Do you calibrate your Monitor?

If the camera is the way of capturing the scene, then the computer display is the window thru which you view the image. This is the space in which you process, retouch and prepare your images for the world to see, either electronically or in print form. Through monitor calibration you can ensure you are working within a known standard that can be interpreted reliably in subsequent processes such as printing for example.

Scared of the Dark?

One of the biggest challenges faced when printing your work, either at home or via a professional print lab, is having a reliable prediction of how the print will turn out compared to what you see on the screen. After all that hard work getting the exposure right in camera, processing the image in whatever software you use,  when you finally have the perfect onscreen image, there is very good chance your printed output will look nothing like it…

The most likely cause of complaint for print Labs is that their prints look ‘dark’ compared to the customer expectation. To be fair, it is impossible for any print lab to know the viewing conditions that the customer used, or was ‘in’ when they prepared the image files. If using a professional Lab they will print to a ‘standard’ (See our Blog on Colour Spaces), if printing yourself your printer will be using a ‘standard’ (a colour profile) albeit one you have selected (either knowingly or unknowingly) when you pressed print.

So why are prints sometimes darker than you expected? In nearly every case it is because your monitor’s brightness is set too high. If the monitor brightness is high the image on the screen may appear to have very bright highlights, and  flat looking shadows that are not dark enough. At this point you may well adjust the exposure to reduce the overall brightness (making the image darker), you may then decide to take the highlights downwards a little, (making them darker), you might also take the shadows down to give more ‘density’ to them, while of course carefully maintaining the detail within the shadows (making them darker.. do you see the trend here?)… Out pops the print from your printer or you open the package from the lab, and your lovingly tended image has got dull highlights, and all the detail in the shadows has disappeared into a dark muddy soup…

See the light…

The solution? Calibrate your screen to a known standard. Adjusting the colour and perhaps most importantly, the brightness to a known state, so that what you see on screen matches the prints that come back from the Lab, or out of your own printer.

When you calibrate your display you (or more likely your software) are adjusting up to four things;

  1. The luminance of the monitor white (i.e the strength or power of the light emitting from the screen) this is usually expressed in Candela’s per metre squared (cd/m2).
  2. The colour of the monitor white, usually expressed in Degrees Kelvin (5000˚K. 6500˚K are typical values)
  3. The tone response curve of the system, expressed as a gamma value (1.8, 2.2 are typical values)
  4. Some high end monitors will also allow you to set the Luminance of  monitor black.

There a number of ways that most monitors can be calibrated, from the very basic ‘visual’ calibration, adjusting the  the display controls manually while looking at an onscreen target; to using a colorimeter ( A what?… A device that measures the colour and luminosity of your screen through a given set of targets), that takes the subjectivity out of the process.  Before you rush out (or rush to Amazon) and spend upwards of £70 on a monitor calibration device such as a ‘Colormunki’,  you should weigh up a few factors first…

  1. Is the monitor I am using capable of being calibrated? (unfortunately some laptop screens just don’t work very well with calibration software…)
  2. How big is the problem…i.e how many images do I actually print and will a ‘visual’ calibration suffice?
  3. Do I always work in the same space (controlled environment) or do I process in different locations depending on which room the kids are in…? Think about where your display is positioned, is it by a window, in your own digital  ‘dark’ room for example.

Location, Location, Location,

If it is possible to settle on one location for your processing, I would recommend a space where you can control the lighting. It shouldn’t be pitch black (your monitor will appear very bright and so need a lot of adjustment to keep the brightness down), but neither should it be glaringly lit either (the monitor would have to have a much higher brightness to compete with the ambient light).

The ideal scenario is a room with some daylight (that can be controlled with blinds for example), or where it is possible to change light bulbs or tubes for ‘daylight’ bulbs with are easily bought online. You should avoid lighting with strong colour casts such as yellow incandescent bulbs or standard fluorescent tubes.

Another excellent and relatively cheap investment is a monitor hood which will stop direct light sources ‘bouncing’ off the screen and making viewing your images difficult from certain angles.

Calibrating the display.

So, you have settled on a location, you’ve bought your calibration device, and the software is installed, what settings should you use? There is inevitably going to be some trial and error depending the type and manufacturer of the display (and of course the ambient light conditions within which you are set up), so to define strict settings that apply to all situations make no sense.

At we use (and recommend) Eizo coloredge monitors, which have their own software (ColorNavigator) bundled with them. Our target settings have the  monitor brightness at 100 cd/m2, the white point (the colour of white) at 5500˚K and the gamma 2.2. This is a reasonable starting point for most situations, but again it will vary depending on your environment and monitor type. If you have never calibrated a monitor before, it may look a bit strange at first compared to the manufacturers settings, but stick with it.

No magic bullet…

While colour management and monitor calibration go along way to improving the reproduction of your images, that is the match between input (screen) and output (print), it is not without its limitations. At the end of the day a print is an object which reflects light, and a monitor is an object which emits light, there will always be some differences between them.

Some overzealous proponents of colour management solutions may claim that they can deliver true WYSIWYG, they can’t. So calibrating your monitor won’t necessarily produce the identical colours that your printer or lab create, but it should produce a close and consistent visual match. With a little time and experience, the calibration route will afford you a pretty accurate prediction of the final reproduction, and lead you out of the dark…


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About the Author

Hi, my name is Julian Wynne and I am a little obsessed with photography, image reproduction, colour management, and printing.

I have worked in the graphic arts and print industry for 25 years, including 10 years as Colour and Prepress manager for one of Europe’s largest Gravure publication printers.

I studied Colour application technology at Swansea University’s centre for printing and coating, completing my MSc with distinction in 2005.