Gamut, lumens, contrast, color temperature…the list of adjustments that can be made to a modern display are mind boggling and often times confusing. In addition, the majority of serious photographers are using multiple displays, often times by multiple manufacturers or perhaps a large display in combination with a laptop.
Nothing is more frustrating than returning from a trip to find that all the edits you did on your images while on the trip are over-contrasty or have a color-cast and will end up in the circular file. The solution is really quite simple - properly calibrate your monitor.
The good news? This process is ridiculously simple.
There are actually certain standards for color, called color spaces. The most common are Adobe RGB, sRGB, Lab, and CMYK. Each of these color spaces covers a different "gamut" or color range and each has sepcific applications (sRGB for web images, CMYK for printing, etc.).
When printing, the print shop will translate the color space embedded in the image into their own working color space appropriate for the destination printer. This may cause a slight shift in the appearance of the image as some of the tones in your color space may not match those in the printer's.
Further shifts in appearance can come from editing your images on an uncalibrated display. If the display you are using is not accurately displaying your colors, the shift when printed will be even greater. For this reason, we try to make our monitors display the colors, brightness, and contrast as accurately as possible in respect to industry standards.
We actually misuse the term "calibrate". In truth, the process we describe below is "profiling" our display, telling our computer's graphics card how to display the image. To truly calibrate the monitor, we would need to adjust the settings on the monitor itself, a tedious and really unnecessary procedure as you will see below.
Calibration tools are essentially light & color meters (spectrophotometers) that can be attached to your computer via USB and work in combination with a software utility on your computer to create a profile that conforms to standard industry settings insuring your image will look good on other monitors or when printed.
With multiple monitors, several calibrators are able to adjust the second display's settings to those of the first (within the limitations of the display of course). These devices can also calibrate projectors to make sure your images and video look great on the big screen. The better models also measure the ambient lighting and any lens flare on your screen and bias the profile based on these factors.
Several calibrators are also able to calibrate your printer to your screen, meaning that what you see is what you get! By scanning printed color palettes, the calibration utility will create printer profiles allowing accurate color reproduction in a snap.
Price & Difficulty:
In order to perform the calibration you only need to have a vague idea of what a USB port is, a decent grasp of the English language, and the ability to follow on-screen directions (yes, there are pictures to help).
Below is the run through using ColorMunki's Calibration Utility:
Choose to profile your display or a projector
A second monitor can be calibrated to match a primary display already profiled
The spectrophotometer will then measure the ambient light to compensate
The spectrophotometer is then hung over the monitor, facing the screen
Tilting the screen back slightly allows the device to lay flat against the display
The utility then calibrates the monitors color gamut and luminance/contrast
The utility can also compensate for flare on the display surface
Hold the unit at your eye level to measure and correct the flare
Save the profile and you're ready to edit some images!
A "Before and After" Image is shown to see the difference
The most prohibitive aspect of this operation is cost, running the gamut (pun intended) from $150 to $500+. The more expensive versions are usually those that allow printer calibration as well. The result, however, is priceless. Eventually you won't be able to look at your friends uncalibrated monitor without cringing.
Recalibration is like clearing your ears - do it early and often, especially when a significant change in ambient lighting has occured. Your monitor begins decaying from the minute it left the factory and it needs to be recalibrated every few weeks to truly maintain accurate color representation. The majority of the utilities will show a pop-up reminder to re-profile at certain intervals if you so choose.
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