate. System requirements: Monitor with 1024 x 768 or higher display, 16-bit minimum video card, powered USB port, DVD-ROM drive and Internet connection for software updates.

Advanced Display Calibration Systems

Datacolor Spyder4Elite: Configured like the Spyder4Pro, it provides all the same features but adds an impressive range of step-up capabilities including color analysis and display comparisons, by plotting uniformity, tone response, front projector calibration capability, StudioMatch for fine-tuning of studio displays and an unlimited choice of gamma, white point, white and black luminance, and iterative gray-balance settings. It also includes presets for video standards and calibrates to pro workflow targets. System requirements: Monitor with at least 1024 x 768 resolution (1024 x 600 netbook option) or front-projector RTF, 24-bit video card, powered USB port.

X-Rite i1Display Pro: With its cutting-edge i1Display Profiler software, it can calibrate and profile all current display and projector technologies including LED and wide-gamut LCDs and, like the ColorMunki, it’s spectrally calibrated and field-upgradeable to support future displays. Advanced features include ambient-light measurement, Automatic Display Control (ADC), user-defined pass/fail tolerance testing, a 5-times-faster speed than previous units, virtually infinite control of white point, luminance, contrast ratio, gamma and more, and the ability to create unique patch sets in 3 sizes for precision profiling. PANTONE Color Manager software is part of the package. System requirements: 1GB of RAM, 2GB of disk space, minimum monitor resolution of 1024 x 600, and a powered USB port. Dual display requires 2 video cards or a dual-head video card.

All these color management tools are the latest offerings from companies with long-term experience in monitor calibration, and any one of them will go a long way in assuring that what you see is indeed what you’ll get, in the final print.

For more information, speak with a B&H sales professional at the B&H SuperStore, over the phone at 1-800-606-6969 or via Live Chat.