I was thrilled when I bought my first inkjet printer and couldn’t wait to make my first color print. After spending about half an hour perfecting the portrait photograph in Photoshop, I sent the image to the printer and was immediately disappointed. If the person had been a visiting extraterrestrial or suffering from jaundice, the yellowish skin tone might have been acceptable. Neither was the case. I was just another photographer experiencing the frustration of having an inkjet print that didn’t match what was on the monitor.
After I got over the desire to drop-kick my entire system, I learned it wasn’t a problem with the printer or even the monitor. What I discovered was that each device (monitor, scanner, printer) sees and interprets color differently. Just like the colors of an image would look different if viewed as a print versus a slide, each of these devices produces color in its own unique way. The trick to solving this problem was to find the means to get them all to speak the same language.
The way to do this was by calibrating the devices—creating specific profiles and using them to maintain a color-accurate workflow.
Although Adobe Photoshop includes a utility for optimizing the output of the monitor, it’s not the best solution because it’s subjective and heavily influenced by many external factors, not the least of which is one’s own eyesight.
Yes, it’s better than nothing, but there are much more effective options. Some are strictly software-based while others include a colorimeter, a special measuring device that reads brightness and color values directly off your CRT or LCD.
Before using any of these options, you have to make sure that your monitor is in a good location. No, I’m not talking about Tahiti; I’m talking about where the display is located in your office. The monitor shouldn’t face a strong light source like a window or a lamp, as that will impact the appearance of the image on the screen. Ideally, it should be in a room with minimal extraneous light or with the means for blocking light with blinds or drapes.
The surroundings should be neutral in tone, from desk to walls, as a strong saturated color affects how you see color on your monitor. To minimize the impact of ambient light and color on the monitor, consider a monitor shade, like the Hoodman E-1323 HIPPA Desktop Hood ($49).
It’s also important to leave your CRT monitor on for at least half an hour before attempting calibration. This allows the CRT to warm up and reach its optimal output. While there are conflicting opinions on whether LCD monitors require this, I recommend the same warm-up time as a CRT to play it safe.
A monitor has numerous controls for adjusting brightness, contrast and color, whether it’s an LCD or a CRT. Although the monitor may look fine straight out of the box, no display will be perfectly adjusted for the purpose of editing photographs.
DisplayMate is an affordable software-based monitor calibration system. Using a unique slideshow that includes specialized test patterns with step-by-step instructions, the software guides you toward achieving the best display possible. At only $79, DisplayMate provides an inexpensive way to optimize your monitor. While the process is still relatively subjective, the exhaustive test patterns and instruction deliver good results.
For increased precision, manufacturers such as ColorVision, X-Rite and GretagMacbeth include a colorimeter with their software packages. When placed on the screen, the device measures brightness and color values that are produced by its color-calibration software. Rather than depending on the perceptions of the human eye, such a system delivers one of the most accurate means for calibrating virtually any monitor.
Calibration packages are available for every budget, with higher-priced products providing more control and customization. The ColorVision Spyder2 ($189) and Spyder2 Pro Studio ($299) are compatible with both Mac and Windows machines. Each offers the ability to adjust individual color channels (red, green, blue) using a customizable curve while the Studio version allows you to match different monitors to the same target. This process is all automated, making an advanced process easy.
With X-Rite’s MonacoOPTIXXR ($249), you not only can calibrate monitors, but flatbed scanners and printers as well. The software includes a colorimeter and features a color target that can be scanned and reproduced by the printer. This helps in creating custom color profiles for the monitor, scanner and printer, and produces consistent results, especially when printing on different paper types.
The GretagMacbeth Eye-One Display 2 ($249) includes a precise colorimeter that delivers high repeatability and consistent profiling results, with higher sensitivity to dark areas for improved performance in shadow areas. The Eye-One Match 3.2 software features gray balance optimization for improved neutrals. It also includes several software tools to achieve improved color agreement across multiple monitors.
For photographers who earn a living with their work, the higher-end calibration systems are worthwhile, especially when providing accurate color to a client is crucial. If you’re on a budget, however, or involved in less critical work, more affordable systems will provide more than sufficient accuracy.
Maintaining Color Accuracy
Once you’ve calibrated your monitor, it’s important to regularly repeat the process. Monitors age and their brightness and color change over time. During their early life, the changes are fairly subtle, but become greater as time passes. For home use, calibrate your system monthly. For professionals, it’s wise to calibrate your monitor every other week.
Calibrating my system has made a huge difference in my work. I often can output a good print after producing a single test print. That would have been unheard of with a noncalibrated system. Printing is one of the joys of photography for me, and a calibrated system ensures that it stays that way.