If you are like me as I am starting out, you have no idea that your monitor is most likely not showing the right colors. Well, I should say I had noticed that the colors I saw on the screen weren’t the same colors as what came out of my printer. I just wasn’t something I cared a lot about until I started to process my photos and spent a lot of time adjusting the white balance and doing some color correction. This is where monitor calibration comes in and I will do my best to explain it without a lot of technical terms and provide a few suggestions on tools to use after the break.Before diving into the topic, I want to assure that I am not giving up on writing about backlog topics. By backlog I mean things that I have already gone through since I got my DSLR. I already wrote one post on how to choose a DSLR camera, the starting point for me and probably for you as well. I intend to write about equipment that I have purchased since I first got my camera. Topics like what is the first lens to buy in addition to the stock lens that came with your camera and what software I have used to do “post-processing” work on my photos to get the most out of them. I think I will put [Backlog] on the title of future posts like that.
What is monitor calibration?
Wait a sec, this is supposed to be a blog where things are simplified and we have words like calibration? Well, that along with the term of “color management” is something you need to know. Hopefully this post will explain what it is so that you will know what it is and as you read other online content you will better understand the technical terms that seem to be littered throughout.
I am sure you already know what a monitor is. The screen attached to your computer or laptop is called a monitor, display, or sometimes more generically called video. A monitor plays a huge roll in getting good photos from your DSLR because those pictures don’t do you any good until you get them onto a computer. Once they have been imported from your memory card you need to process them. No matter how good your photography skills are, you can improve your photos by editing them on your computer – something I have seen called “post-processing.” I have found through painful experience that if you don’t calibrate your monitor the things you do to “fix” your photos so that they aren’t too bright or dark (exposure) or don’t have that terrible yellow tinge when you take pictures indoors (white balance) can actually make things worse instead of better.
If you are like me, you really didn’t know that your monitor isn’t showing colors like it should. From what I have read on the topic it seems that this has become a bigger problem when the world changed from the old big and heavy monitors (called CRT) to the smaller, thinner monitors we have today (LCD). LCD monitors are great and can really help you fix your photos, but as they roll off the assembly line they are not tuned to show colors correctly. Not only would doing this take a lot more time for the manufacturer to get them out the door, as the monitor is used the way it displays colors changes. So monitor calibration is a process you go through to change a number of controls to make it more accurately show colors. You can imagine that if you are trying to fix a yellow tinge on a photo but your colors are wrong where it looks more yellow than it actually is, your fix to the photo is going to go overboard and end up having a blue tinge. This is why it has become very clear to me just how critical it is that the monitor show colors the best it can.
There is a lot more that can be said about monitors themselves (i.e. is IPS technology important), but that is another post topic. I want to focus just on the actual calibration process. There are a couple of ways to do this. I’ll start with the cheapest option and move up to what I have decided to buy to help me do this.
Free Calibration Tool
The cheapest option to help you calibrate your monitor would be manual adjustments you can make through your monitor buttons and software you can run on your computer. The tool I first used to do this is a free one called Calibrize. You can download it at http://calibrize.com/. As you run the tool it shows you a few images and asks you to make some adjustments to how things look, and then creates something called a “profile” that contains the adjustments that are done through Windows in a file and is loaded every time you startup your computer. Calibrize is a Windows only solution. I only use Windows, so that worked for me. If you use a Mac then there are plenty of free solutions our there too (I saw lots of them as I researched). Here are a few other options for free software based solutions that you can try – the only one I have actually used is Calibrize.
I have to say here that my experience with trying to calibrate my monitor using free tools like this was far from sufficient for me. Although I think it may have helped, as I have seen my photos on other monitors and projectors, I have seen several that look terrible. The worst of it has been some strange problems with details that are totally missing. Some of them have looked more like oil paintings than sharp pictures. Not sure yet what really has caused this (think it is a combination of bad contrast and noise reduction but that is another post), but I know it didn’t look like that on my monitor where I worked on the photo.
Paid Calibration Tools
I have recently decided to make the jump to buying an automated monitor calibration tool that includes both hardware and software. I have only researched this over the past few days, so I don’t have actual experience with it yet to report on how much of a difference it makes or how well it works. I will do that after I have had some time with it. As with everything in this photography world, there are a lot of options, and you can spend a lot of money. Let me go through the things I have learned and then I’ll tell you what I have decided upon.
Most of the paid for tools seem to involve a USB based hardware device. When you do the calibration you start some software made for the device, then you put the device on the screen and the software shows different colors and images to help it automatically adjust your monitor and Windows (or Mac) settings. So it takes me out of the process, which is probably where things went south on trying to use the free tool.
I started googling around for monitor calibration tools, with an emphasis on cheap. Not that I want the very cheapest solution, but I wanted to see what that was so that I could make a decision on if it was worth going to a more expensive solution. I quickly discovered that the technical term for these things is “colorimeter”. This is the term that specifically refers to devices that help you to make the colors and contrast look right on your monitor. I also learned that a technical term that sounds like it is close to the same thing is “spectrophotometer,” but that it is most definitely not the same thing. A spectrophotometer does a whole lot more including helping to make sure you get accurate colors as you print them on your own printer. This is something that seems only worthwhile if you are doing photography professionally AND you are going to print your photos yourself (another topic for a post). I am not planning to do that anytime soon, so I am sticking with the colorimeter options.
I didn’t write down all of the sites I went to, but basically the products priced in the “prosumer” range were the Pantone Huey, DataColor Spyder 4, and the X-rite ColorMunki Display (important that it is “Displaly” here because there is another product with a similar name that is a spectrophotometer). I listed them in order of price as of the time of this post. Of course, each has different features, and each is actually a product line where there are options labeled as “pro.” Armed with the information about the tool being called a colorimeter and these players, you may want to google around yourself to see if you find other options. Although you may not find a lot more because I also learned that there hasn’t been a whole lot going on with the products in this space. There were articles about how some of the products hadn’t changed since 2008.
OK, so how to choose. I am not going to go through all of the different features of each product here. You are going to need to go out there at look at them to see if there are things more important to you. The things that I decided were most important to me were: reliability, cost, multiple screens, works with projector.
First, as I mentioned just a moment ago, some of these products are kind of stale and are getting negative reviews. That seems to be the case with the Pantone Huey, although a guy named James Beltz I have been following a lot through his podcasts and website at phototips.biz did recommend it on one of his podcasts. Still, I quickly ruled this one out because it seemed least likely to work like I want, meaning the reviews I saw led me to believe it was not going to be reliable. That could be totally wrong, and it may work just great, but I only have one time to buy this thing and I didn’t want to spend 50% of the money on something that wouldn’t work. The other two products both seemed like they were newer, getting better reviews, and therefore made me believe they would be more reliable.
The Panton Huey was the cheapest option of the paid for products that I saw available, and as of this post bhphotovideo.com had the best price on it at $90. Again, I ruled it out based on the reliability factor. The DataColor Spyder 4 comes in three flavors, Express, Pro, and Elite. Express was $114, Pro $140, Elite $250. Ouch, $250 is way more than I wanted to spend on this so the Elite model is pretty well eliminated here. The X-rite ColorMunki Display was $160. Not much more to say on this factor.
I discovered as I looked at the different features of these products that the cheaper options only allowed the device to be used on a single screen. If I am going to invest in a device like this I don’t want it limited to one monitor, but that could be acceptable to you. I have two monitors I actually do photo editing on (one desktop and one laptop). I also have a computer in the kitchen and a computer attached to a TV. I would like to calibrate all of them so that they show colors accurately. The Spyder 4 Express is limited through software licensing to only working on a single monitor. It isn’t just that the device is hard to move from machine to machine, it is that the device only works with their software and they have put controls in place so that if you install the software one a second computer it will disable the software on the first computer. So now I am really down to Spyder 4 Pro or ColorMunki Display.
The last thing that is important to me is that it can calibrate a projector. I have a Dell LCD projector that we use frequently for watching movies in the basement. I also use it frequently to show slideshow movies of my pictures at my church. Really fun stuff, and this is where I have most seen the issues with the pictures not looking remotely the same as it did on my computer. So if it was reasonable cost-wise, I wanted to be able to use this tool to calibrate the colors on my projector. The only product on my list that supported this was the ColorMunki Display.
I have been convinced that in order to give your photos the best chance of looking good on other monitors or displays you have to calibrate at least the monitor that you do your editing on. For me trying to calibrate the monitor using free tools didn’t work well, and I decided the best paid option for me was the X-Rite ColorMunki Display. It is ordered and on the way to me as I write this. After I try it out I’ll write again about how much it seems to help or if it is all hype. Another thing that finally made me pull the trigger on this is the article on dpreview on the subject that you can find here. There are a lot of things covered in the article, but check out the opinion on ColorMunki Display.
I also want to mention that if you have to figure out the priority in which you spend you money on this hobby like I do, this device is a little bit down the list. I recommend the first thing to look at buying be a good software editing tool (Adobe LightRoom is my current recommendation). Next would be a better lens than you got stock with your camera. I have loved my 50mm f/1.8 prime I got for getting better portraits, but if you want to do landscape you should probably look at a wide angle lens in the 18mm range. Definitely recommend getting a prime as your first non-stock lens. I will write about both of these things in a lot more detail later. After those two things then I think you really need to look at a monitor calibration tool.