Reader Question: Monitor Calibration Confusion

We like it when you – our readers – ask us questions which we consult and work our hardest to answer. Recently we got a question which raised a debate among all that we spoke to. Carolyn Gregorowski asked us:

I thought I needed to calibrate my screen in order to get the best results when editing. So I researched a little about the Spyder 3 Elite and I am none the wiser to say the least. There are pretty mixed feelings & findings about the product. Do you have any advice please? Is it worth calibrating? Why? Maybe you have actually used this devise and can get me a little closer to the “real” experience rather than the “sales” jargon one finds at suppliers.

Well Carolyn, there was a fair debate on this as I said but here if you read on you can see commercial photographer Sean Nel’s feedback when we asked him about it.

As commercial photographers, we do not have another option than to calibrate our screens, and calibrate them regularly.

Any screen you buy will need to be calibrated to get a true representation of the image you view. The more expensive professional grade screens have internal calibrating systems, but still require something like a colormunki or spyder, or another colorimeter to verify from the outside.

Most screens also tend to start out with a slight blue cast, a bit more contrast than necessary and a bit brighter than usual. That is because the manufacturers think of the users as a general group that will be impressed by how good the screen looks, and not the small group of professionals that want the “real” picture.

The great thing about that is that the screen looks awesome for day to day viewing, movies, etc, but bad when you want to edit and print, because a calibrated printer will then print your images dull and underexposed if you edited according to your uncalibrated screen.

What calibration does is to try and get your screen as close as possible (every screen has limitations) to actual colour values, so a “Red” is a true red, not slightly magenta, and a blue is true blue, not Cyan-ish. It also tries to get you close to a correct exposure so that a paperwhite is white, and not a bright-white (the screen is a light or backlit at the end of the day).

You, as an image creator, can only be in control of the images on your computer, so the images will display correctly on your screen if calibrated, if another user views your work on a calibrated screen, they will also see what you saw, if you print at a calibrated printer, the images will also come out right.

If your screen is not calibrated, you will edit to “correct” the ‘errors’ you see on screen (like exposure, for instance) anybody else will however see your corrections as “over”-corrections and it will also print the same way

Example: If your screen is too bright:

You shoot an image of a bride in a white dress with a perfect camera exposure. on your screen you have lost the detail of the embroidery because of the screen brightness, so you adjust the exposure down in photoshop (and make a mental note to underexpose in the future when you shoot these types of images). Anybody else that looks at your image on an internet gallery will now see your image as underexposed, and if you print the shots, they will also come out dark.

So you have actually damaged an image that was right, and you have convinced yourself that your camera is over-exposing simply because your screen was set too bright!

Now, brightness on the screen can be adjusted fairly accurately without a colorimeter like a Spyder, but actual colour variations cannot, there are too many influences from outside (the colour of the light bulbs in the room, the walls reflecting light, the colour of the shirt you wear when editing, humidity and temperature changes) to be able to spot the problems with your eyes… some people can, but most can’t.

As a general rule, we calibrate our screens once every 2 weeks, and more often if there were big weather changes (a cold front, heavy rain, heat, etc) Before we switched the LCD and LED screens, we used to calibrate the old big CRT screens every morning (about an hour after switching them on)

Well, we hope that clears things up for you. Most consumers don’t calibrate and many may not even know what they are missing – I will be honest, I have never calibrated a monitor – horror of horrors I know. Truth is though, if I was working commercially, requiring consistency in my work, I would rethink that. At the end of the day it wont hurt to do it. In terms of the device you use. Spyder seems to be the more common brand in South Africa, I have heard of photographers abroad swearing by other brands but I cant readily find them here and that can be a pain. Those are my two cents worth to add to Sean’s response. We welcome more feedback in the comments below.