What you see is not what you get

On April 28, 2010 by Simon Fleming

One of the most common problems I see in store when dealing with a lot of photographers who print is their monitor’s calibration (or lack of). Most have some reasonable knowledge when it comes to working on their images themselves but are often unaware of the need to, and importance of calibrating their displays. It doesn’t matter how good your camera gear is or how much you paid for your computer gear – if you are going to spend anytime working on your images (and you care how they look or print) you need to get your display looking reasonably accurate. Most displays will look absolutely stunning out of the box -super punchy colours, everything nice and bright…  WOW! Wow does not generally equal accurate though, in fact most displays’ brightness level ends up being reduced to half that of the factory settings – often even more so. Funny enough, most photographers’ images from an uncalibrated display end up printing way darker than what they were expecting.

There are a number of devices on the market that will do all the calibrating for you. Most are relatively inexpensive and well worth investing in if you are serious about your images. In a nutshell the process involved is installing the software that comes with your calibrator, plug the calibrator (technical name = colorimeter) into a USB port and then dangle it in front of your display. Run the software, follow the prompts and let it do it’s thing for about 15 minutes (the software generates a whole bunch of colour swatches for the device to read) and hey presto! Then you just need to recalibrate every now and again to allow for changes in your display through age and usage. Most initial changes are pretty dramatic, even on higher quality displays.

The are a number of brands and models to choose from – I’ve been using a ‘Spyder’ made by a company called Datacolor for the last few years and have been very happy. I generally recalibrate all the displays I use monthly, including my laptop. Just a note on the use of laptops for more precise work – yes you can use one but even the better ones require you to be viewing at an optimal position to see the most accurate result – if you are slouching, or if the screen is angled differently to the optimal position you can get a very different looking image. Some laptops are near impossible to use for accurate work. I tend to use mine for on location sorting and not so important stuff and do all my serious work & finishing on a dedicated desktop display.

In finishing, I have seen & tried many manual/DIY methods for calibrating displays but if you are serious about the quality of your work, and intend to sell it, you really should be making the effort to get your working display sorted. The investment will quickly be recovered in better looking images and less print wastage. Even if your images are only for web use or you provide your clients with a digital only version, you should still be providing them with a final image that left you as accurate as you could make it.

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