This is something that is so important, but very few people do – monitor calibration. YOU MUST LEARN HOW TO CALIBRATE YOUR MONITOR. If you don’t, you are blindly making images without any idea of what the true color, contrast, saturation, and brightness is.
Did you also know that your camera’s LCD screen is very inaccurate? This means if you are judging your images on your camera, your images will also be inaccurate too.
I see this all the time in my Facebook Group. 99% of the time when someone share’s an image that is too dark – they didn’t learn how to calibrate their monitor. Many times they don’t even know what that means.
This is something that you don’t know about until someone tells you because we are assuming that the devices that we are using are accurate, when in fact, they are far from it.
Monitor calibration makes sure that your monitor is showing you the most accurate color, brightness, saturation, and contrast that it can. It does this by making what’s called a Color Profile. Each color profile is unique for that device. Color Profiles end in .icc and are stored in you system’s library. Don’t worry about that if you don’t know what that means.
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But My Laptop Or Monitor Is Brand New
Did you know with any laptop you buy and any stand alone monitor you buy IS NOT CALIBRATED FOR PHOTOGRAPHY OUT OF THE BOX? That’s right. All monitors have their brightness set to be as bright as they can because it give a false sense of looking great.
Not every monitor is created equally either. If you look at all the different laptops out there, they wildly vary in how their screens look. If you look at an inexpensive PC screen, then look at a Mac Powerbook, there’s a huge difference in color, brightness, saturation, and contrast.
You have to always think of your monitor as a translator. It is translating color from your file to your screen. It will never be 100% accurate. The goal is to get it as accurate as you can for the type of work you are doing.
In my last post I went into detail about monitors. Please check that out first. I explain why you must do your color critical work on a stand alone monitor and not on a laptop.
If you are just starting out, I understand you might not be able to afford a new monitor. You can attempt to calibrate your laptop screen, and you should, just know that they aren’t as accurate as a stand alone monitor.
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Proper Working Environment
The best environment for editing images is in a room that does not have much ambient daylight at all. Your environment should be dimly lit. If your ambient lights are much brighter than your monitor, you will not edit your images properly.
If your room has a ton of daylight coming in, you won’t be able to see your monitor accurately. This is a huge problem. You will need to close the curtains, block light, do what you can so that the ambient light is not competing with your monitor.
So if you have to increase your monitor’s brightness just to be able to see it, you are working in an environment that is too bright for editing images.
Shooting on location outside is a huge problem when it comes to this. You have to shade your laptop from all the daylight because you just can’t see your screen otherwise. If you are working in a very brightly lit room, this could be a great solution to help you as well. This is called a Laptop Hood. This one by Think Tank folds up nicely so you can store it when needed.
Just think of it as a little tent for your laptop that allows you to see it in bright daylight. It must be black on the inside. I saw some that are white or silver inside – that’s ridiculous and completely defeats the purpose of blocking light.
I also have a monitor hood on my stand alone monitor. You will need to get one that is made for your monitor. I’ve used hoods from this company for years. They are very necessary to block ambient light in your room.
Why Calibrate Your Monitor?
In all the classes I’ve taught, I think there were only two students that worked on a calibrated monitor. They were both graphic designers, and color accuracy was extremely critical for their work.
I ran a poll in our Facebook Food Photography Club Group to learn that 80% are not calibrating their monitors, which completely explained why several of the members sharing photos in the club were sharing photos that were too dark.
If you are just doing work for yourself and not sharing the images with anyone (not sure who that would be), then it won’t really matter to you.
The goal is to create images that will look consistent when other people are viewing your work. If you are working on a calibrated monitor, then you know the image you worked on has the proper brightness, color, and contrast so that when viewed on a calibrated monitor, it looks good.
If you are creating images for other people, you have got to work on a calibrated system. Period. End of Story. Exclamation Point!
If you are calling yourself a professional photographer and are trying to get paid for your photography, you must work on a calibrated system. Period. End of Story. Exclamation Point!
If you aren’t working on a calibrated monitor, and you are making images for other people, chances are someone else down the chain is actually correcting your images for their needs.
If you are working on a monitor that is too bright (the most common situation), then you will make your images too dark, all the time. You will be compensating for your monitor and make your images darker in order for them to look properly exposed on your blown out (that means too bright) monitor.
If you are working on a monitor that is too dark, your images will look too bright elsewhere because chances are you are lightening up your images to compensate for your monitor.
As I mentioned earlier, when you get a new computer or a new monitor, the factory default settings are usually set to the brightest settings. It’s really annoying. Especially the laptops, they are extremely bright. If you got used to looking at that bright screen, after you calibrate your monitor there will be a huge shift that you have to get used to. Honestly, you might be shocked at “how dark” your calibrated monitor looks. Just a heads up there.
What To Use For Calibration
I’ve been using this brand for years. This is the X-Rite ColorMunki display. This unit is now discontinued BUT you can still buy it on Amazon and for all of you NOT running on a brand new machine with the newest operating system, you will need this one.
X-Rite, the company who makes this device, has great tech support. You can even call them. Here is their website with the product and instructions for using it. They have great video tutorials as well.
You need the software that comes with it. You can also download it from their website if needed from the product page in the link above.
If you have a newer machine and a newer monitor or a monitor that has proprietary calibration software built in, check and see which devices you can use with it. Chances are the software was actually made by X-Rite. If that is the case you will need to use the X-Rite i1Display Pro or something similar.
If you are making your own fine art prints and are struggling with getting accurate color with your prints, you might need to calibrate your printer as well. X-Rite makes units for this too. This is the X-Rite ColorMunki Photo. This is for the advanced user who understands about color profiling devices and creating ICC profiles for color management.
Please Note: If you are using older equipment, read this
Operating systems change all the time and software conflicts can happen easily with older machines. You must check that the computer and operating system will work with any color calibration device.
If you have any issues, you can call X-Rite. They are in the Eastern time zone. You can also email them from that same page if you aren’t able to call them.
All calibration devices generally work the same way. You place the device on your monitor and with software, you are guided through the process of calibration.
BEFORE CALIBRATING YOU MUST LET YOUR MONITOR WARM UP FOR AT LEAST 20 MINUTES.
If you are working on a laptop – you will need to get into the System Preferences / Displays – and make sure that any type of “auto” brightness adjustments are turned off. You also need to make sure your laptop is plugged in the whole time and turn off any Energy Saver settings that adjust the screen when it’s idle.
Also, make a note of what profile your system is currently using. This way, if you have issues calibrating, you can just go back to the profile your system was set to previously while you work on the calibration issues with tech support.
This is the window for the System Preferences / Displays / Color tab. You can see my current profile is highlighted in gray. I just take a screen shot so I know where I started from.
How To Calibrate Your Monitor Step-By-Step
How To Calibrate Your Monitor
If you aren't working on a calibrated monitor, you are editing your images blind! Calibrate your monitor so that you know if your images were properly exposed and they have correct color saturation and contrast.
- X-Rite Software, please see below in the notes. Please install the software before starting.
- You will obviously need your monitor and your calibration device. Let your monitor warm up 20 minutes before starting!
- Plug in your calibration device to your computer. Try not to use any USB extensions for this. Plug directly into your computer
- Launch the software
- Click On "Profile My Display" and pick your display. If you only have one plugged in, that's all you will see. Click on "Next"
- Click on "advanced" for the display profile mode. Set White Point to D65. For White Luminance click on, "I would like my display luminance set to the following value" then select 120. This is how bright your monitor will be and this is industry standard. Then click "Next".
- Make sure you are in a room that does NOT have a lot of daylight - but if you are do this step. If you are in a darker room, go to step 9. You need to have the device read your ambient light conditions. Click on the check box for "Ambient Light Smart Control".
- You will be asked to set up your device on your desk. Follow the instructions on the screen. Click "Next" when done.
- Now you are ready to calibrate your screen. Make sure you can see the lens on your device and hang it over your display making sure to adjust the counter weight on the back so that it hangs properly on your monitor. Place your device on the gold outline. You can move your profile screen to match up to your device easily. Click, "next"
- Your screen will start flashing white, gray, red, green, and blue. Don't worry - your device is measuring the colors here. Once it does that you'll see a brightness window.
- Once that is done, you will see the target numbers on the "Quality Indicator". Our goal is 120. This is the crucial step where you will see how far off your monitor is. Every monitor is different with how to set the brightness so you might need to google this if you can't find the buttons easily. They might be on the side, bottom, or back of your monitor. Get the brightness set to as close to 120 as possible. A few points off is ok, but more than that will be a problem. Click "Next".
- After you have set the luminance, your monitor will now calculate your colors. It will flash through a series of colors for about 5 minutes. Just wait till it's done. After calibration you will be asked to name and save your profile. I make sure to name my profiles the date. Click "Save", then click, "Next.
- This next screen will be asking you if you want a reminder to recalibrate. I turn this off because it keeps poping up when it's not supposed to. Just know you should recalibrate every time you move your laptop or every week or so for desktops that don't move. Click, "next".
- You'll now see a confirmation window saying your calibration is complete. You can compare a before and after image. You can actually look at one of your own images to compare. Click, "Next"
- The last thing you might see is a Ambient Light Monitoring option - I turn this off but if you are in a room with bright sunlight (which I do not recommend) this might be a good idea. You will need to leave your device plugged in the whole time to monitor the light and you will see your monitor shifting throughout the day. Now click, "Finish".
The age of your machine will dictate which X-Rite device you need. There are two versions of X-Rite displays. The ColorMunki is discontinued BUT you can still buy it on Amazon and X-rite still has software for it. So if you have an older machine with an older OS, you need this calibrator.
If you have a newer machine, then I would suggest to get the i1Display Studio device.
The screen images might look different on your computer depending your machine and OS.
Go to this link to see which device you need for your computer and operating system: https://www.xrite.com/service-support/product-support/calibration-solutions/colormunki-display
For the older device (ColorMunki) you can get more info here: https://xritephoto.com/ph_product_overview.aspx?ID=1513
As an Amazon Associate and member of other affiliate programs, I earn from qualifying purchases.
This is where you will find out how far off in brightness your monitor is. If your Luminance is over 200, your monitor is way too bright. If it’s under 100, it’s way too dark.
With laptops, the buttons to change the brightness on your monitor are usually somewhere on your keyboard. With stand alone monitors, the buttons might be on the side, on the back, OR you might have to pull up a menu to find it that way. If you can’t find the buttons, google “buttons to adjust monitor brightness on the NAME OF YOUR MONITOR”, to find them.
If you are having issues getting close to 120 on a laptop, you might need to adjust the brightness on your monitor first, then start over. So press the “back” button until you get to the first screen.
On a Mac go into your System Preferences / Displays / and look for the monitor brightness. Adjust the slider a little bit up or down, then start the ColorMunki calibration again.
On some laptops, there might be a checkbox for an auto adjustment in this Display window – turn that off!
If you are working on a PC, google how to adjust these settings on your particular device.
So – there you have it! You now have an accurate monitor to do image editing on and also to shoot tethered on.
A few things to note: most people who do not do photography work will never calibrate their monitor. If any of these folks tell you your images are too light or too dark, you simply ask them if they are viewing it on a calibrated monitor. If they say no, then say they might want to consider calibrating because you work on a calibrated system and that is industry standard.
Many Clients DO NOT Calibrate Their Systems
Here’s something that is surprising and comes up all the time. I have many clients that don’t even know about calibrating their monitors. This is a problem. I am making images for them. My system is calibrated. If they look at my images on their un-calibrated system and have an issue with something, the first thing I ask them is, “when was the last time you calibrated your system?”. I’ll either get a blank, “I have no idea”, or “never”. So then I politely let them know that I calibrate my system every time we shoot so it would be best if they calibrate theirs so that they see the same thing when it comes to color.
All printing facilities do intense color calibrations. The goal is to get your images to print without issues. That’s it. So if your client is working on your files on an uncalibrated system, they can do some changes that would alter how they print. Then the printer has to correct what was done to files to get them to print.
Here is how I handle this with every job. When we are shooting and looking at our shots on my monitors, I tell them, “This is how the color will generally look. This is a calibrated monitor”. Then I say, “I use an X-Rite calibrator. What calibrator do you use?”. I always ask this. If they have no idea (which is now very common), I explain to them the importance of color calibration and I explain that if they change things in the file with color, saturation, contrast, and brightness, it will not look that way in print.
In my experience, about 75% of my clients don’t calibrate their systems and are working on laptops without a stand alone monitor. This is always a problem and is always a conversation I have to have with them. They have no idea that their printers are fixing all of their mistakes with their files.
Do Not Judge Your Images On Phones!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had clients that weren’t with me on set, judging my images on their cell phones.
I’d email them images to look at. Then ask them what they thought. They’d say, “wow, the highlights are blown out and it’s really contrasty.” What??? I’m looking at my image on my computer and it’s fine. The first thing I will ask them is how are they viewing the image. Without fail, they are looking at it on their old iPhone. So I say, “oh, don’t worry about that. Our cell phones can’t render accurately what our images look like”. All they can do is look at the image for composition and food styling.
Even with huge ad agencies this will happen so it’s not just the small client direct projects that do this. They all do it.
Just keep this in mind. Don’t get me wrong, to have your client, no matter where they are in the world, look at what you are shooting, is great. There’s just some limitations with how our cell phones show images when we’re talking about accuracy of color, contrast, saturation, and brightness. It’s about managing expectations.
If you are making images for clients, get your ColorMunki or i1Display right now, and calibrate your system!
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Happy Shooting friends!
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