David Saffir: Frequently Asked Questions About Display Calibration from Photoshop World West 2012
Sep 2012 18

I recently spent several days working with photographers on color management issues at Photoshop World West in Las Vegas, I thought it would be a good idea to pick a few of the most frequently heard issues and try to address them here:

Why should I calibrate my display?

Every display that I have ever unpacked and installed was set up poorly for photography, right out of the box. They all seem to be set at the factory for a brightly lit office environment, more for word processing than image editing. The screens are very cool (blue), and very bright.

This “fresh from the box” condition can be very frustrating for photographers. First, you’ve got very little chance of seeing correct color. Second, the brightness and contrast settings kill shadow and highlight detail, and often flatten out mid-tone transitions.

Calibrating a new, or nearly new display, will bring the performance of the device in line with requirements for photography, giving you rich but not over-saturated color, accurate, neutral grays, good mid-tones, and realistic shadows and highlights. Last but not least, a correctly calibrated display, coupled with a well-controlled printer, will give you a good screen to print match.

An older display also needs periodic calibration. As the display ages, the backlight changes, and color begins to shift. Monthly calibration should bring the display back into line. If display calibration fails, you may need a new display!

Does my laptop need also calibration?

Yes. Although laptop displays are not as capable as better quality desktop units, you can still benefit from more accurate color and luminance control. And, don’t you want the color you see on your laptop to be close to, or match, the color you see on your desktop computer?

And while we’re discussing mobile devices: you can calibrate your iPhone or iPad using your Spyder4 and the SpyderGALLERY App!

How should I set up the lighting in my studio for image editing?

Indirect, low level, color balanced lighting is best. Your display should be the brightest light source in the room. If you are using artificial lighting in the same room or workspace, place it behind you and off to the side, to minimize reflections and distractions as you work. Cover a bright window with a “blackout” curtain or window shade. This image shows a working environment that is far from ideal (note the bright light from the window at right):

How long will my display last and provide good color?

Modern flat screen displays should last at least three years, and in many cases up to five years. Here’s a tip: turn the display power off when you are not using it. Many people leave it on overnight, kind of like a night light. Give it a break, and let it rest a bit. And, let it warm up at least 30 minutes before you begin any color critical work.

The older a display becomes, generally speaking, the more frequently it will need re-calibration.

How do I get a good screen to print match?

First, calibrate your display. Start by using the default settings in the Spyder4PRO or Elite software for color temperature, gamma, and luminance (brightness). (Here’s the corresponding screen from the Spyder4ELITE software)

Next, at minimum you will want to print using application managed color, not printer managed color. This means that you’ll use a paper profile to control the printer. (Of course, you’ll use the paper profile that is matched to the exact paper and printer you are using).  Here’s a screen from CS6 that shows you what this should look like (note the red outline.)

Last, try to view your print using a color-balanced light source, such as a professional viewing box – or use a daylight-balanced desk lamp such as those sold by Solux.

The most common complaint regarding screen to print match? “My prints look too dark”. This means your screen settings are too bright – tone down the screen by recalibrating to a lower brightness level.

How do I calibrate my projector?

I’ve always found that projector color is marginal, or just plain awful. Spyder4 Elite can be used to calibrate your projector quickly and easily. The process is, in many ways, similar to display calibration – and a calibrated projector will show your work at its best!

To wrap up: Display calibration is easy, efficient, and effective, and will give you the best results possible from your equipment during image editing and related activities.

David Saffir is a commercial and fine art photographer and printmaker, located in Southern California, and a well-known speaker at workshops and conferences across the US.