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Ask An Expert: Is Monitor Calibration Necessary?

March 17, 2010

Here’s another question I received last week that I thought I’d tackle on my own instead of farming it out to the Experts.

The Question:

Is monitor calibration essential to a serious amateur? Or do you think it’s something that can be overlooked? If so, can you recommend a quick easy way to do it?

My Response:

In short, yes.  Even if you never make a single print from your digital photos you will most likely share them on the internet.  As a “serious amateur”, I assume you want those images to look their very best to all who see them.  You wouldn’t spend all that time traveling to gorgeous locations, crafting beautiful compositions and processing them in the digital darkroom if you didn’t want to create the very best images possible, would you?  Working in a color managed environment is the final step in that workflow.

There are several monitor calibration products available.  In the last few years I’ve used 3 of them.  Currently I’m using the X-Rite i1 Display 2.  It’s easy to use but most importantly, it’s accurate.  It also doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, which is always nice.  This unit retails for $259.00.

Other options for monitor calibration hardware:

I can’t recommend this unit but in the interest of fair reporting the Datacolor Spyder 3 Pro works for some people.  It didn’t work for me and the color management experts I know don’t have kind things to say about it.  A product I have not used is the Pantone Huey, which retails for around $90.  I’ve read decent reviews on it and I have a couple clients who are happy with its performance.  You might do your own research on the Huey to determine if it will fit your needs and budget.

I hope this helps.  If you have any follow-up questions don’t hesitate to post them in the comments section.  We’re here to help!

Do you have a preferred method of calibrating your monitor?  Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section and you might just help out a fellow photographer! 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2010 9:33 am

    Great advice, Bret. I also am a user of the X-Rite i1, though it was made by Greytag-Macbeth or something when I purchased it a couple years back. Previous to that I had a Spyder 2 which worked fairly well but not perfect.

    One thing I will add is that if you have multiple computers, such as a desktop at home and a laptop for the road, it helps to have both calibrated. Laptops can be difficult to calibrate due to angle of view but I have found that the i1 calibrates my MacBookPro just fine. I still prefer to do color critical work on the 30″ screen at home but while in the field, I am willing to use the laptop. In the past, I haven’t always been comfortable with laptop screens but the combination of newer and better screens and calibration make them a viable option.

    Last thing, when you actually run your calibration, do it in the conditions that you edit your images. That means in your office, make sure the lighting is your typical lighting. If on a laptop, make sure it is plugged in (or not if thats your normal operating environment) and the screen brightness set to whatever you normally use. I try to always work on the brightest setting, even if I am not plugged in, when I am doing color critical work on my laptop so I also calibrate at that setting.

  2. March 17, 2010 10:16 am

    Hey Bret!
    As always informative post, although I have a slight objection, I had a deep look sometime ago into color management and calibration and I ended up with a Datacolor Spyder 3 Elite, I was redirected to that option from 2 color management professionals, they also noted that the Spyder 2 indeed is not that good compared to version 3 of the tool.
    I managed to calibrate my monitor (Old EIZO Flexscan F67) accurately and even match my prints to it, I managed to match homemade prints and also prints from 3rd parties.
    I know that there have been people accusing Spyder3 for not being accurate, but I know also a lot of people who have confirmed that Spyder3 is very good (I believe I can count myself in that, since I have calibrated with the same Spyder3 tool 5 different monitors and 2 laptops all with good results).
    I am nowdays waiting for my iMac, and would like to see how it acts with it.

    P.S I also forgot to mention, that there have been many reports with wide gamut display accurate calibrations.

  3. March 17, 2010 12:08 pm

    Hey Bret, I’m not an Expert in this field by any stretch of the imagination. When people start talking about color gamuts and AdobeRGB versus SRGB my eyes glaze over and I start thinking about other things. But I do have some real world, average guy experience with the Pantone Huey. 6 years ago when I went away from film to digital and spent all the money for better monitors and big printers and stuff it was a struggle. I was printing by trial and error and my paper/ink costs per print were astronomical, to the point where I almost threw up my hands and started sending everything out for prints. I even sat through the Epson Printing School conducted by Vincent Versace to try and get better. When the Huey hit the market it was an affordable tool and the reviews I read were pretty good so I bought one. First thing I noticed was when I set the color calibration for LCD or CRT display it made everything on my screen look a sickly chartreuse. After spending a couple hundred bucks on ink and paper trying to dial it in I gave up and tossed the thing in a drawer.
    One day during my hour commute home from work I had an epiphany: Instead of making the prints try to match the monitor I should make the monitor match a good print. Went home and got online to investigate the Huey and what others were doing. After changing the Huey from LCD display mode to Cool White (matches the lighting I view prints under) I’ve cut my ink and paper costs by 80%.

    Moral of the story: It’s a poor carpenter that blames his tools. If you use the right tool for the right job and use it correctly, magical things happen.

    Calibrate your monitors, use the correct printer profile, think things through in a logical manner and you’ll be just fine. There are folks out there far wiser in this area than I and they can go through the scientific stuff. I just know what works for me.

  4. BetsyH permalink
    March 19, 2010 8:38 am

    ColorMunki gets my vote. ColorMunki Photo is a single product that does monitor, printer, and projector profiling. This isn’t a stripped down hardware product either. It uses the same spectrophotometer found in the high end profiling devices sold by X-Rite, but it brings a much friendlier interface that is more intuitive…. You can read more of this review at http://www.photographyblog.com/reviews_colormunki_photo.php There was a discussion on this topic yesterday on the Pro Studio Supply fan page as well. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pro-Studio-Supply/301315441129?ref=mf

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