Color Management – Monitor Calibration

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Recently, Seepea, a reader of Beyond Megapixels posted the following comment at the end of one of my articles:

“I have been serious about photography for about a year now and am still completely baffled by the area of color management. I love my pictures on the computer, but printed, not so much. Getting my inkjet to print what I see on the screen is a nightmare and I have not loved the results from sites like Shutterfly. I don’t do this for a living, so don’t have money to invest in color calibration products if I don’t really need to. Plus, I work exclusively on a laptop and my understanding is that color calibrating the screen is a waste of time because everything changes as the angle of the screen changes. I would love to see more articles about this.”

Let me start by saying that I’ve been a photographer for a lot longer than a year and I’m still somewhat baffled by color management. I suppose had I been a physics major it would make more sense but they usually don’t teach physics in B school.

Now the real crux of Seepea’s question/comment is whether or not it’s necessary to purchase color calibration products. That question, like so many others in photography is dependent upon what you want to accomplish in your photography. That aside, the short answer is yes, but let me qualify it before you start scrolling to the bottom of the article to post your disagreement.

Your eyes (in conjunction with your brain) see color a little differently than do my eyes or Tiffany’s eyes or anyone else’s eyes. To account for this perception difference among people and create a common color palate for manufacturers, a set of standards for colors have been established by the International Color Consortium or ICC. Sounds like something from a James Bond movie but it’s a very important industry group. You can learn more about ICC by checking Wikipedia or by going to the ICC website and reading a brief blurb about them that will open on your screen if you click on the link.

By following the ICC standards, monitors that are calibrated will display the same colors regardless of the manufacturer. This is important because that means that the way I see a photo on my monitor will be the same way the printing company is going to see it on their monitors.

X-Rite i1 Display being used to calibrate a monitor

Properly calibrating a monitor requires the use of a colorimeter. For example the X-Rite i1Display 2, the ColorMunki Photo – Monitor, Printer & Projector Profiler and the Spyder 3 Studio SR just to name a few. Don’t forget that ambient light also affects how we see color so if you calibrate in one level of ambient light and work in another you’ll see the colors differently on your monitor.

Left to right – ColorMunki, two X-Rite i1Display when they were still called Pantone i1, Spyder and

Why is calibration important? Walk into a big box store like the one that uses blue and yellow as their brand colors and go into the TV department. Have you ever wondered why the colors look so different on one TV from another even when the same program is being shown? Aside from technical differences like sharpness, closeness to true black, etc., they’re different because the calibration is off for any number of reasons, not the least of which is store staff and customers “adjusting” the color settings on the TV. You probably won’t ever get the color exactly the same on all of the TVs but this simple exercise really illustrates what kind of differences can exist between your monitor and other monitors if they aren’t calibrated.

As far as calibrating laptop screens, I calibrate my laptop on a regular schedule the same as I do my workhorse desktop with the 26” monitor where I do all of my digital darkroom work. I use the laptop for tethered shooting when I’m in the studio and I want the colors to look as close as possible on both computers. Regarding Seepea’s point about the angle of view changing on the laptop, that comment holds true for any monitor. I adjust the monitor on any computer so that my line of vision is perpendicular to the plane of the screen. That just happens to be the same angle that the colorimeter calibrates the monitor.

If you send all your work out to a reputable color lab to be printed calibrating your monitor regularly is all you’ll need to do. If you print most of your own photos then you’re only half-way there. Tomorrow I’ll talk about calibrating printers.

While doing some research for this article I ran across an excellent blog post by Norman Koren entitled Color Management that has a lot of good information in it from basic good stuff to headache advance science stuff. The article was posted a few years ago but the primary information is still current and valid.

Who is Norman Koren you might ask. I mean, anyone can post stuff on the internet, right? Here’s a short bio on Norman and I think you’ll agree that he’s quite qualified to wax eloquently on the subject.

Norman Koren grew up in Rochester, NY, about a mile from the George Eastman House (the great photography museum). He became interested in photography at the age of 12, and quite serious at age 21. He studied physics at Brown University and Wayne State University, then went on to pursue a career in magnetic recording technology in Boston, Philadelphia, Silicon Valley, San Diego, and finally Colorado (near Boulder, where he now lives). During that time he pursued photography– often spending long hours in the old-fashioned chemical darkroom. When his magnetic recording career ended in 2001 he decided to become a fine art photographer, but technology pulled him right back. In 2004 he founded Imatest, which has become the world’s leading supplier of software for measuring the quality of digital cameras. He pursues fine art photography (mostly nature and landscape) when he has spare time (a somewhat mythical concept for founders of technology startups).

Click on the link to his company to see what it’s all about. While you’re there check out their customer list to see how widely accepted and used their products are.

Photo Credits:

X-Rite by Lee Bennett on Flickr Creative Commons
Colorimeter Collection by Jerry Liu on Flickr Creative Commons

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  • ohno studio

    Your link to Norman’s article does not work due to an error. Here it is for anyone looking for it.

  • Steve Russell

    Thanks for the catch, OHNO.  The link in the article has been corrected and now works.

  • Kris Koeller

    I don’t have the specifics on hand, but my understanding is you can rent that equipment quite inexpensively from any number of large camera stores or rental houses.  Its probably worth buying if you’re really serious about doing a lot of printing, but at the very least do a tune a few times per year with a rental.  

  • Steve Russell

    Great point, Kris.  However, the X-rite i1Display 2 is only $115 at Amazon so it shouldn’t break the bank. 

  • Dennis

    The 5th colorimeter in the line up, the one on the right, is a “huey”.  I have one and it works fine.

  • Steve Russell

    Thanks, Dennis.  I’ve looked all over trying to identify it.