Screen Calibration - Mandatory for Serious Editing

Barely a week can go past without hearing the same complaint and concern from developing photographers.  "My pictures look different on xx than on my screen.  Be the xx representative of another display, a web service, a mobile device, a TV, a different computer or a print, the complaint is the same.  Let's solve this issue.

If you only shoot JPEG in camera and never edit, you probably aren't one of the people complaining.  Then again, if that's you, you probably aren't reading this article anyways.  So no offence, but I'm writing for the rest of us.  

If you choose to edit, whether the file original is JPEG or a RAW, you have opened a file in your photo editor of choice and seen it on display.  Maybe you even have your camera handy and look at the same image on the LCD on the back of the camera.  You notice that the two images don't look the same.  The differences will be more obvious if your file is a RAW, but will still occur if you only shoot JPEG.  Why is this?

You've gone into a big box store to look for TVs.  You notice immediately that the new TVs have bright saturated colours, and that the displays are very bold.  When you get your new TV home, your retinas start to scream until you figure out how to turn the TV from DEMO or UltraHyperSuperVivid mode to something more appropriate to home viewing.  You see a drop in brightness, saturation and overall punch.  Your eyes also stop bleeding.  There's no reason to expect anything different in computer displays.  They ALL come set too hot for normal use.  If you buy an external standalone display that isn't a Wacom Cintiq or EIZO, the display comes from the factory set for Gaming.  Meaning too bright, too saturated and with an odd colour shift.  Moreover, that display either built in to your laptop or a standalone may have an ambient light sensor that adjusts the screen brightness based on the brightness of the light falling on the screen.  

For the general computer user, none of this is a bad thing.  For the photographic or videographic editor this is hell with a second helping of fire.

 The Datacolor Spyder5

The Datacolor Spyder5

You can fix this.  You do so by adding a calibration tool to your arsenal.  Simple calibrators such as the Colormunki Smile and Spyder5 Express will help you get your screen colour correct with minimal time and cost investment.  

These entry level calibrators are great value.  It's important to note that these units don't do a couple of potentially critical steps.  Neither does ambient light measurement, nor do they adjust screen brightness.  So if you are working in a location where the light level is too bright, your screen may be set too bright as compensation for the room light.  More importantly, in my view, is that you may get your colours bang on, but if your screen is too bright, your outputed files and prints will be much too dark on averagely illuminated displays and paper output.

 The Colormunki Display

The Colormunki Display

Trust me on this.  Your screen comes from the factory set much too bright.  If your calibration tool doesn't measure screen brightness, you can get your screen to a more useful brightness manually.

Your editing location should not have light falling directly on the display, so don't place it so a window illuminates the display.  If there are overhead lights, turn them off.  If the screen is lit from behind by a window, use an opaque shade to reduce the glare around the display that would cause you to increase the brightness.

Download a grey scale image from the web.  Reduce the brightness until the black patch is dead black and there is no glow in the white patch.  The screen is going to seem dim, but don't worry, your eyes will adjust.  Now adjust the contrast so the grey patches show equivalent shifts in brightness.  Contrast set too high will make the light patches burn together and the dark patches start to block up.  Now turn any auto-brightness adjustments on the display or on your laptop off.  If you are working on a laptop, work in either battery or AC mode.  Flipping between them will change the screen output based on power saving algorithms and your results are going to be inconsistent.  I suggest working on your laptop under AC power only when editing, or at least make a note to yourself to final check your edits before exporting or printing if the work was done under battery power.  Some laptops allow you to control whether the screen changes when switching from AC to battery, but it's very inconsistent.

Power consideration notwithstanding, you may prefer to spend a bit more on your calibrator to get one that measures ambient light and screen brightness.  Both the Spyder5 Pro and Colormunki Display add the capability to measure and help you set screen brightness properly.  The price jump may seem onerous but given that you should be recalibrating at least every four weeks, the simplicity may outweight the price difference over the basic units.  That's a personal decision.

Printer calibration is a completely different animal.  It used to be that to get colours correct on some printers with some papers, you had to do a proper print calibration AFTER calibrating your screen.  When my goto printer was a Canon Pixma Pro 9000 Mark I unless I used only Canon software to edit and print, my images came out way too red and I bought the ColorMunki Photo because it could do print as well as screen.  That Pixma Pro 9000 had a fatal accident and I replaced it with an Epson product that did not artificially skew colours.  A Canon spokesperson had told me that their printers were built to work with their software and that people "liked warmer images better anyway".  I restrained myself and left Canon printing products behind.  Later when I got my 1D Mk IV and 1Dx bodies, I was able to get both a Pixma Pro 9000 Mark II and Pixma Pro 9500 Mark II as part of the deals.  I sold off the 9000 as it still printed red and I preferred pigment inks anyway.  Canon changed their tune just over a year ago and their drivers altered to give more accurate controls with non-Canon software.  I like the output from the Pixma Pro 9500 Mark II much better now, particularly for black and white work but the Epson 4900 is still my workhorse and preferred platform.  Much of that has to do with the much larger and far more economical ink tanks in the Epson.  The point of this wandering paragraph is that the likelihood of you having to do print calibration today in 2015 as I write this is MUCH less than even two years ago.  A calibration tool with a spectrometer capable of handling print calibration costs a lot more than a device that only does displays, so only spend money where you need to spend it.

Many of us also use projectors to display our work or run slideshows for events and clubs.  Higher end calibration tools can also be used to calibrate the output from our projectors.  This is particularly important if your projector uses traditional bulb technologies because they shift in colour with heat and age very significantly.  If you are using a projected image to do judging for example, it may behoove you to make sure that the projector output is calibrated.  Again, there is no point in spending money on a function you won't use.

In summary, if you will edit, you must calibrate your display.  Otherwise you run the very real probability of doing work that looks great on your display but ends up looking like turtle puke elsewhere.  Since how your customers, friends and prospective clients will make determination about your work will happen on their displays, not yours, it's in your best interest to start in the right place.  And remember this.  If your print or image on a different display is too dark, even if the colours are correct, your display is set too darn bright.

Until next time, peace.