If you want to obtain accurate colours in your photos in Lightroom (or indeed any other software), no matter what you may read elsewhere, you need to calibrate your computer monitor. If you don’t, the colours in your photos won’t be accurate, and you will never produce a print (or any other form of output, such as a Blurb book) that matches the colours on your screen. If you undertake client work, or sell your photos through stock libraries, it is essential to calibrate your monitor so that you know the colours of your photo are as intended.
The reason for this is simple. When monitors are manufactured, the colour is set incorrectly. Most monitors have a strong blue colour cast. The only exception seems to be Apple Mac computers. They still have a colour cast, but it’s not as strong.
I have no idea why this is. Whenever I’ve searched for the answer all I find is vague references to blue computer screens looking better in the shops, or that the blue colour cast suits graphic designers. Neither of these ideas seems credible to me.
Regardless, even if monitors were calibrated prior to shipping, you would still need to calibrate your monitor yourself at regular intervals because the colour of monitors drifts over time.
Take a look at these two black and white images. One is completely neutral in tone, the other isn’t. Can you tell which is which?
If you answered that Image 1 is neutral, you are correct. But it’s very difficult to tell on an uncalibrated monitor. If your monitor is uncalibrated (making everything look bluer than what it is) you probably picked Image 2 as the neutrally coloured one.
Using monitor calibration devices
The only way to calibrate your monitor accurately is to buy (or borrow) a device that measures the colours emitted by your monitor. They are called colorimetric devices and connect to your computer via the USB port.
If you research the topic online you will find articles that tell you how to calibrate your monitor without a colorimetric device. Pay no attention to them, their techniques don’t work. The only way to do it properly is with the correct device.
Colorimetric devices are easy to use, and come with software that guides you through the calibration process. It shows you where to place your device on the screen, then displays a series of colour patches for the device to measure.
It then compares the colour values recorded by the device, against the true colour values of the colour patches and creates a profile that compensates for the inaccuracies of the monitor. The profile is saved on your hard drive and used by your computer’s operating system to control the way colours are displayed on your monitor.
Computers and colour profiles
Once you have calibrated your monitor you can relax, knowing that the colours you see on your screen are as accurate as your monitor can render them. At least, that’s the idea. In real life, it’s a little more complex.
Mac owners will be fine. The Mac operating system (OS X) works very well with colour. Every program you use works with the monitor profile and displays accurate colour. It’s one of the reasons that many professional photographers use Apple computers.
If you have a Windows PC however the story is different. The operating system knows the monitor profile is there, but not all programs use it. It’s possible to have the same photo open in two programs, and for the colours in one to appear different to the other. One program is using the monitor profile, and the other isn’t.
All the professional level programs you use, such as Lightroom and Photoshop, utilize the monitor profile and display colours accurately. But not all software does. An example is ACDSee. It doesn’t use the monitor profile and won’t display colours accurately. If you’re unsure whether your software uses the monitor profile, a Google search should reveal the answer.
Just to make things even more complex, some PCs won’t load the monitor profile you created in the first place. It seems to be a problem with Windows Vista and Windows 7. This excellent article describes the problem in more detail and gives you a work around.
Another thing to watch out for is that the colours on your monitor drift over time. For that reason it’s a good idea to calibrate your monitor at monthly intervals, or before you carry out any critical work. The software that comes with your device can be set up to give you a reminder.
How to choose a monitor calibration device
Colorimetric devices are made by several manufacturers. The main players seem to be Datacolor (who make the Spyder models) and X-Rite (which makes Colormunki).
For many photographers, the least expensive model in each manufacturer’s range is probably sufficient. That’s good news because it means that you don’t have to spend a lot of money in order to calibrate your monitor.
But before you rush out and buy the cheapest device you can find, ask yourself these questions. Some photographers will require the features found in more expensive models.
- Do you use a dual monitor set up? Some colorimetric devices only profile a single monitor.
- Do you have a printer to profile as well? Some devices can calibrate printers as well as monitors, although they are a lot more expensive.
- Do you want to adjust the gamma or white point of your monitor? Not all monitors let you do this, but if you have a monitor which allows it you will need a more advanced device to enable this feature.
The Spyder 4 Express
I use a Spyder 4 Express to calibrate my monitor. Here’s how the process works. If you have a different device, the process will be similar.
1. Run the Spyder4Express software that comes with the device
The first screen gives directions. The important points are that you should let your monitor warm up for half an hour before calibration and that there should be no intense light falling on the screen.
It also asks you to reset the contrast setting and set white balance to 6500K. This isn’t possible on all computers, especially laptops, so don’t worry about these settings if you can’t adjust them. The device will still work.
2. Then it asks you which type of display you have
3. Next enter the manufacturer and model of your display
I selected Apple and the display model was filled in automatically. The Color LCD setting seems to be sufficient (confirmed by checking the monitor specs in System Information).
4. Set the Gamut
This next step is very important. Gamut is fairly easy. You’ll know if you have a wide gamut monitor because it will say so in the specs (that’s probably why you bought it). In fact, I tried setting wide gamut here to see what would happen and the software recognised that I didn’t have a wide gamut monitor and sent me back to change it.
The backlight setting is crucial. The instructions recommend that if you’re not sure what type of backlighting you have that you should set it to Unknown. I tried that and even I could see with my naked eye that the colour was wrong (the screen had a magenta cast).
If your monitor has the model number printed on it, simply Google the model number. You should find the spec sheet for the monitor which will tell you exactly what type of backlighting it has.
If you have a laptop it’s harder to verify. I found these instructions for my Macbook Pro. I’ve been unable to find any for Windows laptops, so if you how to do this I’d be grateful if you could let us know in the comments. Once you have the model, you can Google it for the spec sheet. That’s how I confirmed my laptop has a White LED backlight.
5. Placement of the device
The next screen shows where to place the Spyder 4 Express unit. It has a counterweight to hold it in position.
6. The software then displays a series of colour patches for the device to measure
7. A new profile is created
When it’s finished, the program creates a new monitor profile that’s used by the computer from that point on. It also lets you switch between calibrated and uncalibrated versions to see the difference.
8. Gamut comparison
Finally, the program shows a graph comparing the colour gamut of the monitor compared to sRGB, NTSC and AdobeRGB colour spaces.
Monitor calibration is an essential part of your workflow as a photographer. Indeed, it’s an essential part of all post-processing. There’s no way around it, but luckily the process doesn’t have to be difficult or overly expensive.
I use the Spyder 4 Express, and it’s a great little unit. It’s easy to use and relatively inexpensive. The only potential sticking point seems to be working out what type of backlighting your LCD monitor has. It’s crucial to get that right or the calibration won’t be accurate. Also, if you need more advanced features, such as the ability to profile more than one monitor or set the colour temperature or white point, then you need a more advanced model of device.
Have you used a different model to calibrate your monitor? How did the device perform and how did you get on? Let us know in the comments.
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