A Beginners Look At Color Calibration On Your Monitor

Posted on December 1, 2016

Why Monitor Calibration Is Important


Why Do I Need A Monitor Calibrator?

You just clicked the shutter and on your camera’s screen you can see the amazing image that you’ve just created. Maybe it’s an explosive sunset. Maybe it’s a memorable moment at a family dinner. Maybe it’s your dog being ridiculously adorable (or mischievous). You get the image to your computer, and you adjust the picture to look fantastic.


The bottom image has a heavy greenish cast from an inaccurate monitor

Maybe you hit the Auto button. Maybe you applied a preset you like. Maybe you spent hours painstakingly adjusting the white balance and exposure and layering and masking and blending and manipulating individual color channel luminance to arrive at your masterpiece. Regardless of your method, unless you have a calibrated monitor you have no idea if you are adjusting a greenish tint in your image or one that your screen is imparting on it. Is that brightness adjustment actually necessary, or is your monitor too dark? Luckily there is an easy way to make sure that you are spending your time preforming necessary adjustments to your images.

What Is A Monitor Calibrator?

The simple answer to this question is – a device you put on your monitor that then runs a computer program that reads how your monitor is displaying color, and then adjusts it to the way it should be. This takes a couple minutes and should be repeated every so often, but more on that later… There are two main brands when it comes to color calibration, X-Rite and datacolor. I have used both of these brands and have no bias to one or the other. When you are looking at a specific price point though, the offering in that category from each brand may or may not have the options you need. Both companies have been in color management for more than 45 years – X-Rite since 1957 and datacolor since 1970. They both offer calibrators from under $100 to more than $500 (for the consumer market). To get a better idea what you may need in a calibrator, lets take a look at some of the things you may consider when shopping for one.


Things To Consider

Do you edit images in one location, or do you edit in multiple locations?

Do you use multiple monitors or a projector when plugged into the same computer?

Do you do a lot of printing?

What kind of budget do you have?


Let’s Take A Look At Each One Of These On Their Own


Do you edit images in one location, or do you edit in multiple location?

While some people use a laptop and might be editing images in various conditions, others use a desktop and always edit in the same room. One of the features that could be worth looking for on your future calibrator is an ambient light sensor. The color of the light in the room you are editing in has an effect on the way you see your screen. Not only are there differing colors of light bulbs, but if there is a window in the room you edit in, the color and intensity of the light pouring into the room will change throughout the day. When you are comparing different models, some will have an ambient light sensor, while some of the less expensive ones may not.

The calibrator I use does have one, but I don’t keep it plugged in all of the time. It reads the light in the room at the time of the calibration, and then I can prompt it to at any point by plugging it and telling the program to take a reading. If you edit in a static location the calibrators can be set up to take a reading on a regular schedule – from minutes to hours between readings. It the light is moving through the room you edit in over the course of a day, the calibration program will make live-time adjustments.

Do you use multiple monitors or a projector when plugged into the same computer?

Despite the fact that I personally use a laptop and might be just as likely to be editing at a coffee shop in Chile as I am to be in my home office, I do use multiple monitors. On my desk I have a larger monitor that I will often use to expand my work space. I also have a projector that I tote around the country for my workshops and classes. When you are looking for a calibrator, the ability to use multiple monitors, or even a projector can be a distinguishing factor. If you have the need to run more than one display at the same time, and want them to be as close as possible to each other, this is a feature you will need.

All monitors are not created equal! The type of monitor you buy – IPS or TFT along with quite a few other factors – will play into the monitors ability to display color, blacks and whites, contrast range, angle of view and much more. This is a wholly different topic that warrants its own tutorial. I will give you a brief look into monitors at the end of this article though.

Do you do a lot of printing?

If you print your images, the accuracy of the color plays heavily into your bottom dollar. If you have to try four or five times to get the color “close enough,” then you are wasting more money on inks and papers than the calibrator would of cost you to begin with – not to mention the unnecessary frustration. There are a lot more complexities to home printing than a monitors calibration (also warranting their own tutorial), but if your monitor is calibrated your prints will already be much closer to the displayed image. Only the systems over $500 will talk to your printer and put it on the same page as your monitor (no pun intended). Unless you do A LOT of home printing or you are doing it as a professional and need the most accuracy possible, even the entry level calibrators will get you a good baseline.

If you are using a reputable print service, they also are calibrating their monitors with the same types of devices. Services that provide professional level printing are likely matching their printers to the monitors too for exact reference. If your monitor is calibrated you shouldn’t see any large discrepancies in color (printing factors dependent).

What kind of budget do you have?

For most people, this is the first consideration they think of when they look at what’s on the market. Monitor calibrators will range from under $80 to more than $500. An entry level system is still better than nothing. No matter what your budget, it is important to look at the abilities of the different offerings from both brands in the price point you are comfortable with. If you have multiple monitors you would like to have all calibrated on the same system, this could influence which product you choose. If you would like the ability to read the ambient light in the room, this could also move you from one level to the next.

Calibrating Your Monitor


  screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-4-31-20-pmRegardless of the device you choose, the process is fairly similar. After answering a series of questions about your system (in most cases this is even automated) the software that comes with the device will have you put the calibrator on your screen.


adjusting the counterweight on the cord

There is a weight on the cord of the calibrator that slides up and down. This hangs over the rear of your monitor to counterbalance the mass of the device.






Where to place your calibrator with this model


The Software will show you where to position the device on your screen. It is very important that the part with the sensor sits totally against your monitor with no gaps. This prevents the light around you from influencing your calibration.



Over the next couple of minutes the software will run a series of colors. The device is reading how your monitor is displaying color, brightness and contrast and adjusting it to the way it should be. After the calibration has finished you can usually toggle a button to see a before and after. Some monitors will have little to no discernible difference after the calibration while others will have incredibly dramatic shifts.


Depending on the type of monitor you have, re-calibrating often is recommended. The software with most monitor calibrators will usually pop up a little window to remind you to do so every two weeks. There are options for more or less frequent re-calibrations depending on how quickly your screen shifts.


Types of Monitors


This will play into the accuracy that your calibrator is able to achieve. It will also make a difference in how often you have to re-calibrate your monitor and how much the image changes the more you move from dead center of the screen. Much like printing, this is a whole topic in itself. Basically there are two main types of monitors for sale in the computer field these days, IPS and TFT. The TFT style are used in less expensive monitors and are to be avoided for photo editing. Years ago, IPS monitors were only used in the really high end market, but now can be found in monitors under $150. An IPS monitor will hold the calibration longer before the colors or tones start to shift. They will also have a better viewing angle. With a TFT, as you tilt the monitor or change your position in front of it, the color, brightness and contrast appear to change. This is terrible for editing images! If you don’t have a ton of money and still want a good monitor try looking into the Dell UltraSharp line. Starting just under $250, these will usually be some of the best for the money out there. When using multiple monitors, try to have all of them be the same monitor (both brand and type). If that’s the case then they should be a pretty close match once they are calibrated. Like I said earlier, this could be it’s own tutorial. There are some really great ones (and some terrible ones too) already out on this topic.


The Unknown Factor


I teach quite a bit of Adobe Lightroom, both in structured classes and in private instruction.  Color calibration and accuracy is one of the main things I find people generally have no idea about. I will often get questions about the color calibration built into some computers. These programs have no way to adjust to outside factors, or to know if your screen is displaying the color it should be. They certainly are not replacements for the external devices we have been discussing in this article. If you spend any time editing your photos, and you care about what your final image looks like, then there is no way of getting around monitor calibration. I hope this has helped to clear up some of the mysteries around monitor calibration.

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