1.17.2013

A VSL reader named, Chuck, asked me to write about monitor selection and calibration. Ready to open a can of worms?


Let's start with a huge and monumental disclaimer: I'm not Scott Kelby. I've never claimed to be a Photoshop or Post Production expert or guru. I'm just as happy working on my laptop as I am working at the desk.  And, finally, I've drunk the Apple Kool-Aide continuously since 1985.

So, how would I select a monitor if I needed one today? I would go into the Apple store and say, "What's the latest 27 inch monitor that runs off Thunderbolt?" At which point the clerk/genius/guy in a black t-shirt points to the 27 inch monitor and says, "This is the only 27 inch monitor Apple current makes." I would ask how much they cost, flinch a little bit and then plop down the cash. That's about as simple as I can make it. But I'm equally happy with the matte screen on my older MacBook Pro 15 inch laptop.

There are people who like the idea of finding the "ultimate" combination of performance, price and features and I'm sure they are getting a better price on whatever they buy than I am on an Apple branded monitor but I like being able to pull it out of the box, turn it on and have it work perfectly. Just as with cameras some people like to do intensive research before buying. I don't care enough about monitors to spend that amount of time and effort just to save a few bucks. I've got a lot scheduled and I like to do things I can either bill or things that thrill.

What am I currently using? I'm using the last permutation of the Apple Cinema Display 23 inch monitor with a matte screen surface. It just keeps humming along and I see no reason, right now, to replace it.  If I used a Windows/PC machine I would try to find any other good photographer in my network who used non-Apple machines and ask their opinion. Some would talk about an enormously expensive Eizo monitor but most of them would probably steer me to some sort of Dell Ultra-Sharp monitor.  But I wouldn't over buy a monitor unless I was providing materials that were intended to go straight to a printer. And there's the big disconnection.

Let me explain. In the olden days of digital, when it was all new and scary for the ad agencies, someone had to have a calibrated monitor and produce files converted to CMYK (correctly) for the four color offset printers. After a while Apple monitors (which are the current standard for every ad agency I've ever walked into) came pretty nicely calibrated and profiled right out of the box. Most people, even using the little hockey pucks manage to do more harm than good when they jump in and try to brainiac their way through a calibration process. 

Oddly enough, stock photography severed the cords of responsibility for most photographers. Most stock is delivered as large Jpegs, profiled for either sRGB or Adobe 1998. Since photographers are routinely out of the loop agencies who used a preponderance of stock photography had to come up with a method that was reasonably fool proof for supplying files to be printed. In most agencies there is a print production staff who (with presumably well calibrated monitors) actually do the needed retouching, color correction and profiling of images intended for various print uses.

While it may seem hard to believe if you've spent several thousand dollars on a high end hockey puck calibration system, Apple monitors come with a monitor profile and in the monitor preferences is a calibration panel that walks users through step by step in the calibration process, for free. Thing is the eye is a great comparator and that's the essence of this kind of calibration.

I've done calibrations both ways and I prefer (and can more accurately match print output) with a monitor I've set up by eye, using comparative calibration.

So, now we go into PhotoShop or Lightroom and make our tonal and color corrections (and I still use an eye dropper and measure between 0 and 255 for some settings) and we get "pleasing" color. If we know our clients are going to send the files to the web we convert the profile to sRGB. If they are an ad agency or well informed graphic designer who specified the output for print we'll convert to Adobe 1998. They are responsible for final tweaks. And they'll do it whether you want them to or not.

But just as in the actual process of photography where attention to details can make an enormous difference so too can all the things that cost nothing but make a big impact on the look and accuracy of a monitor.

I once got a call from a print shop asking me to come and look at some files that a sub-contracting designer sent over for an advertising client of mine. The printer claimed they were at least 15 points too magenta. I did the original files on my monitor and they were (numerically) right on the money. The agency had gotten too busy and turned over final production on our project to a "bright" young designer. At some point in the chain the files got changed to match a monitor at the bright young designer's office. I called said "bright" young designer and asked if I could come over and look at the files on his monitor. 

When I walked into his office I knew at once exactly what the problem was. The designer's (uncalibrated PC) monitor faced the wall behind "bright" young designer's desk that had been painted, floor to ceiling, in a bright, Kelly green. In fact, the whole room had been painted Kelly green. The green reflected off his monitor and color everything he evaluated on the monitor. He didn't believe that this could be the problem until we took his system out into the white interior of his garage and opened up his "corrected file" next to the orignal file. Then you could see the horror of the situation spread across his face.

You may love having big windows or bright colors in your working space but you're doing more to sabotage yourself than the guy using an uncalibrated monitor. My studio is painted white with a gray back wall. I try to always work under the same lighting conditions. No bright light one day and dim light the next. I usually wear a black shirt when I'm deep into the post production marathon---one less variable to worry about.

Wanna check your calibration? Download a high quality printer profile from a high quality photo lab, convert your image to that profile and send it. Pick up the print and compare it to the image on your monitor. Too dark? You need to change the screen brightness and recalibrate. Color off? Correct the environment and then recalibrate.

Also, sadly, all the monitors we bought that had florescent tubes lighting up the screens get old and get dark. Eventually they will not be linear enough across the color spectrum to be properly calibrated and they will have to be replaced. Most good monitors now use LEDs for illumination (see, we can't get away from talking about LEDs here....) and this kind of drift and decay shouldn't be as quick or as severe.

I'll never forget the day I delivered some images to one of the three largest computer makers in the world. They were portraits that were going to be used for web and PR. Since there were part of a big job for me I checked my work on several different laptops and my wife's carefully calibrated 27 inch screen. Everything looked great so I sent over a DVD to the requesting client who was in administration NOT marketing.

I got a phone call a couple hours later and I could hear the panic in her voice. "The images you gave me are very, very dark on my screen and the colors are all washed out. Kind of flat looking. Help."  

When you get a show stopping phone call like that you jump into customer super service mode and get moving. I grabbed a very recent and well calibrated laptop, a hockey puck calibration system and a new set of DVDs and hightailed it through rush hour traffic to the opposite side of town. The client met me with arms crossed in the lobby and guided me to her cubicle. Sitting smack in the middle of her desk was a 17 inch cathode ray tube monitor that had been out of production for at least fifteen years. You could barely read type on it. I tried to fix her monitor but it was like fixing an engine that's missing all the cylinders. Didn't work.

I tried to explain calibration to her and I ran into a brick wall. Finally I suggested that we walk down a floor to the marketing department and see if anyone had a calibrated monitor. We found the print graphic people had begged and pleaded with the budget gatekeepers and had several nice monitors. The difference in image quality was amazing. But, guess what?

Most of your clients who aren't in the graphic design or photo businesses don't ever calibrate their monitors as long as they are somewhere within a huge ballpark. The stuff you put out on the web looks different to everyone who has never calibrated a monitor. And that cheap monitor you got as part of a package at Costco or Sams? Probably not perfect either.

All you can do is make sure your stuff looks good when it leaves your office. There's no way to keep crazy people from trying to change it and "fix" it and then muck it up. There just isn't.

So, to recap: I buy Apple because while it may be more expensive on the front end it tends to be easier to use, easier to calibrate and plays well with my other stuff. I make sure my workspace is consistent and neutral. I calibrate (depending on my mood) with either the calibration app in the preferences menu (monitors) or with a Spyder hockey puck. My target is sRGB 95% of the time. The other 5% is when I'm sending out a file to a source with a known and published calibration or when I'm sending out a file to print CMYK.

In my experience, if your lab doesn't offer you a profile to convert to for prints you might as well convert to sRGB because that's the space they're going to use.  If you do this for money you need to run tests. And you need to have a buddy who's a good graphic designer whose system is also calibrated so you can drop by with some beer and double check your calibrations by looking at a known file on his system. If you are doing this for fun make sure you do all the detail stuff first. No sense spending big bucks if you sabotage yourself (and your clients) with Kelly green walls and a sun drenched gloss screen.

My next computer purchase will be a 27 inch iMac. It's already planned and in the budget. Such a deal for a great screen. It's almost like getting the computer for free.  

Fun test: grab all the laptops you can. In this family I can put my hands on eight right now. Put them on either side of your calibrated monitor and then call up the same image on all the screens. How close are they to each other? Bigger samples means more data points. At some point, if they all look good then you are in the ballpark and ready to play.

If you want a smarter and more research-y point of view then go ask a real expert like Scott Kelby. But make sure you get it as close to right as you can before the image even leaves your camera. Custom WB anybody?











30 comments:

Libby said...

Probably the most sensible post I've ever read on the issue. And you're right about Apple. My medium cinema display circa 2005 is humming along perfectly on the old G5 Mac. I do my main work on a Dell Ultra Sharp (for various reasons too numerous to mention). I can nail it on that system pretty much 95% of the time. If there are questions on a photo I swing it over to the Apple and it reveals all sins.

I've had numerous new photogs question me about "getting good photos on the web", this usually after they have been told that the magic hockey puck is the the answer. I tell them to post their photos to the web, go to an Apple store and look at them. The Apple store guys will let you play usually for as long as you would like on the web. It's worth noting that many of these guys are trying to do their photog biz startup with a #200 ebay panel. The reality is, most times this will not work and the hockey puck won't save you. There needs to be some investment here.

If you really want a rude awakening, post some of your best images (wedding images work great here). Post them to a locked down part of the web if you have to. Then go to your local public library, get some internet time, and view them there. You'll see what most people see.

Kirk Tuck said...

Exactly.

Kirk Tuck said...

Can't tell you how many times I've gotten calls from people who should know better who are mystified that their image with the ProRes Wide Gamut Profile doesn't look very good on the web....... Hello. sRGB is calling your name....

Alex said...

What is a hockey puck in this contest?

Anonymous said...

I've used calibration tools in the past with PC and Mac. I'm on my second iMac in 10 years. With the first one I calibrated it using Eye One, but I never felt it was any better than the standard Apple profile. So, recently, I got the new, base model, 21.5" from Best Buy. All I can say is that the color is the best I've ever seen. There will be no calibration required. It's spot-on right out of the box. And the computer itself...incredible value for an Apple product.

That said, I think this will be the last desktop computer I ever buy. I'm an old geyser, but I've actually become quite fond of the iPad and iPhone. With cloud computing, inexpensive home storage choices, and streaming between devices and to the TV, I really don't see a need for the desktop any more. For me, that is.

Lanthus Clark said...

I did the comparative/sight calibration on my laptop last year and my pics look as good on my screen as they do on my friends Apple screen. They don't look too bad on the junkers at school and at the library either, so I know they probably don't look too bad to most people on the internet. Yet still some labs get them printed really dark while others get them perfectly right. Mostly (I think) it's just up to whoever happens to be sitting at the printer the day I take them in and nobody can account or prepare for that. ;-)

Anonymous said...

WOW That was quick! I am a windows user (network adminstrator). My home PC/monitor was calibrated using software provided by the monitor manufacturer. It is dead on with my printer, the web, and the several labs that I occasionally send images to for printing. My problem is the computer in my office at work. I occasionally get called on to do some imaging work or get a little spare time to work on something. I had everything working pretty well but then In the course of a few weeks changed out both my PC and Monitor. I have been struggling to get a useable calibration on the new computer. I spent a good bit of time on it today and think I may be closing in on getting things where thy need to be. It seems right now that I am circling around the target and on each pass I get a little closer (I think)...

Kirk, thanks for the quick and very useful response!


Chuck

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
paul haga said...

I was just thinking about this today! Great info.

Joe Gilbert said...

Great Article Kirk!

If I may add, because of the variation of brightness when using my Mac Book, both ambient and perceived brightness of the screen depending on viewing angle, I always check the gray and black strip displayed at http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/viewing.html


I also trust SRGB and the apple cal in preferences for color with no concerns.

Best Regards,

Joe

Kirk Tuck said...

I deleted the above comment because it was sooo condescending. If you want the short version of how most photographers work you can read above. If you want to the full bore OCD everything must be at 10,000 RPM version go ask Scott Kelby, Vincent Versace or someone else who loves to spend quality time in front of a screen. If you're coming here to show off and patronize you get scrapped.

Anonymous said...

I read the comment before you deleted it. Just another person trying to set up artificial barriers to scare people into thinking there are scary secrets you have to learn to make a living as a photographer.

Craig Yuill said...

I do all of my photo editing on a late-2006 iMac with a 20" screen. I have been sending off print jobs via the Internet for several years. Sometimes the colour in the prints would be dreadful. But one day I noticed there was an option to instruct the lab not to colour correct the files. Once I started selecting that option I had no more problems with wierd colours. The colours in the resulting prints are now sufficiently close to what I see on screen that I am no longer considering getting a calibration tool. I find the quality of Apple screens to be superb, and am happy to no longer use other brands of computers for photo editing.

hugo said...

Very practical approach. I like it ^_^

When I started to get more serious about photography and post-processing of my raws, I remember that at some point I freaked out about my monitors not being calibrated. Then I realized that because photography is just a hobby for me, and that I just put my pictures on flickr and on my hard-drive, it did not matter at all, and there was no point to try to calibrate a photo which was going to be seen on many different hardware configurations that I had no idea about.

Daryl Davis said...

Wonderful coincidence, Kirk! I was reading this on my phone when UPS pulled up to deliver my new monitor (my old one died about a month ago).

I'm a PC guy and, after much research, settled on a NEC P241w. I wanted 16:10 aspect ratio. I thought about a 10-bit monitor but decided the added precision wasn't worth the extra cost at this point, especially since I just bought the OM-D: also, wide-gamut jacks up colors in non-color managed apps. Maybe I'll add the PA241 (10-bit version) as a second monitor if I get all carried away with things.

I needed to upgrade the graphics in my PC to take advantage of OpenCL, so I got a FirePro V4900 workstation card; the card does 10-bit output. I still need to learn Photoshop and the fine art of digital printing, and I probably will get the SpectraView calibrator from NEC.

I bought my P241 refurbished, from a well-rated dealer, saving a couple of hundred bucks. It's hooked up now and looking gorgeous!

Libby said...

Alex, here is an example of the hockey puck

http://www.adorama.com/GHCMS.html

You hang it in the front of your screen and while plugged into a USB and magic things happen ;-) It is a calibration device. This is a simple version of it.

Here is another

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/bnh/controller/home?O=&sku=838845&Q=&is=REG&A=details

If your monitor is good but finicky like when trying to adjust contols, they do work. I can't say if they work on cheap bargain basement panels though. I'm kind of thinking maybe not so much.

Andrea Costa said...

" I make sure my workspace is consistent and neutral."
I think THIS is the major factor. Even with an out-of-the-box calibratd Apple monitor, a working space painted in Kelly Green would give the same horrendous results. And in a neutral-colored space, even a 42in matte surface LG lcd tv connected with an hdmi cable to a pc can very easily and accurately calibrated to consistent results (in fact, it is the setup I'm currently using).
The working space factor is seldom considered...

gordon Cahill said...

Totally agree with the concept of having some sort of clour management in place. I'm always surprised how some photographers will spend a grand on a lens without blinking but cheap out on their screen.

I can't agree with the eyeball calibration thing though. While some people can calibrate by eye, the vast amjority just don't have the eyesight to do it. The human eye is so easy to fool, as your example of the green wall supports. Almost noone can actually pick a neutral grey.

I run both PC and Mac stsyems and have found that neither was accurate out of the box. My MacBook Pro had the brightest screen I think I've ever seen when new and is way too blue. I love my "puck". For me it's the best $200 I've spent on my digital photography.

Gordon

Chris Malcolm said...

Excellent article, Kirk! You're amazingly good at not being taken in by pseudo scientific bullshit, and very good at explaining why!

I've been looking into this business of arranging to have a well calibrated display without forking out a huge pile of money -- I'm a thrifty pensioner whose photography sales haven't yet covered the cost of the gear I use. It looks to me as though the cheapest way to get an excellently calibrated monitor at the moment is to buy the latest high end Apple tablet. I say "at the moment" because it shouldn't be long before an Android tablet display catches up. I'm basing that opinion on the detailed technical reviews of Dr Raymond M Soneira of DisplayMate Technologies.

http://www.displaymate.com/iPad_ShootOut_1.htm

I'd probably have bought one if I didn't have such a strong reluctance to buy into Apple's expensive walled garden of superlative toys. It's a philosophical thing.

I sometimes photograph the work of impecunious local artists and friends who want good color fidelity and can't afford a professional. For financial reasons all my monitors and computers are the cast offs of upgrading rich friends. I calibrate them by eye by photographing colorful things and then sitting the colorful thing beside the monitor under a good light such as window light from a white sky. I then check the print end of the chain by holding the print up against the colorful thing. A local printer gave me a color chart he uses to calibrate his printers which I photographed and got him to print.

For a really scary and humbling experience I suggest photographing flowers in your garden and then holding the print up against the flower. I was surprised to find how much the colors in my garden were tinted by the green lawn and nearby beige and ochre stone walls. Plus flowers are trying to impress bees whose color vision is far more sophisticated than ours. Intensely saturated, often partly fluorescent, and sometimes beyond the gamut of RGB reproducability.

The thing is that even the most perfect display money can buy is only perfect under some carefully crafted highly technical definition of "perfect", and then only if you use it in perfect conditions, e.g. in a white or grey walled room lit from window north light or a good xenon light source. In other words there's no such thing as a perfect monitor. So what we as photographers must do is to remember that we're doing our editing with imperfect tools under imperfect conditions. What you see is never going to be what you get.

So my color editing philosophy is now that editing color is like walking on thin ice. Move slowly and conservatively and keep testing. WYSINWYG.

Anonymous said...

I have made some progress on this since asking about this yesterday. I work at a company that has a dedicated graphics department. I had to do portraits of some of our people yesterday. Today I will be attempting to use the graphic's department's calibrated Mac monitors to compare with my lowly ACER that I have on my desk. I will get there, it just takes a little time and effort.

Thanks to everyone for their advise and comments!

Chuck

robert quiet photographer said...

Good article Kirk, in the right moment for me. I'm in the process to buy the new i.mac 27 and asking myself if the "glossy" display can give any trouble when working on photos (LR or CS). By the way actually I'm on a i.mac 24 (about 6 years old) with a matt display. After hearing so many words about the need of calibration I bought a Spyder device and used it: the final result was almost no difference compared to the Apple original standard. The only point I found important is to reduce at the minimum the brightness of the display. And of course as you say to work in an appropriate environment (for me is a room with white walls and shadow in it): Thanks for this post.
robert
PS: I know you are busy but if in future you could write something about your (or a suggsted) backup strategy it would be great, thanks.

Peter said...

I recently took a day course on profiling your monitor etc. given by a professional photographer. He told me that my Apply Cinema 23in. was no good for photography, and showed us his ultra high end (and price) monitor. He then performed a calibration, made a print and got it completely wrong. Most of the rest of the time was spent watching him try to figure out what was going wrong, which he never did. I learnt something that day, but not quite sure what.

Peter.

Anonymous said...

I wish there were a like button here like on facebook. I would "like" the above post!

Paul Crouse said...

I agree with Libby. This is the most sensible thing I have ever read on this issue. Thanks, Kirk. That is why I like reading your stuff.

Paul Crouse
Kyoto, Japan

PaddyC said...

I've been using an NEC MultiSync wide gamut display with hardware calibration for four-five years now. This monitor also has an adaptive back light to maintain even luminosity as the panel ages.

It's a killer monitor. Better then anything Apple puts out (I've been using Apple computers for years now). It wasn't cheap but then, as a graphic designer (and photo hobbyist), I'm spending an awful lot of time in front of it. Best hardware money I have ever spent. Period.

It's also dead-easy to profile. Hang the NEC puck, run the NEC software and, voila!, the monitor is calibrated. No rocket science required. It's never let me down.

But whatever allows you to get reliable, consistent, excellent results with a minimum of fuss is what's best.

John Krumm said...

As a home printer I do things a little differently, but it works out well, and I don't have a calibration tool yet. I "calibrated" my printing process to be consistent so that I know what I will get. With my monitor (HP laptop) this means dimming it down for Lightroom adjustments a couple clicks, then using the proof mode in Lightroom for Adobe rgb to get it ready for printing, and usually reducing saturation around 15 points on the slider compared to my usual "for the web" image. I print it "printer managed, Adobe rgb" using Q-image and get really good results (Epson Printer). The key was to experiment a bit and remember the process.

However, I do have a new iMac on order. If it is anything like the iMacs I work on at the school I teach at, saturation is higher, so images come out of the process less saturated compared to my laptop.

Kirk Tuck said...

I just deleted another comment from the same anonymous poster who seems to want to get into a contest about who knows what about monitors and calibration. I do the blog for fun. It's not competitive warfare. I was very clear in the intro to the article that I am not an "expert" in monitor calibration. I wrote the blog post about how "I" do my monitor calibration and selection. I never inferred or implied that my way was the "best practice" or most accurate method. What we seem to have here is a failure at reading comprehension and an attempt to be right at any cost. Please be aware that a well written rebuttal to my article, with no blantant rancor, would have been fine but a condescending, nasty romp at my expense isn't going to have much tenure here. If you, the kind reader, want to know the best practices of the art of monitor calibration then go consult an avowed expert. I've listed a couple. What you read here is just what was asked for, my method of working.

We're pretty transparent here. Sometimes we talk about the work I do and show samples. Telling me I can't possibly be professional without doing something exactly the way other people do is silly and meaningless. Everyone has their own methodology. If you don't like it and want to change the world, start your own blog dedicated to monitor calibration and the world may be your oyster.

Anonymous said...

The iPad screen is closer to hdtv than photos, not a good place to edit pictures.

Your correct that flowers have colors that a camera can't capture, the best camera shot Adobe 98 which is less color than we can see, sRGB where most commercial photo printers are is even smaller again. If you are sitting in sRGB the colour will always be approximate, this is OK if your not chasing fastidious color accuracy.

Anonymous said...

Especially when you consider how many people have color blindness or bias.

Anonymous said...

Make a copy of one of your portraits, convert it to greyscale so there is no color. Now view the picture on the monitors next to a black and white photo, it's the screen grey like the print or has it got some color bias? Often green or magenta, some Apple screens are a bit yellow.

The color bias can either be the screen or the environment, any large sheet of glass will show the color from the environment. Just like a lens, hoods can help.

Convert the pictures to sRGB approximately the same as the sole screens and apply the profile so on the web and printing the colour will be managed.