How to Calibrate Your Monitor

Color calibration should definitely be an essential part of every photographer’s workflow. Otherwise, it is impossible to tell whether the colors that are displayed by your monitor are truly accurate and whether what you see will match the print. There are many ways to do it and the process can be fairly simple or very complex, depending on how accurate you want to reproduce the colors and whether you are also printing your work in-house. The simple method involves free and commercial tools for color profiling LCD / CRT monitors for everyday photo editing and image viewing, and there is also an end-to-end professional-grade color profiling that requires very concise calibration of all display and output devices (such as printers). In this article on how to calibrate your monitor, I will only focus on simple methods to make your monitor show more or less accurate colors, so that you could rely on it for everyday photography needs.

How to calibrate your monitor

1) Why is calibration important?

One of the big misunderstandings about calibration, is that people think that it is only needed for printing. Wrong! It is needed for everything – from viewing other people’s work online to processing your own images in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. If your monitor is not properly calibrated, you are most likely not seeing everything in the image. For example, a smooth and beautiful sunset might appear as pale and gradient streaks of light or a black and white picture might appear too dark or too light.

I personally did not pay much attention to color calibration for a long time, until I started hearing complaints from other photographers that I over-saturate my pictures. One day, I saved some of my best work on a thumb drive and took it to a friend who had a color profiled professional-grade monitor for photography. When we opened my photographs, they clearly appeared way over-saturated. At first, I thought that something was wrong with the way I extracted the images from my PC. But upon closer examination, I found out that there was nothing wrong with the color profile of the image, but rather really bad post-processing as a result of zero monitor calibration. I was shocked seeing my images look dull and too colorful. I remember that day very well, when I got back home and spent the next several days reading about color reproduction, monitors and other information on the Internet. It took me several weeks of reading and studying to fully understand how software/hardware, color management, PC monitors, post-processing and other things work together when it comes to colors. Once I had my setup calibrated, I had to go back and work on many of my older images. And since I always shoot in RAW, I was able to re-process most of my photographs.

2) What kind of monitor do you have?

Your monitor is one of the most important parts of color reproduction. If you purchased an LCD screen for under $300 dollars, you most likely have a “TN” or “Twisted Nematic” panel that cannot accurately display colors due to dithering, has a very limited color gamut and might not have a good viewing angle. I highly recommend reading my “best monitor for photography” article to identify the type of monitor you are using for viewing and editing photographs. It is important to know this, because effective color calibration depends on constant color accuracy of your monitor and if you have a cheap display, the colors (especially black and white tones) will shift from time to time and you will have to recalibrate your monitor very often. Therefore, if you have one of those cheap monitors and do not want to be plagued with inaccurate colors and tones, I highly recommend replacing it with a better monitor.

3) Visual vs Hardware Calibration

As I have pointed out above, you can calibrate your monitor for free or through commercial hardware. Let me quickly tell you the difference between free software / online tools versus using hardware calibration. In order to accurately profile a monitor, the colors that the screen outputs need to be analyzed and compared with real colors. When you use just software or free online tools, you cannot really compare the colors of your screen with real colors, unless you have a professional color chart such as X-Rite ColorChecker. You cannot just print out a color chart on a printer – the colors need to come from a professionally profiled printer. But even if you have a professional color chart, it would be difficult to try to match the colors, because you are still heavily relying on your vision and perception of colors.

Compared to visual calibration, hardware calibration works by analyzing the colors by an external device that does color and gamma comparisons, then automatically applies necessary changes to colors and gamma via proprietary software. Therefore, there is always going to be a difference in accuracy between the two. In addition, the hardware calibration process consumes significantly less time and can be performed on a periodic basis without much hassle.

4) Free Tools

Before you do anything, start out by resetting your monitor settings to factory defaults. The reason why you want to do this, is because you do not want to start calibrating a monitor that has too much or insufficient brightness levels and various levels of gamma. On some monitors you can revert to factory defaults through a menu setting, while on others you can press a combination of buttons to revert to factory settings. If you cannot find a way to do it on the monitor, check out the monitor manual or use Google to find out how you can reset to factory defaults.

Next, perform the following:

  1. Make sure that your monitor is in an area where sunlight or other light sources do not reach it.
  2. Leave the monitor on for at least 10-15 minutes to let it heat up.
  3. Make sure that the screen resolution is at its optimal setting. If you have an LCD monitor, push the screen resolution to the highest allowed number, also known as “native resolution”.
  4. Make sure that your video card is outputting in 24-bit mode (16 million colors).
  5. If the monitor has both DVI (digital) and VGA (analog) connectors, connect with a DVI cable instead.
  6. Uninstall all existing color-calibration tools and software.

Now you are ready for visual calibration through free software.

The best free software tool that I found on the Internet and tried out was “QuickGamma“. It lets you visually calibrate your screen by increasing or decreasing the gamma. You can do it for black/whites only, as well as for colors, but the author warns not to mess with colors, because it is difficult to correctly adjust them. Here is how the tool looks like:

QuickGamma

I highly recommend reading the instructions and software help that opens up as soon as you fire up the application for the first time. It is important to follow everything exactly as it says or you might end up with a badly calibrated monitor. Once you make the changes and hit “OK”, the program will save your adjustments and reload them every time you reboot.

If you have Windows 7, you might want to try out its own Color Management tool. Simply go to Control Panel and double click on the “Color Management” icon and a new window will open up. Go to the “Advanced” tab and click the “Calibrate display” button under “Display Calibration”:

Windows 7 Color Management

It will fire up a “Display Color Calibration” wizard with clear instructions on the process. It even provides some nice suggestions on how the image should look when properly calibrated:

Display Color Calibration

Just follow the wizard all the way to the end and the software will automatically create a new color profile for you after the calibration process is complete.

5) Commercial Calibration Hardware

The most popular commercial hardware calibration kits are the following:

  1. X-Rite i1 Display Pro
  2. Datacolor Spyder 4 Pro/Elite
  3. Pantone ColorMunki
  4. SpectraCal Calman

The first two – “X-Rite i1″ and “Datacolor Spyder” are the most popular calibration kits today and they are both betwene $170-250.

I used to own the Datacolor Spyder 3 Pro, but found X-Rite i1 Display Pro to be better in terms of color calibration and software features. The process of calibration is very easy – you just run the wizard and do what it asks you to do. It took me about 15 minutes to calibrate both of my LCD screens.

6) Use color-managed applications

You would be surprised, but many applications do not support color profiles, as explained in my “is your browser color managed” article. One of the most basic applications that we expect to be color-managed is the Internet browser. But unfortunately, even some of the most popular browsers such as Google Chrome did not support color profiles until recently. Take a look at the following images:

Sand Dunes - sRGB

Sand Dunes - ProPhoto RGB

If you have a color-managed browser such as Firefox or Apple Safari, both images should appear the same or very close. If you are using an older browser that is not color-managed, the second image will appear to have dark blue/purple sky and yellowish sand. Therefore, for best picture-viewing experience, you should use color-managed applications.

7) Conclusion

So, should you use free visual calibration tools or use calibration hardware? In my opinion, if you just use your monitor for occasional picture viewing, gaming and movie watching, then software is probably going to be sufficient. However, if you are a serious photographer and you want to turn pro someday and sell your work, it is best to purchase a good hardware calibration kit – it is definitely counter-productive to do photography work on a non-calibrated monitor.

If you have a color printer for printing your photographs, you should seriously consider profiling both your monitor and printer for accurate color and tone reproduction.

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.

Last Update: 06/20/2014


Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Eric

    Hi Nasim,

    Thanks for the tips on “budget” calibrating lcd monitors. i do believe that my desktop one is rendering better/ truer colors now =)

    You mentioned above that the Chrome browser is not color-aware. I tried viewing your sample photos using Chrome in Vista and the colors did not match up, just the way you said it would perform. But when I opened the same page in Chrome on my unibody MBP, the colors for your two test images were the same or very nearly identical. Could it be that Mac is using a color-aware version of Chrome while the one for PCs is not? Here’s a screenshot of the what I see on my MBP.

    http://screencast.com/t/ODdmNTY2MGQ

    • Eric, you are most welcome and thanks for sharing!

      There probably is a difference in the way Chrome handles images on PCs and Macs…the images do look the same in the screenshot you provided, which is great news for Mac users :)

  2. 3
    ) Robert Gomes

    Hi Nasim,

    Great article. I was thinking of purchasing a hardware unit to calibrate my 27″ iMAC display. Anything I should consider? People say they are trickier to calibrate because of their high brightness/luminisoty?

    Any thoughts on the matter?

    Also, do I need to calibrate my printer as well?

    I suppose what we all want is for a) our cameras to accurately represent the colours that we take images of b) our monitors to represent these colours accurately c) our printers to print what our monitors shows.

    Isn’t that the goal?

    • Thank you Robert!

      Are you using your 27″ iMAC display on a PC or a Mac? If you are using it on a Mac, then I would recommend to ask someone at the Apple store or online, since I do not know much about calibration software for Macs :(

      I don’t think it will be too hard to calibrate the monitor, as long as you are using a good calibration kit. And yes, I would highly recommend to calibrate the printer as well and the goals you listed are all true.

    • 13
      ) Martin

      calibration of iMac: I was just told during a PS tutorial that the iMac monitor is not suitable for calibration as it is not a white gamut monitor like the Mac Pro and others. It will always deliver results much brighter and with more luminiszenz than other monitors therefore disappointing results on other non iMac monitors or on printing. They proposed to reduce the brightness on the iMac monitor and then do the post-processing or do the end processing on a Mac Pro or use a professional hard ware driven monitor like the Eizo. What do you think about it, Nasim?

  3. 5
    ) Carlos

    I did get convinced that calibration was the way to go and ended up getting Huey Pro. My problem now is that once I edit pictures on Lightroom and export them to be seen online it’s a completely random experience. My pictures in many places now look completely oversaturated and I’m thinking of going back to work uncalibrated as that seems a safer option!

    • Carlos, that is strange – I get more natural colors from my setup and I use Spyder3 Pro.

      What color profile are you using for export? Make sure you are exporting with sRGB color profile for the Internet.

  4. 6
    ) Robert Gomes

    Carlos,

    I think the idea of abandoning calibration because your images don’t look good online is not a great idea. Let me ask you: how do they look when you print them out? I think that, to me, that is more important than how they look online.

    Is your monitor’s brightness set too high? That is sometimes the issue when images come out too dark/too oversaturated.

    What display and calibration system are you using?

    I just recently calibrated my iMAC and it looks tons better. I am using the X-Rite Display 2.

    Robert

    • 7
      ) Carlos

      Thanks for the reply Robert.

      I don’t print the pictures so I can’t really say, they’re seen online. At the moment depending on where they are the comments I get are that they just looks awfully oversaturated, a problem I didn’t have before.

      Doubt the monitor is too bright, I use three different monitors in two different PCs and brightness doesn’t seem an issue, there are variation but nothing terrible, oversaturation is though. The calibrated monitor is a Sony Vaio laptop and I can view them on another PC using a Dell monitor and another Dell laptop, in all it’s the same and have had feedback from different people on the oversaturation so seems pretty universal.

      I use Pantone Huey Pro with the latest version of the software.

      There is obviously the issue of different apps supporting (or not) calibration, but then some websites seem to resize pictures and somehow the profile dissappears so whatever browser you use that picture is always oversaturated, whether the application is colour managed or not.

      For example, I export a picture in Lightroom using the calibration profile. I can see it well on most programs and if I upload to Flickr it still looks fine, now upload the same one to Facebook and it will look oversaturated whatever browser/computer you use, looks like if I export it as sRGB. That made me wonder if there was some way of converting from the calibrated profile to a standard sRGB.

      Carlos

      • Carlos, can you send me a link to one of the images? It would be interesting to see how saturated it really is.

        And yes, whenever an image is resized, the color profile is typically dropped…it happens on most online systems, including WordPress :( But the same thing will happen when you use an uncalibrated monitor, except even worse, since your images with color profiles will also be inconsistent.

    • Robert, I fully agree with you – nothing is worse than an uncalibrated monitor when processing images.

  5. 11
    ) Juan

    Great article! It has helped me a lot to clarify some of the questions I had regarding this issue that I discovered much in the same way you did.

    One question… as Chrome becomes more and more popular and IE is still used by a lot of people … what do you do to make your pictures still look the way you want in those? Do you have a standard version of the picture and a manually corrected one to view in those browsers?

    Thanks!

    • Juan, no, you do not want to show two different pictures depending on the browser – too much unnecessary work. Just wait a little and Chrome will support color management very soon.

  6. 14
    ) Zsolt

    Nasim, thanks for the useful article! I wonder whether monitors with different technology like TN or IPS also should be calibrated after 2-3 weeks, as Spider3 recommends after a calibration?
    I am about to get a Dell U2412M monitor, and assume IPS panels keep calibrated output for longer time comparing to TN, so no need to play with calibration twice a month. Appreciate your comment.

    Zsolt

  7. 15
    ) Marianne

    Hello Nasim :)

    Thank you for this informative article.

    Recently I tried to solve an issue on my laptop by using this feature.

    Certain areas on the Windows screen, which are otherwise supposed to be off-white, started to appear with a pink hue, and this shift towards red became more pronounced with time. After I recalibrated the display, first the issue seemed to have been resolved. But next day when I started the system again, the pinkish hue reappeared.

    So I am wondering if you could advise how can I make this new calibration setting permanent? Or in your view can this symptom signify a hardware graphics card -failure? I am starting to be worried about my laptop …

    Thank you in advance for your advice:)
    Marianne

    PS: my OS is Windows 7 Home Premium ,
    I have recently installed a graphics driver update from Intel, but after the update the issue persists.

    • 16
      ) Chuck Hooker

      Marianne,

      You didn’t mention how old your laptop was. I have found that a pinkish hue on a laptop is one of the first signs that the fluorescent bulb that illuminates the screen is getting weak/going bad. This usually means that you need to purchase a new replacement LCD panel and replace it. Replacing the entire panel is the way to go and not too difficult. Possibly it is the inverter… It might be time for a new laptop.
      Chuck

  8. 17
    ) Rodger Marjama

    Hello,

    I have 3 monitors of the same brand, model, but 1 is newer the the others and has different hardware, at least the panel is different. I have colormunki and used this to calibrate the monitors when in un-mirrored configuration in Windows 7 64bit, which works well enough. But, I am setting these monitors up using Eyefinity, which basically makes them into a single monitor — At least as far as Windows is concerned. Since Windows refuses to provide API’s for multi-monitor ICC profiles when in any kind of mirroring setup.

    So, I need to setup these monitors more or less by hand again. I’ve done it a few times before I got colormonki, but it is a huge pain. I am looking for helps with this using some type of software to simplify this task and will be reviewing what you’ve provided here, as well as other places that provide “clues” to multi-monitor calibration by hand/software.

    What I fail to understand is, why there’s not some kind of dedicated software that can send the proper ICC profiles to each monitor regardless of their relationship to one another. I understand that can be limitations in the drives, graphic adapter, maybe the monitor itself for all I know, but it sure seems there must be a way to do this anyhow.

    Thanks for taking the time to present this page.

    -Rodger

  9. 18
    ) Jason

    Nasim,

    I’m sorry if this is a silly question. If I calibrate my monitor once, do I need to calibrate it every time I decide to print a photograph? I ask because I don’t want to spend $170.00 plus on something I may use just once, instead for me, it may be more cost efficient just to rent a calibration unit if i’ll be using the same computer for the next year or so.

    Respectfully,
    Jason

    • Jason, monitor calibration needs to be done periodically, something like once in a month. That’s because every monitor will fade overtime and its colors will change – even on high-end professional models. And no, you do not need to calibrate it every time you print. Just do it periodically and you will be good to go.

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