Have you ever looked at an image on two different computer screens or devices (such as smartphones or tablets) side by side? If you notice a colour shift, or a difference in contrast between the two like in the image above, then you are looking at at least one uncalibrated monitor.
Calibrating your monitor sounds like a very daunting and hi-tech task, something reserved for computer technicians in professional labs. But in fact, it’s very quick and simple to do, even for beginner photographers. It’s easy to overlook the importance of proper screen calibration, but it can make a huge difference to the appearance of your images.
What Is Calibration?
Think of calibration as the wearing of different glasses. In this analogy, an ‘accurate’ screen is represented by a pair of clear glasses. ‘Inaccurate’ screens are represented by sunglasses, or glasses with different colour-tinted lenses. When you wear clear glasses whilst retouching your images, the colours will look ‘correct’ and will accurately represent the colours in the scene where the photograph was taken.
However, if you did your retouching while wearing the colour-tinted glasses, your perception of the colours would be altered by the colour shift in the glasses. The colours would look ‘correct’ to you, but to someone wearing clear glasses, the colours would look strange and inaccurate. This same theory applies to screen calibration.
Why Should You Calibrate Your Screen?
Calibrating your screen ensures accuracy of colour. In other words, it makes sure that your colours are being properly represented on the screen you are using. Accurate colours mean that any adjustments you make to your images come out as you intended. Basically, your images will look how you want them to look! Calibration ensures that others will see your image as you see it, no matter what type of device or computer they are using.
It is important to set up your environment correctly in order to get an accurate calibration result. Much like in a science experiment, we have to take some constants into consideration. Before commencing any calibration, ensure that you follow these three steps:
1) Turn on your monitor and leave it on for a while. You want to ensure the operating conditions of your monitor match the conditions under which you usually work. Your monitor will change colour as it warms up; leave it on for 15-30 minutes before beginning a calibration.
2) Set your monitor’s display to the default, or “factory”, setting. This gives you a ‘clean starting point’ from which to start the calibration.
3) Find an area with appropriate lighting. Ideally, this is somewhere with moderate ambient light (not too dark or bright), and without any glare or colour casts. For example, don’t calibrate right next to a large window, or a bright red wall! Finding an area with a neutral colour and no glare will help to make your calibration accurate.
Basic Calibration - Built-In Software
You can conduct a basic screen calibration using your computer’s built-in software. Both Mac and Windows have tools that will give you step-by-step instructions on how to do so. This is a great first step, and better than doing no calibration at all, but this type of calibration provides a very limited result. If you’re only a casual photographer, or don’t have the budget for other means of calibration, then it’s a good place to begin.
Mac OS X
On a computer running Mac OS X, the tool used for calibration is called the “Display Calibrator Assistant”. You can find it in your system preferences, under the “Displays” tab. Underneath the “Colour” tab, you should see a list of profiles to choose from, as well as a button that says “Calibrate”. Clicking this button will allow you to set up your own profile, by choosing your brightness, contrast, native gamma, target gamma, and target white point. Don’t be overwhelmed by the different settings – the tool will guide you through the process. You can then name your new profile and compare it to other presets (the different calibration profiles that come with your computer).
In the Windows OS, you can find the calibration tool in the “Display Control Panel,” underneath the “Appearance” tab. Windows will guide you through the calibration process, which involves adjusting your gamma, brightness, contrast, and colour settings. Once you’ve finished, make sure to select the “current calibration” to apply your results. You can also choose your previous calibration if you don’t like your new profile.
Advanced Calibration - Using A Device
While calibrating your screen with your computer’s built-in calibration tool is fast and easy, it won’t give the most accurate results. This is because the calibration is done by a human (you), so the results are incredibly subjective, as all people perceive colour slightly differently.
A more accurate way of conducting a screen calibration is to use a colorimetric device. This is a small electronic device that measures the colour that your monitor emits. It looks a little bit like a computer mouse, and usually connects to the computer via a USB port. If you want accurate results, using a colorimetric device is the only way to get them. If you want to be a professional photographer and are serious about your colour management, it’s worthwhile to invest in (or borrow) a colorimetric device.
Don’t be put off by the flashy-looking piece of equipment, or the complicated-looking name; colorimetric devices are actually easy to use. They come with software that guides you through the entire process – and it will even show you where to place the device on the screen. It then shows you a series of colour patches, and compares their true values to those recorded by the device. Then, the software will create a profile that compensates for the screen’s inaccuracies.
One of the most well-known colorimetric devices is the Spyder, which comes in a few different models and price ranges, and provides a high level of accuracy. However, like most things related to photography, they come with a price tag, anywhere between $100-$300. If you’re a beginner, it might be a good idea to rent or hire one first, or even get a group of photographer friends together to split the cost.
Calibrating your monitor is not something you should do once and then forget about. Like servicing your car or going to the dentist, screen calibration needs to be done regularly. If you use a Spyder, you may get an automatic reminder to calibrate your screen every 30 days, but conducting a calibration every few months is fine. Regularly calibrating your screen ensures that your colours are being represented accurately every time you view your photos on screen.