of the most frustrating aspects of the digital darkroom is getting prints
that closely resemble the images that we see on a computer monitor. Are
your own prints as impressive as the images in the electronic display?
Are they "clean," or do they exhibit an undesirable color
cast? And are the hues and tones in your prints as vibrant and bright
as they appear on the monitor, or do they seem flat and muddy by comparison?
Problems such as these are common when using a monitor that does not produce
a true display of the actual color rendition in digital image files. The
solution is color management. While this is a multi-faceted process, monitor
calibration is the primary and most important component.
Why Calibrate Your
Consider this worst-case scenario that can occur when working with an
unreliable monitor. You have opened a technically good image and have
enhanced it until the image appears perfect on your monitor. But let's
say that your monitor is displaying wildly inaccurate color and tonality.
In that case, the actual image is quite different from what you're
seeing in the electronic display.
you prefer accurate or dramatic color balance and saturation,
you can achieve exactly the intended effect by using a color
Photos © 2003, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved
The actual image file may include
an obvious magenta cast and excessive color saturation as well as inadequate
brightness and contrast. Your monitor is not displaying these characteristics
because its display is inaccurate. When you make a print, the photo will
exhibit the undesirable characteristics mentioned earlier. That's
because the printer software employed the actual image data and did not
work from the beautiful image displayed on the monitor.
The generic term "calibration" actually consists of two steps.
First, it brings the brightness, contrast, and color temperature of the
display as close as possible to established standards. The next step is
profiling: using measurements to determine the accuracy of the display.
A profile stores details about the monitor's behavior and allows
the display to be adjusted to compensate for an inaccurate display. (A
profile is a file that describes the color behavior of a device.)
monitor is a key component in any digital darkroom. Depending
on the accuracy of its display, the monitor can either cause
a great deal of frustration or complement your skills in
making prints of exceptional quality. Photo Courtesy of
Either of two distinct methods
can be employed for calibration. You can use software to adjust the "gamma"
(brightness and contrast) or you can buy a full calibration kit ($119
and up) that includes sophisticated software plus a "colorimeter":
a sensor that measures the relative intensity of a series of color samples
on the display. Full calibration is a more scientific method that produces
far more reliable and precise results. Because a monitor's display
changes over time, either of the calibration processes should be repeated
Calibrating with Software. The simplest and most affordable
method adjusting the appearance of a display is to use Adobe Gamma. This
utility is installed by default with most Adobe programs. If you use a
Mac system and do not own an Adobe image editor, use the computer's
ColorSync monitor calibration tool, similar to Adobe Gamma. (Windows does
not provide a comparable option.)
worst case scenario is not typical, but virtually every
uncalibrated monitor's color and tonality display
is inaccurate to some extent. It's worth examining
your monitor image and your prints with a critical eye,
looking for subtle differences.
Set the ambient light to a
moderate level, open the utility through your computer's control
panel, and follow the step by step instructions. When you reach steps
that require you to make judgments based on a visual evaluation of the
monitor display, do the best you can; consider asking for a second opinion.
After the process is finished, the software creates a new profile for
use by your operating system and Photoshop--or another image editor
that can use color profiles--will employ to adjust all images displayed
on the monitor.
Any "software only" calibration is subjective to some extent,
because several of the steps are based on a visual evaluation: your perception
of gamma adjustment settings. This solution is acceptable for a generalized
profile that may be better than your computer's default profile,
but it's still imprecise. Calibrating your monitor with Adobe Gamma
or ColorSync Calibrator is better than doing nothing at all, and it may
increase the predictability of brightness and color saturation in your
Full Monitor Calibration. If calibrating with software
only doesn't provide the accuracy you want, plan to take a more
scientific approach in order to make prints that reflect your creative
intentions. Buy a kit with sophisticated software and a "colorimeter."
Full calibration will set the optimal gray balance for your display, so
it produces the maximum range of colors, an appropriate white luminance
and black point, and superior color rendition.
a monitor with Adobe Gamma is a simple process and the absolute
minimum that's required in display adjustment. More
sophisticated software is available from ColorVision and
Monaco Systems, but their full calibration kits are more
reliable and effective.
Several colorimeter kits are
available for use with both CRT and LCD monitors. The most popular are
the ColorVision Spyder with PhotoCAL software ($169) and MonacoOPTIX with
EZcolor software ($329); recently, ColorVision introduced an even more
affordable option, ColorPLUS ($119.) Any of these will produce a highly
accurate display of the tonality, color saturation, and color balance
of your images.
Although the process is technically sophisticated and complex, the actual
procedure is straightforward and takes about 20 minutes. Using a wizard,
the software walks you through the procedure, step by step. After full
calibration is finished, the software will make a variety of adjustments
and it will generate a reliable profile. This new set of instructions
will be used by your operating system and imaging program to adjust the
colors for an accurate representation of the image file on your monitor.
complete and highly effective monitor calibration kit includes
both software and a colorimeter sensor. The combination
assures a highly reliable monitor display with accurate
color rendition and tonality. Courtesy of ColorVision Inc.
As you start working with a
fully reliable monitor, you should find that the display produces substantially
greater accuracy in terms of color values. When you make a print, it should
match closely the appearance of the monitor display in color rendition
and in tonal values except for the natural differences produced by various
types of media. For example, papers with a soft finish (such as "watercolor")
produce much softer colors and contrast than your monitor.
Problem Solving Tips
If you're not satisfied with the color rendition or brightness of
your prints after calibration, you'll need to determine whether
your monitor or printer is at fault. For this diagnosis, download a standardized
PhotoDisc target image file--with "memory colors" that
you can easily evaluate--from www.timgrey.com/ccdownloads.htm
(no charge). Make a print of the target image and compare the output to
the monitor display to determine which appears to be most accurate. If
your monitor proves to be unreliable, recalibrate it, preferably using
a colorimeter kit; replace the monitor if it's old and cannot be
you own a CRT or an LCD monitor or both, the calibration
process is virtually identical when using a colorimeter
that's compatible with both types of monitors. Courtesy
of ColorVision Inc.
Working with a reliable display
and a high quality ink jet photo printer, you should be able to make prints
with the color balance that you expect. If your printer routinely produces
a color cast with a certain type of paper, you'll need to compensate
for that tendency, in image-editing software or in the printer driver
software. (If your prints routinely exhibit a slight green color balance,
for example, make an adjustment toward green.) Also check the printer
manufacturer's website for updated profiles: a new set of instructions
to modify your printer's behavior to produce more accurate prints.
When using after-market paper, check the distributor's website for
any custom profiles. If those are not available, consider buying a pro-caliber
custom profile from a company such as ProfileCity ($99 for a single profile;
If you use many types of media, consider products such as MonacoEZcolor
($299) or my own favorite, ColorVision PrintFIX ($329), for creating profiles
for any type of paper. These options are expensive, so try the other alternatives
first to solve any color balance problems.
you identify the paper type in the Properties dialog box
in the printer software, you're instructing the system
to employ the color profile that's designed for optimal
results with that type of paper.
As mentioned earlier, a full
color management system is multi-faceted, with monitor calibration being
a prerequisite. You can find additional color management techniques--for
cameras, scanners, printers and for Adobe imaging programs--in Mastering
Digital Photography and Imaging and particularly in Tim Grey's (Sybex)
book, Color Confidence: The Digital Photographer's Guide to Color
Management a highly detailed and useful reference guide for advanced digital
a print is not identical to an electronic image that's
illuminated by backlighting, effective color management
ensures that your prints will come close to matching what
you see on a monitor.
A long-time "eDP"
and "Shutterbug" contributor, stock photographer Peter K.
Burian is the author of a new book, "Mastering Digital Photography
and Imaging." ($21 through online bookstores.) Covering all aspects
of the topic--the technology, equipment and techniques--this
book provides 270 pages of practical advice for photo enthusiasts.