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The iMac Calibration Conundrum

January 12, 2010

I’m a Mac.  I was a PC.  I switched about a year ago because I finally succumbed to all the marketing hype that Mac’s are just…better.  Now that I’ve been using my iMac for a year for all my digital darkroom needs I can say that I am genuinely pleased with the machine.  But I’m not one of those weird Mac freaks who wears all black and wells up with anger at the mere suggestion that PC’s deliver daily beatdowns to dainty Macs.  Nope.  I like my iMac, I like my MacBook and I love my iPhone.  I’m also rational enough to realize that you might just prefer a PC and that’s perfectly fine with me.  If that’s you this article isn’t for you.  Not because I don’t like you.  You just won’t learn anything since today we’re discussing how to properly calibrate the monitor on an iMac.  Check back tomorrow and all this Mac stuff will be in the past.

First, A Bold Statement

Post-processing your images on an uncalibrated monitor is a complete waste of time.  To put it simply, just don’t be that guy.  Spend a little extra dough for monitor calibration hardware/software, learn how to use it and then keep your monitor calibrated.

The iMac Calibration Conundrum

I’ve operated on a calibrated monitor for the better part of a decade.  I bought my 24″ iMac in March, 2009 and didn’t bother to research potential monitor issues prior to swiping the Visa.  Why would I do such a stupid thing?  I listened to the hype.  “Oh, Macs are made for image editing.  All the best pro’s are using them.”  That’s pretty much what the MacVangelists will tell you.  To their credit, they’re not that far off-base.  What they don’t tell you is that the super glossy and radioactively bright iMac screen is not easily calibrated using standard calibration hardware.

After much research, a lot of trial and error and more than my fair share of temper tantrums I finally got it all figured out.  I am now happily working on a perfectly calibrated iMac monitor.  The glossy screen is still annoying in all but the perfect conditions but at least I know the color I see on-screen is the color I will see in print.

How I Found My Happy Place

This blog has moved.  To read how I resolved the calibration issue and regained my sanity you can read the rest of the article on my new & improved blog.

Got questions about calibrating your iMac?  Don’t post ’em here – go to my new blog, post your comment or question and I’ll respond promptly.

  1. kurtbudliger permalink
    January 12, 2010 9:43 am

    Hey Bret, good advice. Wondering if it’s necessary to use the color eyes software on the newest gen. iMacs? I’ve heard they calibrate better out of the box, what have you heard?

  2. January 12, 2010 10:07 am

    Good question, Kurt. I read that the new iMac’s use an LED technology that has resolved that issue. To confirm I called Apple and spoke to customer service, who in turn contacted a “systems engineer”. They confirmed that the problem has been resolved. In essence, the last generation of iMacs used a fluorescent light that could only be dimmed to about half power (still too bright). The new iMac (both sizes) use LED’s that can be manually dimmed using the dimmer keys to almost completely off. Hmmm, there might just be a 27″ iMac in my future.

    Thanks for commenting, Kurt. Much appreciated!

  3. January 12, 2010 10:49 am

    Great article, Brett! I made the transition 3 years ago and have a 23″ Apple Cinema Display paired with a Mac Pro. My calibration device is an ancient Spyder 2, which works fine, probably because my screen isn’t glossy.

    • January 12, 2010 11:35 am

      Hey Dave! Glad to hear the Spyder is working well for you on the 23″ display. It’s always good to have options. Thanks for your comment.

  4. January 12, 2010 11:00 am

    Good post Bret! Thanks for sharing this info. I also recommend ColorEyes; there’s no other system out there that does what it does so well.

    That said, even for people using an iMac, I recommend a second, external display. The NEC 90 series is fantastic; no other display (especially the iMac’s) comes close.

    If you’re serious about color and can afford a second display, you can’t do any better than a setup using NEC, ColorEyes and X-Rite.

    • January 12, 2010 11:29 am

      Thanks for chiming in, Nat. It’s always good to hear your thougts on all stuff color management related. I’d love to have dual monitors but I just don’t have the real estate on my desk. Maybe one day. I’ve heard great things about the NEC monitors, too. I need a bigger office!

  5. January 12, 2010 11:02 am

    And oh yeah, if you’re wondering about Eizo or LaCie, they use the same NEC 90 series panels and are more expensive than an NEC branded model.

  6. Laurie Wendt permalink
    January 12, 2010 11:18 am

    Bret, Very informative article. I purchased my new 24″ iMac in May 2009 when a power surge fried my old tower mac. Absolutely Love the large screen. I’ve recently been replacing old photos on my walls to new recently taken ones. I’ve noticed they come out a little dark when printed. This sounds like the answer to my problem. Thanks!

    • January 12, 2010 11:32 am

      Thanks for the comment, Laurie. Glad you liked the post. I bet you would see a big improvement in the quality of your prints if you try this. Please do check in & leave a comment about your experiences with this solution if you do decide totey it out.

  7. January 12, 2010 11:56 am

    I’ve been using an older x-rite Monaco Optix XR with my 20″ iMac. That in conjunction with HP printers seems to get the job done. I do intend to upgrade to the 27″ iMac when I get the funds. This G5 model is getting way too bogged down when I run Photoshop or Lightroom 2. Thanks for checking with Apple…just one more reason to upgrade.

    • January 12, 2010 12:19 pm

      Hey Ken…glad to hear you’ve worked out a solution with your iMac. As for what Apple told me I’m taking it with a grain of salt until I hear some real world reports or until I’ve had the chance to play with one in the store. Fingers ate crossed though.

  8. January 12, 2010 3:32 pm

    I have had 30″ ACD and also recently calibrated a friends new 27″ iMac i7. The first step to calibrate a Mac display is always to turn the brightness to half. Then the Eye-One Match calibrates the displays with no problem. It also worked well on a 21″ ACD attached to my MacBook Pro 17″. Prints duplicate the display.

    • January 12, 2010 8:29 pm

      That’s interesting. Even turned all the way down my iMac is way too bright. The ColorEyes software is the only way I’ve found to turn down the brightness to a level that is acceptable. It’s good to hear you’re finding success with another method, though. Goes to show that there is no magic bullet.

  9. January 12, 2010 6:23 pm


    I agree… I use a Macbook and a 23″ cinema display and I can attest that spyder 3 software is not helpful. I switched to ColorEyes software and although very expensive, it has given me perfect results as far as calibration goes.

    I still use the spyder3 puck, but I won’t go back to using the software… It had given me the most nonsensical, inconsistent results…

    • January 12, 2010 8:27 pm

      Another vote for ColorEyes! It’s good to hear that you’re finding success with it, too. Thanks for checking out my blog and leaving a comment.

  10. January 13, 2010 11:20 pm

    Hey Bret, great article, I just purchased an iMac and an iPhone…love them both! Have you heard anything about the Huey Pro system? I am seriously considering getting that after it was highly recommended. Curious to hear your thoughts.

    • January 14, 2010 9:19 am

      Hey Benjamin,

      Thanks for reading the post & commenting. Congrats on the iMac and iPhone! Both good purchases, if you ask me. Have you checked out iFotoGuide? The site sucks right now but the apps are really cool. We’ve got Arches in the app store now and have just submitted Yosemite to Apple for approval.

      I don’t know anything at all about the Huey Pro but I guarantee I can find out for you. I’ll ask a couple friends who are complete color geeks (I mean that in the nicest possible way, too). I’ll post your question and their responses in a separate post on my blog. Cool?

  11. January 14, 2010 11:40 pm

    You da man, Bret! Can’t wait to read the response!


  12. January 15, 2010 7:23 am

    Hi Brett,

    I was wondering if you or a reader may be able to help me. I have a macbookpro and also a Mac Pro with an Eizo Coloredge monitor. I use a Eye One Display to calibrate both and the Eizo is wonderful (as you would expect) however, my macbookpro display shows severe magenta shifts when trying to display blue colours (the sorts of blue you get in the shadows on a blue sky day – see here

    However I try to calibrate my macbookpro using the Eye One product, I always end up with these areas coming out a vivid magenta (a bit like the magenta you get from old velvia film). I’ve tried changing the colour temperature and brightness but to no avail – I can’t get close.

    I have heard other people have a similar issue and was wondering if anybody had any comments about this?

    • January 15, 2010 10:07 pm

      Really good and interesting question, Tim. I’ll send it out to the experts and see if we can come up w/ an answer for you. I’ll be in touch as soon as I get a response and I’ll post your question and the answer on my blog. Thanks for digging deep for a tough one!

  13. Lance Krueger permalink
    January 16, 2010 10:16 am

    I’ve just bought a 27″ iMac, and really appreciate this article. Very helpful. I am a freelance photographer that shoots photos for magazines. Don’t have a printer, and only sometimes do prints, but let the lab do the color correction for me when I do need prints and pay the little bit extra for them to color correct the prints.
    All I need is for my monitor colors to be pretty close to what the magazine editors color calibrated monitors will look like, as they’ll make the image any color they want. So, I don’t have as demanding needs, I guess as if I were trying to match prints coming out of my iMac.
    So, would you still recommend the Eye One Display 2, or is their other more basic LT model sufficient for my needs, or something else? And, since I have the LED backlit monitor of the new 27″ iMac, are you saying I probably don’t need the Color Eyes Display Pro since the LED technology has fixed the brightness problems of previous iMacs?

    • January 16, 2010 10:48 am

      Hey Lance,

      Thanks for reading the article and leaving a comment. Based on what I was told by Apple and what I’ve heard recently from photographers currently using the new line of iMacs, you won’t need the ColorEyes software to properly calibrate your monitor. I think the i1 Display LT would work great for your needs. Whatever system you go with I invite you to revisit this post and leave your thoughts on the hardware/software you’re using. Good luck to you!

  14. Paul S. permalink
    January 30, 2010 4:43 pm

    Thanks for the article. I have the X-Rite i1 Display 2, but only the software that comes with it. I was wondering to what standards are you and others calibrating your monitor? A monitor can be calibrated, but do you calibrate it to a color temp of 65k, 5K, or 93k? What gamma should be used 1.8 or 2.2? Should you set the brightness to 50% before calibration? Does all of this change if your pro print service tells you to use 65K and 1.8 and sRGB? What calibration settings are best for the photo books you can buy via iPhoto?? What is best for WalMart snapshots? Do you need to change the monitor calibration specifically for each photo service you use? In other words, I am NOT a color guru either and don’t want to try out all of the possible color setting combinations for each lab that I might use or for the iPhoto store. I want it to “just work” too!!


  15. Nick permalink
    January 30, 2010 7:52 pm

    Just curious if anyone is having issues with the yellow tinting that’s been plaguing 27 iMacs as of late and whether calibration would help alleviate the tinting….I presume it would not.
    As photographers, being critical about color accuracy as anyone else, has anyone come across this problem and how have you worked around.

    • January 30, 2010 9:17 pm

      Apparently Apple has acknowledged the yellow tint issue. A friend bought a 27″ iMac and noticed the yellow tint. He called Apple and they ofeered a no hassle exchange. There is no fix for the issue. You can not make it go away by calibrating the monitor. Bummer that it is an issue but at least Apple is taking steps to resolve it fairly.

  16. February 11, 2010 11:37 pm

    Nice write up – I just recently learned why I was having such a hard time calibrating my iMac monitor – the fluorescent back lit screen! This explains the greenish-bluish tints I having trouble evening out. I’d calibrate, upload, and sit down on lap top and browse my images on my site or on Flickr and they’d look NOTHING like they did on my iMac – I used Spyder Pro – so now I feel like I got ripped off. I’m in line this week for the newer 24″ or 27″ LED iMac – need the extra RAM anyway to run Aperture and CS4 at same time. Mac stopped making the 600mghz RAM cards for the 2008 iMac – go figure!

  17. Sarah permalink
    March 6, 2010 11:53 am

    Thank you for writing this. Not only does it answer my *exact* question, but it’s very well-written. Easy for a fellow color-blind and not-color-geek person to follow.

  18. Mulder permalink
    March 9, 2010 12:26 am

    Bret – Thank you very much for your informative article. Refreshing to see an exact answer after spending hours all over the internet not finding really any good answer. I just purchased the iMac 27 inch and Apple must have fixed that yellow tinting on the edges because there is not a trace on my monitor. Was going to purchase the Sypder 3 hardware but after reading your article, I will go with the X-Rite Display 2 for monitor calibration. Since I can dim the brightness pretty much down, maybe I can hold off on the Color Eyes software for now.

    • March 9, 2010 1:01 am

      Glad to hear your iMac monitor doesn’t suffer from the yellow tinge issue. I know Apple is aware of it and I would hope that by now they would have fixed it. Sounds like maybe they have.

      As for the Color Eyes software you shouldn’t need it with the new iMac’s. I visited an Apple store recently and the monitor does dim to almost completely off, so the software that comes packaged with your monitor calibration hardware should work perfectly. Now if Apple will only release an iMac with a matte screen!

  19. Tammy permalink
    March 14, 2010 5:20 pm

    I just happened upon your article. Like you, I purchased a new 24″ iMac (June 2009) and have been paralyzed with fear in regards to what software and puck to buy to calibrate. I haven’t even invested in a good printer due to the fact I couldn’t decide which fork in the road to take in regards to the software. I thought possibly that I would have to sell my new 24″ iMac and buy a MacBook Pro with a new monitor. Thanks for doing the leg work and posting your results!

    • March 14, 2010 9:29 pm

      I’m happy to help, Tammy! Now you can buy a printer and start making prints of what are surely some gorgeous photos. 🙂

  20. April 29, 2010 7:16 pm

    Hi Brett,

    Thanks for a fabulous article.

    I just bought a 27 inch imac, the ones you say come with the right colour calibration and require no 3rd party software to calibrate.

    I’m given a choice to pick either the Adobe RGB colour profile, or the sRGB and a generic RGB. I work in Lightroom and export all my photos in sRGB.

    Should I just go with that?

    • May 3, 2010 6:14 pm

      Hey Wilson,

      To answer your question I went to Nat Coalson, color management expert. He’s in the middle of finishing up his new book on Lightroom 3 and didn’t have a whole lot of time to answer but I think this should point you in the right direction:

      “Re: your question – with any display, it’s absolutely essential to
      calibrate using the X-Rite Eye One system and use the resulting custom
      profile for the display.

      The profile for the working space (embedded in files) has nothing to
      do with monitor calibration. But in most cases I recommend Adobe RGB
      for this.”

      • May 3, 2010 11:15 pm

        hi brett,

        thanks for the response, I wish it were a little more detailed but it does give me a starting point 🙂

        up to now (i’ve had the imac for 5 days), i used the imac’s in-built calibration (advanced) to calibrate. i then looked at some photos i edited on my imac next to my wife’s Dell laptop. the photos edited on the imac and viewed on the Dell had a lot less contrast over when viewing on the imac.

        I guess i will only really know when I print and compare the photos side by side with my monitor…?

        aside, the imac 27 are impressive, even running i5, i can run Lightroom, Photoshop, working with hundreds of files with no lag.

        Thanks for your help!

  21. Heather Costa permalink
    May 17, 2010 6:36 pm

    Hey Brett-
    Great article thanks for the write up!
    I just calibrated my 24″ iMac with the i1 with XRite support on the phone. He said that I should put my brightness all the way down. While the last person suggested I have it all the way up. Any suggestions on what I should do- up, down, in the middle? Thanks in advance!


    • May 18, 2010 12:03 am

      Hey Heather – Thanks for the comment. Glad you found the article useful. I’m not sure who told you to turn the brightness all the way up but unless you’re trying to blind yourself, don’t do it. It’s best to turn it all the way down when calibrating with the XRite software. Let me know how it works out for you!

  22. June 2, 2010 10:28 pm

    Just found your article Bret, very helpful, will likely get the iMac 27-inch and currently using colormunki for colour calibration which is also from X-Rite and it is meant to be good as well with the latest iMac’s


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