How to Calibrate your Monitor for Photography and Photo Editing

by Jul 28, 2020Photography Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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How to Calibrate your Monitor for Photography and Photo Editing

In this tutorial, we will explore several ways to calibrate your monitor for viewing and editing photography. We examine:

  • Why you should calibrate your computer monitor.
  • How to calibrate your monitor using features in your computer’s operating system.
  • Free online tools for calibrating your monitors.
  • Hardware calibration tools.

We also look at an example of calibrating a monitor using the Datacolor SpyderX Pro. This is the calibration tool I personally use with my computers.

What is Monitor Calibration and Why do We Need It?

When we look at a photo on a computer monitor, we can’t be certain that the colours we see are the rue or correct colours. But this problem doesn’t only affect the colour. It can also affect the tones you see in a photo as well as the colour vibrancy and the contrast.

All these can significantly affect your perception of a photograph. Not only will this impact your viewing but also photo editing. Imagine trying to edit or colour correct a photo if you can’t trust what you see on the monitor.

There are many different things that can cause a computer monitor to not accurately display a photograph. These include the make of monitor, it’s age, the monitor settings, and even the computer operating system can have an impact. To overcome this problem, we must calibrate our monitor to accurately display colours, tones, and contrast.

When to Calibrate a Monitor

When a computer monitor leaves the factory, it comes with default settings. It’s unlikely that these will accurately display the colour and tone in a way that helps the photographer with photo editing. Often the screen is too bright, contrast too high and colours too saturated. The default settings make the image look attractive but aren’t concerned with accuracy. It’s therefore essential to spend a little time setting up and calibrating any new monitor.

In addition to calibrating a new monitor, you should also calibrate your monitor at regular intervals. Monitors suffer from something called calibration drift. Calibration drift occurs as the monitor ages, which can depend on factors such as the type of monitor and how much use it gets. Calibration drift is difficult to notice so you may not even realise that your calibrated screen is no longer accurate. Therefore, you should repeat the calibration at regular intervals.

Get into the habit of calibrating your monitor every month.

Finally, there are random events that can occur where you should consider repeating the calibration. One of these is applying an update to your computer operating system or changing hardware drivers for the monitor. When these happen, or if you are just not sure the calibration is accurate, check it.

Now let’s look at several ways you could use to calibrate your monitor.

Built-in Monitor Calibration Tools

You may not realise it, but your computer operating system may have monitor calibration tools you can use. Whilst these are not as good as a dedicated hardware calibration tool (like the SpyderX Pro or ColorMunki) they are a good first step.

Windows 10 Monitor Calibration

You can launch the monitor calibration in Windows 10 by right-clicking anywhere on your desktop display. This displays a pop-up menu where you can select Display Settings to open the Settings dialog.

In the search bar to the top left of the dialog, search for “Calibrate Display”  and select the option to calibrate the colour. This opens the Windows display calibration tool.

The display calibration tool then guides you with a sequence of instructions to calibrate your computer monitor.

Windows Display Calibration Tool showing the instructions for Gama Correction
As you progress through the monitor calibration you can check how accurate your screen display is for brightness, contrast, and colour. If you find any problems, it then suggests how to correct them. Do remember, the capabilities of your monitor hardware will limit you, so you may not be able to fix everything. At the end of the calibration, you can compare the before and after state, before saving your changes.

Mac Monitor Calibration

To calibrate the monitor of a Mac, open the Mac System Preferences and select the Display option. You should then select the Colour option in the Display preferences where you can pick Calibrate. This launches the Apple Display Calibrator Assistant.

The Apple Display Calibrator Assistant

The Display Calibrator Assistant then guides you through a sequence or checks and adjustments to calibrate the Mac display.

Whilst the monitor calibration tools in your computer operating system can help correct/avoid serious problems, they are quite basic. An alternative, or even supplement to using these is to try one of the online calibration tools.

Online Monitor Colour Calibration Tools

Although you can use online monitor calibration tools on their own, you could also use them to check any calibration made your computers operating system tools. Whilst some online tools provide a greater degree of sophistication, they still aren’t a replacement for a good hardware calibration unit.

Here are a few online tolls that you may want to try out:

Lagom LCD Monitor Test

This site offers a series of visual tests you can perform on your computer monitor to check the calibration. Each page offers a different test together with an explanation and how to adjust any problems you identify.

Lagom LCD monitor test
The interface and text on each screen can look intimidating at first glance, but don’t let this put you off. The descriptions are professionally written and easy to understand.

The Photo Friday Calibration Tool

This is a simple to use but basic tool to help calibrate the contrast and brightness of your monitor.

Photo Friday Monitor Calibration Tool

The Flatpanels DK Monitor Test

This calibration tool offers more sophistication, but the website uses flash so you will need Flash enabled browser to use it.

Interactive Online Monitor Test from FlatPanelsDK

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Also, be aware that you can’t see the menu along the top until you move your mouse near to it. Overall, the tests are well written and provide helpful input.

Whilst some of these online tools can be helpful, they are no replacement for a good hardware monitor calibration unit.

Hardware Monitor Calibration

In my opinion, a good hardware-based monitor calibration tool is well-worth the expense. Why spend hundreds or even thousands on a top-class monitor and not invest in a way to calibrate it? A good monitor calibration unit will ensure you can get the colours accurate and that they remain accurate for the life of your monitor.

At one time though, I didn’t subscribe to this view. I thought I could manage using an online solution as we’ve discussed. What changed my opinion was when I was fortunate enough to win an Eye-One colour calibration tool.

When I initially calibrated my screen, I didn’t expect to see much difference but what I saw shocked me. Initially, I thought the unit must be defective. When I viewed all the past images I had produced, most were far too dark and had many had a red colour cast to them.

It was only after a lot of doublechecking with the help of friends that I realise my previous monitor calibration had been terrible. I had grown accustomed to working with a poorly calibrated monitor and my photo editing had suffered. Now I had several years of poorly edited images that needed reworking.

Fortunately, my problems with colour calibration occurred a long time ago, before I turned. Having learned from this experience, I consider a monitor calibration unit to be an essential photo editing tool.

What to Look for in a Calibration Tool

There are a lot of things you could look for when buying a monitor calibration tool. Here are a few of the things you may want to check:

  • Speed – how long it takes to calibrate your monitor will be important. There’s a significant difference waiting 10 minutes for the calibration process to complete compared with two or three minutes. The difference may not sound like much, but it feels like a long time.
  • Software Ease-of-use – is the software for the calibration unit easy to use? If you find it difficult, you’re unlikely to calibrate your monitor regular. It could also mean that you make mistakes during the calibration process.
  • Monitor Support – there are several different monitor technologies available and some calibration tools may not support them all. It’s worth checking the type of monitor you have and if the calibration unit you’re considering can support it.
  • Ambient Light – the lighting conditions where you carry out your photo editing can have a large impact on how you perceive images. Ambient light detection can detect this and recommend settings for your lighting conditions.
  • Calibration Process – because the calibration process involves hardware, you should look carefully what’s involved. Most units need to be placed on the monitor during the calibration process. How you do this will differ from unit to unit and not all the solutions are practical or easy to use. If it’s awkward, it could prevent you from calibrating your screen as often as you should.

Printer Calibration

Some calibration tools allow you to calibrate a printer, but this can push up the price considerably and may not be good value. Being able to calibrate a printer allows you to produce a bespoke printer profile based on the paper, ink, and printer you’re using.

There is an argument that the accuracy of these bespoke profiles is much better than a generic printer profile. Whilst this may be true, the difference may not be that obvious. Additionally, many paper manufacturers now offer a free printer calibration service when you buy their paper. This involves downloading a test image which you then print and post to them. They then use the print to generate a printer profile which they will then email to you.

This is probably far more cost-effective than investing in a calibration tool for most people.

My Calibration Tool

Initially, I owned the Eye-One calibration tool that I won. This worked well for a while but then the results deteriorated. I started to notice a colour cast in neutrals and I couldn’t adjust my screens contrast to the recommended level. After that, the software started to crash on my computer so I gave up and purchased a ColorMunki.

The ColorMunki gave better results and could also generate printer profiles. The cost of this was significantly higher than the ColorMunki screen calibration tool. Whilst it initially worked quite well, I had to repeat the calibration several times to improve the accuracy of the profiling. Then after a couple of years use, the hardware began to malfunction before breaking. That’s when, after a lot of investigation, I purchased a Datacolor SpyderX Pro tool.

You can learn more about the Datacolor calibration tools on the Datacolor website.

The Datacolor SpyderX Pro Calibration Tool

I’ve now been using the SpyderX Pro to calibrate my computer monitors for around 18 months. My impressions are that it’s extremely accurate, easy to use, fast and allows me to achieve consistent results across my Mac and Windows computers.

To help you understand what’s involved in using the SpyderX Pro to calibrate a monitor, I’ve outlined the process below.

Monitor Calibration using the SpyderX Pro

To start the monitor calibration process, launch the SpyderX Pro calibration software. This displays a welcome screen which includes helpful advice and checks to make, before guiding you through the rest of the calibration process.

SpyderX Pro software welcome screen

After checking the welcome instructions, click the Next button to step through the calibration.

Selecting the Display Technology

The first step in calibration is to select the display technology of your monitor. The SpyderX Pro supports four general types of technology and includes a description of each. You can select the correct one for your computer using a simple drop-down. The screen also gives useful information to make this decision. You can then select the next button to progress to the calibration screens.

The Calibration Method

Calibration options in the SpyderX Pro software

In the calibration settings screen, there are three calibration options to choose from:

  • ReCAL – This is a recalibration of the display based on a previous calibration you’ve made with the SpyderX Pro. If you haven’t previously calibrated your screen you should use the FullCAL option.
  • CheckCAL – Checks the accuracy of the screen’s current calibration. This can be helpful if you suspect something may have changed or you’re in a hurry.
  • FullCAL – Performs a full calibration of the display starting from scratch. This will take longer than the other options but if you’ve never calibrated the screen before you will need to use this option.

Below the three options, you can see the target settings for Gamma, White Point, and Brightness. If you want to change these settings, you can click the change settings button at the bottom of the screen.

For this calibration example, I’m going to use the ReCAL method.

Calibrating Monitor Brightness

After clicking the next button, the software prompts you to select one of the white balances presets for your computer screen. If you’re using a Windows PC it’s likely that your monitor will have these presets in its menu. If you’re using a Mac as in this example, or your screen doesn’t have white balance presets, ignore this and continue.

You will then see a prompt to connect the spider X calibration unit to the computer.

Positioning the SpyderX Pro

After attaching the SpyderX Pro using a USB port on the computer, click the OK button. Avoid using a USB port on a hub.

The software takes some initial measurements (including ambient lighting) before displaying the current white point settings. It then prompts you to adjust your screen’s brightness until you achieve the target setting. If you’re using a Mac as in this example, you will need to adjust the brightness using the Display settings in the Mac preferences. You can usually do this on a PC screen with the screen’s buttons.

Something else to watch out for are screens that automatically adjust brightness on their surroundings as most Macs do. Having this turned can cause the screen to change if your lighting conditions aren’t constant and could give you a false calibration.

If you make any adjustment to the display brightness, click the Update button in the SpyderX software. The unit then takes a further brightness reading after which you may need to make further adjustments. When you’ve achieved the target brightness, click the Continue button in the software.

Calibrating Monitor Colours

The software will now cycle through displaying Red, Green, Blue, and Grey screens of different intensities. Whilst this is happening the SpyderX is measuring the accuracy of the colours and tones displayed.

Once the measurements are complete you will see the Finish button displayed. Click this to save the new calibration and see a comparison of the results.

before and after calibration view
The difference between the calibrated and uncalibrated state is difficult to see in the image above. But when you use the switch button to switch between the two, the difference becomes obvious. For the Mac used in this example the uncalibrated image has a blue/pink tint, most obvious in the skin tones.

Monitor Profile Overview

The final screen shows the profile overview. This allows you to see the performance of your calibrated monitor compared to common Color Spaces.

Spyder X Pro monitor performance calibration results

In this example you can see that the monitor can display 100% of the S RGB colour space. If you look at the triangles you can see the green triangle representing sRGB is within in the red triangle. The red triangle represents the colours the computer can display.

Whilst this is an example of using the ReCAL option to calibrate the computer monitor, the process is similar with the other options. If you selected to perform a complete monitor calibration you can also select a recalibration period. The spider X pro software then prompts you when the monitor needs calibrating again.

Spyder Software Monitor calibrartion warning

Your Monitor May be the Problem

In the previous example, the Mac computer used was able to display 100% of the sRGB Color Space. But this isn’t always the case. When a colour falls outside the range of what the monitor can display it’s said to be out of gamut. If this happens, the computer needs to replace the out of gamut colour with one that it can display.

This isn’t a problem when only a few small areas of a photo are affected, but if large areas are out of gamut, it can cause the colours in the display to shift. If you compared this with the same image viewed on a monitor that can handle the colours, you would see a difference.

Summary of How to Calibrate a Monitor

In this tutorial we have covered a lot of information and explored several different ways to calibrate a monitor for viewing and editing photography. What you must understand is that calibrating your monitor is not optional. It’s something that you must do as a photographer.

When deciding what approach to use to calibrate your screen, the best is without doubt a hardware solution. Over the years I have owns several calibration tools and I can say confidently the best has been the Datacolor Spyder X Pro. It’s fast, accurate and easy to use. If you don’t yet have a calibration tool, I would recommend the SpyderX Pro.

But if you don’t have the budget for a hardware calibration tool, you should use the calibration software built in your computer operating system as a minimum.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful. If you have, please take a moment to share it with others.

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