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?