Calibrate Your Monitor!

by Miserere


(If you are looking for an article explaining the different types of LCD monitors on the market, be sure to read Computer LCD Monitors for Photography, by Mark Roberts.)

Digital photographers will spend thousands of dollars, euros, pounds, yens, and many other currencies on the latest, bestest DSLR. Then a few thousand more on some lenses. Then there’s the need for fast cards, a fancy bag, an external hard drive… I get the feeling that many digital photographers forget the very last piece of the puzzle: The monitor.

While it’s true that there are many grades of quality when it comes to monitors, even the most expensive one will be of no use to your photography if it’s not calibrated. Yesterday I bought my first new monitor. For the past 2-3 years I’ve been editing my photographs using my laptop plugged into a 17″ CRT monitor that was being thrown away at my workplace. One company’s trash is another man’s treasure. The reason I didn’t use my laptop’s screen was because its brightness changes depending on the viewing angle. This is common for many laptops, even top end ones, and using these screens to edit photographs can cause them to come out too dark or too bright.

Calibration Control Image
My old-school CRT was easy to calibrate by eye using the image you see on the right, which I also have printed on photographic paper, so comparing the two I was able to adjust the monitor in about 5 minutes. Furthermore, I only calibrated my monitor maybe once every 6 months—that’s all it took. But last weekend I decided to join the 21st century and bought a widescreen 22″ LCD. What a difference! It’s huge and bright compared to my CRT, and it’s a joy to see my panoramas without scrolling from side to side. However, the colour, contrast and brightness out of the box were terrible. I’m wondering if the people working at the factory wear red-tinted sunglasses because the image was way too bright and had a clear blue cast. LCDs are notoriously more difficult to calibrate than CRTs; a truth I found out after spending 30 minutes trying my old techniques with my new monitor. Bottom line: It was impossible.

“Calibrating your monitor will improve your pictures more than a new lens, and at a fraction of the price.”

Raise your hands all those of you who own an LCD screen. Now keep your hands raised those who also own some sort of calibrating software. I bet a lot of you had to bring down your hands, right? Bad boys and girls! After spending so much money on digital equipment it is just plain stupid not to spend a tiny fraction on calibration software. A few months ago I bought the ColorVision Spyder2 Express—actually it was many months ago, but I never used it because my calibration by eye was fine. Can I tell you how glad I was to have it on my shelf today when I installed my new monitor? Very! I cannot recommend it enough. It installed in minutes and the calibration process was automatic. I can’t tell you how long it took because I left it running and went off to dinner. It’s simple, too: you just hang the colorimeter in front of the screen where the program tells you to, then you hit enter and off it goes!

spyder2 colorimeter lcd monitor screen calibrationThe Spyder2 Pro at work

When I came back from dinner I had a confirmation screen telling me it had saved my new settings and asked if I wanted to see a before/after comparison. Wow! Unbelievable difference; the screen had been even bluer than I had thought it was. I am now enjoying true blacks and neutral greys, just like on my old CRT monitor, except I now have a lot more screen real estate.

If you are viewing your photos on an uncalibrated LCD, do yourself and your photos a favour and get yourself some sort of calibrating device. If you shoot JPEGs and think you don’t need it because you don’t do any postprocessing on your photos, think again! How do you know your photos look as good as you think they do? Maybe they only look good on your screen, but on other people’s (using calibrated monitors) they look dull, too dark, too bright, too blue, too red, too… You get the point. Do you ever send your JPEGs off to get printed? Another reason to have a calibrated monitor so the printed photos come out like you expected them to.

If you are now wondering whether or not your monitor is properly calibrated (and if you are, then I achieved my goal) click here, here and here for some online charts that will help you determine how bad your situation is.

Remember: If you’re shooting digital, spending a few $/€/£/¥ will improve the quality of your photographs much more than spending $/€/£1000 (or ¥100,000) on a fantastic lens. You’ll thank me one day.

16 Responses to “Calibrate Your Monitor!”

  1. Agreed…it’s funny how people can justify cost of certain things, but something as essential as monitor calibration seems like it will bankrupt them.

    I’ve been using the Huey Pro for a few years now, and considering it’s a base model, my colors on the CRT seem spot on. The room light compensation is great too. It’s amazing how much contrast daylight robs you of, the Huey comps for that nicely

    What’s funny is my early mid 2000s Apple CRT actually has that built into it, very cool, but unfortunately no one ever made PC drivers for it. So the calibration and the 4 USB ports don’t work. As much as I think Apple is overpriced, they did make some cutting edge stuff!

  2. BTW, eye calibration is a bad idea. People see colors much differently. Some people see magentas very boldy, while others see greens or cyans more boldly. Plus, calibrating from say a photo, uses 2 different types of light transmission to show the colors. It’s probably better than nothing, but perhaps dropping $80 before buying that next lens is a good idea?

    • Justin, eye calibration is a bad idea, but it’s better than no calibration at all. Having printed a number of my photos, I actually did a pretty good job. But like I say in the article, that was with a CRT; I found it impossible to calibrate the LCD by eye, while the Spyder2 did a very nice job. Well worth the $65 I paid for it.

  3. This has been on my ‘wishlist’ for a while…easy to put off, less exciting than glass. Shame on me.

  4. No, I’m with you on ANY calibration vs. none. But eye calibration is a stop gap rather than a solution. It’s like insulin to a diabetic, it alleviates part of the problem, but doesn’t cure the disease. Uncalibrated monitors are a disease!!

  5. Hmmm, according to those online charts my monitor is pretty spot on, but now you have me wondering. I use my Lap Top to do all my work. I have a Dell XPS with the high res monitor 1900×1200 pixels and ultra bright wazoo this and that screen. It did come with calibration software, but I have always questioned it. Is that spider thing software available for download?

    • Javier, I have a Dell XPS M1210. The screen is also Ultrabright whatnot. Great for movies, crap for photography editing. If you look at the photo of my new monitor, you’ll see a device hanging in front of it, that’s a colorimeter (measures colour), so you not only need software, but also hardware. $65 is a small investment compared to the benefits you get. The Spyder2 is not the only product of this type on the market, and there are more advanced and expensive ones, as well as cheaper models.

  6. This is pretty great technology and I think its only going to grow. I just hope it gets affordable soon. hokieg

  7. Ok, I will heading over to frys tomorrow to pick up the kit. Is it one of those ”only works on one pc” kinda of things?

  8. Hehe, I read this post twice and I think you are a hell of an excellent salesman!

    I have one and shamefully I hardly use it. It takes time to calibrate every time I turn on the computer

    Such a great pursuation for sure. Great writing, Mis.

  9. My recollection when I was looking into this several months ago is that if you use a multi-monitor system there may be some benefits to the step-up models. I think my research was pushing me towards the $150 Datacolor
    Spyder3Pro at the time but the advantages over the entry level devices which are usually a little under $100 are modest on a single-screen system.

    I’m not a doctor or nurse but regarding the analogy with diabetes, I’m thinking these calibration tools are more like insulin (require periodic use to adjust in the direction of ship-shape) and by-eye calibration is more like eating a piece of fruit or what-not.

  10. Need to get me one of these spyders I think. Having such a rough time callibrating my moniter on my new laptop (almost three days now !), horrible purple cast and then when I get rid of this horrible skin tones.
    I know its not gonna be as good as CRT but at moment my new laptop screen is unbearable. Why oh why did my old one have to die ? 😦

  11. […] Calibrate Your Monitor! Enticing the Light An important reminder why we should keep our monitors calbirated […]

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