How to Calibrate your Monitor with the Spyder 4 Express

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Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

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?

Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

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.

Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

2. Then it asks you which type of display you have

Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

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).

Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

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.

Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

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.

Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

6. The software then displays a series of colour patches for the device to measure

Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

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.

Monitor calibration with Spyder 4 Express

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 with Spyder 4 Express

Conclusion

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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  • Al

    I have the spider 3 and the calibration is a mess, even if I calibrate twice in 5 minutes I get a different result, and the display look yellowish..

  • Al

    On a mbp 17 antiglare display

  • vitavision.pl

    Spyder 3 is an old and very inaccurate device.
    Actually it’s decalibrator 😉

  • Hi Al, it could be because your MacBook Pro has a white LED backlit screen. I don’t think the Spyder 3 can measure the colour from this type of screen accurately. You need a Spyder 4 device for that. This PDF lists the differences between models:

    http://spyder.datacolor.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Spyder3_4_comparison.pdf

  • I have a Spyder 4 Pro and like it. Also though if you print make sure the printer is calibrated too.

  • How well does this work with laptop screens? My main problem is the difference in brightness accordit to viewing angle. This will obviously not be fixed by calibration, but I would like to make the best of what I got. And buy a monitor later.

  • Don

    I used a Spyder 3 Pro on my desktop with a LCD display as well as my laptop running Windows 8. I never got a calibration from it that was usable. The colors were way out of whack. I ended up calibrating it using the Windows software to bring it back to something I could use. Don’t know if I want to spend money on something that “might” calibrate my monitor correctly. I purchased it originally due to the reviews that said it was a great product.

  • philosopher

    I have a question. Let’s say you buy the spyder 4 (or any other similar product), and you calibrate your monitor ONCE. Colors Profile file is stored somewhere in windows (or Mac os). So the next time you need to calibrate you monitor is when you install the os from scratch, of when you buy a new monitor… Am I correct so far? So, 1. why is that monitor manifacture companies don’t calibrate their monitors? Correct colors is not about “taste”, it something scientifically objective, right?
    2. If only one customer calibrate his monitor, and give the file to open, any other owner of the same model can use this file and get his monitor calibrated with no cost?

  • Gerard

    Screens shift colors over time as the LCD starts to wear. So no, a single one-time calibration won’t cut it. One calibration per month is standard for most people. Therefore calibration isn’t “set and forget”.
    Why don’t most manufacturers pre-calibrate: each display – even the same make and model – is different from another display. So in order to provide the customer with a pre-calibrated display it is necessary to calibrate them all one by one. This is an extra step in manufacturing which requires extra equipment and time, all adding to the price. There are pre-calibrated displays available -which are quite a bit more expensive than a regular monitor- but re-calibration is even required for those monitors. This also answers question two.
    And for it not being about taste: true, it is scientific.

  • Thanks Gerard, that answers the question perfectly.

  • Hi Don, I’ve no idea why that would be, unless your monitor has White LED backlight which I don’t believe the Spyder 3 can handle. I’ve used both the Spyder 2 (back when it was the newest model) and Spyder 4 and not had a problem with either one. The only way I was able to induce the Spyder 4 software to give the wrong reading was when I set Backlight to unknown. I had to set it to White LED (the type of backlighting my monitor has) for it to give the correct reading.

    Could be worth giving Datacolor’s consumer support a try? I’m sure they could help you get to the root of the problem:

    http://spyder.datacolor.com/consumer-support/

  • Hi Yngve, the Spyder 4 works extremely well with laptop monitors. You can’t do anything about the viewing angle problem but apart from that it will be accurately calibrated.

  • Don

    Thanks, I will try that. It is frustrating when you work to get a photo to look the way you want it, only to have it print with colors out of whack. Then try to compensate in Lightroom to fix the differences.

  • Daniel Lee

    Great and extensive post! I just received a Spyder4Pro today and it did a great job. I ran it a few times as I didn’t set it up properly initially but after fixing the mistakes I made I managed to get it working and I’m very happy with the results. Once I get my new monitor I will make sure to calibrate it.

  • Michael Owens

    I guess I don’t need this – as Image 1 is what I chose. Thanks 🙂

  • Hi Michael, it may seem that way but the photos are just a guide. The only way to ensure that you are seeing colour as accurately as your monitor can display it is to calibrate your monitor. Glad you found it useful anyway.

  • Yes, the first step is to get your monitor calibrated and when that’s done if the colours are still wrong you know the problem lies somewhere else.

  • Hi Daniel, that’s a good point, the higher end models have more set up options therefore it’s probably easier to set something incorrectly. The time spent figuring it out though is well spent once you have a calibrated monitor.

  • Daniel Lee

    On a Amazon review I read a good point that someone made which is that many people don’t take the time to figure out how to use their calibration software properly and when it comes out wrong, they blame the software. Hopefully people read your article and follow all the correct steps so they don’t run into issues since it is easy to do so.

  • Don

    After contacting Datacolor tech support, it turns out my Spyder unit is defective. That explains why I was getting such poor results.

  • That’s good news if it’s still under warranty. Hopefully you won’t be compensating for differences in Lightroom for much longer.

  • marc

    I hate to be the wet blanket but my experience was nothing short of
    HORRIBLE. A complete WASTE of $250. I installed and ran Spyder4 for my
    Viewsonic VX2703MH-LED. It could not find the proper white balance. After
    a couple of lame attempts from their tech support “try this, try this” I
    get the big kiss off:

    “In the end, all this depends upon the
    quality of your monitor. If you can’t reach the target luminance within
    the 4%, try to get as close as physically possible, than simply hit
    CONTNUE.”

    Not reaching the target luminance likely came from a
    defective Spyder as the readings were completely whacked every time (20+
    times) I tried calibrating and then adjusting. I asked for a
    replacement — which request was totally INGNORED.

    THEY DO NOT
    STAND BEHIND THEIR PRODUCT. SO I AM NOW OUT $250, for a piece of garbage
    that left my system worse off than I started. It totally tweaked
    something within either Photoshop or the profile Photoshop accesses. I
    work as an Art Director / designer and now my system is flawed!! THANKS
    GUYS!

  • Hi Marc, sorry to hear about your bad experience. There’s not a lot I can suggest if you’ve already tried Datacolor support. Can you get your money back from the shop you purchased it from?

    There’s an extensive discussion here which may help:

    http://photo.net/digital-darkroom-forum/00akXl

  • Stacy Sims

    Does calibrating help with the difference in brightness when you send photos out to be printed or do you still have to adjust for that in lightroom?

  • Not really, because you have to set your monitor brightness before you calibrate your monitor. If you set it too bright for printing, then calibrating won’t fix it. Calibration is more about accurate colour (and setting gamma and white point if supported by your monitor).

  • Depends on the unit you buy. The more expensive ones like the Color Munki and xRite ones do adjust brightness too. Or direct you to adjust it into a range and they read it.

  • You mentioned something about calibrating your printer as well. Is that something you do with the Spyder (or other products as well)?

  • You can’t do it with the Spyder 4 Express, but you can with the Spyder 4 Studio or X-Rite ColorMunki Photo devices (those are just two, there will be others as well).

  • Thanks for the info.

  • nicole

    I just cant seem to locate the type of monitor my xps has.
    the spyder express 4 seems to have done a fine job even tho I just input “unknown” but I would like a more accurate rendering if I can find the info on the monitor/gamut..

  • Leonardo Facchin

    At risk of sounding a little pedantic, it would be more accurate to distinguish between calibration and characterization.

    Calibration basically consists in setting up the monitor adjustable parameters. For most monitors that means choosing the White Point (that is the color temperature of the monitor “white”), the luminance and the gamma curves. The best monitors allow for all these parameters to be adjusted at the hardware level by acting directly on the monitor’s dials and controls. Less expensive monitors do not allow for such fine adjustements and the user’s only option is to act at the software level (like for example implementing the new gamma curves through the graphic card with the downside of the possible introduction of banding).

    Once the monitor is calibrated it’s time to profile (or characterize) it. Profiling is necessary to determine the exact response of that specific sample of monitor to the signals sent by the computer and to account for any discrepancy. That’s the purpose of measuring the color patches during the profiling procedure: the calibration software sends a signal that tells the monitor to reproduce a specific known color while the instrument measures the color that the monitor actually reproduced. In the end a monitor profile is created that tries to minimize the measured differences. Since correcting for one color will usually lead to a change in the reproduction of all the other colors, the profile will be the result of a compromise (mathematically defined).

    Anyway, you are right: the luminance of the monitor is chosen by the user during calibration and to try to best match the brightness of the image shown on the monitor to that of a print is the responsibility of the user, who has to choose the correct luminance setting for his monitor. In my experience that’s pretty much a nightmare since the ambient luminance (that changes with ambient light), the specific laboratory that prints the image and the viewing conditions under which the print is examined are all factors that can dramatically affect the final result. Most people familiar with calibration seem to suggest a luminance value in the 80-110 cd/m2 range, but in the end I think the best method to obtain consistent results is to try to stick with the same printer so that, with experience, it becomes possible to predict the final result and account for any correction in advance.

  • Paula Gallagher Brown

    I have the ASUS PA246 monitor and am considering the Spyder 4 Express calibration system. Can I calibrate each mode (eg. Standard, User, Adobe, sRGB etc) separately or is one size fits all? Love your article! Thanks!

  • Susan Jackson

    No you can’t calibrate each mode. I just calibrate the Standard mode. I remember reading a review of the monitor a couple of years ago that said that calibrating the User mode had problems – I can’t remember why though.

  • Ciutacu Sorin

    Can I save in pc spyder calibrated color profile? Can mean 3-4 successive calibrations spyder and then save them?

  • Jason N photography

    Marc,

    I find this post to none very insulting to the writer of this article. Have you ever considered that maybe you bought a bad monitor? Sounds like PC Mag thinks it’s not that great. http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2459106,00.asp

    If your profession is being an art director, you might want to consider buying higher end displays. Blaming someone who wrote an article here which seemed to help everyone else is ignorant.

  • LRH

    Great article Andrew. Concise and yet covered the necessary details. Unfortunately the Spyder did not work for me, but I think it is a monitor problem… I have a Dell U2410, which, based on numerous blog posts is notoriously bad for calibration, just took on a very blue tint. not sure what to do other
    than retire the monitor. If anyone has any ideas would love to hear them.
    Thanks, Lars

  • Allan Wood

    I use a Spyder 4 Elite on an iMac running ‘Yosemite’. Up to now, no problems. Now it cannot correct the gamut curve;m an unexpected issue I have never encountered. Any idea how I can get back to an older profile?

  • Winnie

    Wondering if the Spyder 5 Express is the same but updated version since this article was written? Thanks

  • David Kettings

    A point of view I feel missed is that the express versions of the spyder does not allow for the surrounding area from the room. First couple of times i did it the room i was in had green curtains. This affected the calibration process ending up with a tinge in the completed look. I suggest that you keep the background colours as neutral as you can. DO NOT have any noticeable colours surrounding you. This includes what you wear. Only the higher versions of the spyder will take surrounding ambient light into consideration. If the pocket can afford it get the elite.

  • Aris. Ya.

    Don’t try to calibrate a CRT monitor with Spyder4Express. After calibration a strong Color cast makes all yellow!!! Works good with LCD screens.

  • Dylan Kaufman

    I’m wondering… do you usually have to recalibrate often? I’m trying to decide whether to rent the colormunki pro from my local camera store or buy one of their cheaper models… Thanks!

  • yes ideally every 2 weeks or so

  • Ken Singer

    I cannot re-place the device from my laptop screen to my extra LCD monitor using my mouse? Why is that?

  • Daniel

    Hello, maybe a stupid question, but I have to ask. I have a Spider 4 Pro. I like it a lot and it work perfectly with my desktop and screen.

    I just purchase a Lenovo Yoga 720 15,6 with a 4K screen, I want to calibrated the screen as soon as I will receive it. But, the no CD reader on the machine (as on a lot of Laptop right now). On my desktop, to be able to calibrate, I need to put the disk, do I have to do it on the Yoga or I can use the Online drivers whitout using the disk?

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