Digital photography has created a huge problem. Most of us no longer know what our photographs look like, because we aren’t using color-accurate display systems to view our photographs on screen.
Sure, most people think their systems are accurate, and expect their prints to match their monitor, until they hit a bump that tells them something is awry. In my experience running two photo labs and teaching photography, there are few photographers who have a rock-solid, color-accurate display solution in place. The best thing you can do is read on, and it will become readily apparent where you fall in this regard.
This problem exists because computers and displays aren’t accurate out of the box. They only are made to be accurate by YOU carefully selecting hardware and properly setting up your software.
Read that again and let it sink in. I know most people assume that they have a “good” system, but “good” does not mean accurate.
Color accuracy doesn’t happen by accident. It is only by an intentional application of hardware and software by the photographer that monitors display an image that could be called “accurate” by industry standards.
At Aspen Creek Photo, we most often see this when a photographers discovers that their expectations exceed the limitations of their equipment or their knowledge of color management and how to apply it successfully. This is a common occurrence in photography, and it’s how we grow in the craft. Making an expressive photograph is all about having a pre-visualized expectation…then learning how to achieve it.
Usually the discovery of expectations exceeding these limitations comes in the form of an email declaring, “My Prints are Dark!”
The good news is that obtaining accurate color from a monitor is an achievable goal. The catch is that you’ll probably have to make some purchases, buying the very specific equipment color accuracy requires.
When we run into issues that we suspect are calibration related we have a set of troubleshooting questions that quickly identify the areas that need corrective action.
▪ What is the system software (10.5, XP, Windows 7)?
▪ What photo editing software is being used?
▪ Monitor model number and brand?
▪ Calibration System (Eye-One, Spyder,etc)?
▪ Date of last calibration?
▪ Monitor Luminance Value?
▪ Monitor Whitepoint?
▪ Type of viewing light used to evaluate prints?
Answering these questions correctly will give you a color-accurate system…so let me give you the answer to each question.
System Software (10.5, XP, Windows 7):
This is a diagnostic question for the Aspen Creek staff to help understand a user’s setup, but it’s important because operating systems (OS) handle color management differently. I don’t care what OS you use, as long as you know how to make its color management work for you. I’m a 22-year Mac user, so I can only advise you on how it works on a Mac. For Mac users, you really don’t need to know much because the ICC workflow has been built into Macs for over a decade.
What you do need to know is where profiles go, where your monitor profile is stored, how to ensure that your OS is using that monitor profile to display images, and communicating that information to your photo editing programs
Photo Editing Software being used
If you are using a somewhat current version of Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture, this shouldn’t be an issue. If you are using different software, you’ll have to investigate to see if it works with ICC profiles, and if you need to do any setup to make it work properly.
Monitor model number and brand
Without a color-accurate monitor, forget about trusting your screen.
Sit in a room with candles for an hour and meditate on this fact until it sinks in.
Most monitors aren’t made for the needs of photographers to display images accurately. There is a simple way to tell if it is. Don’t look at price, brightness, millions of colors, or pixel resolution.
Color-Accurate displays are marketed by telling how much of AdobeRGB they display. Not sRGB, but AdobeRGB. If a monitor displays greater than 69% of AdobeRGB, it’s adequate for color-accurate work. If you go to your monitor’s specs on the manufacturer’s site and it mentions nothing about % of AdobeRGB, odds are you don’t have a color-accurate monitor.
Most color-accurate displays are going to cost you close to $1,000 and use IPS style LCD panels. NEC, LaCie, and EIZO are the big names in color-accurate displays, and most Apple LCDs are color-accurate too (although Apple doesn’t publish their % of AdobeRGB specs, which is strange, given how many professional photographers use their products).
NEC MultiSync LCD2690WUXi2
I’ve been using NEC displays for over 15 years, and they’ve earned my trust. Their SpectraView line of displays is great. Some people like the more expensive displays from LaCie and EIZO, but I’d don’t think the specs justify the added cost, nor do I think they would be meaningfully more accurate. I’m hesitant to pay more for a small improvement in AdobeRGB numbers. Side-by-side there is little visual difference between a 69% AdobeRGB monitor and a 97% AdobeRGB Monitor, and in printmaking, little practical difference. Only someone doing it every day would see it, and the benefit is very small, on very few photos. If you want to achieve more accuracy than the ~100% AdobeRGB that today’s displays reproduce, you are going to need to make hard proofs (actual prints).
(Just a note, sometimes you have to dig deep into the spec sheets to find the % of AdobeRGB information. One great NEC display didn’t show it on their website, but did in the PDF of their brochure. )
Calibration System (Eye-One, Spyder, Huey, Munki, etc)
To obtain accurate color you are going to need a calibration system with a puck
that measures your monitor, and software that creates an ICC profile. But not all systems are created equal. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly since I calibrated my first display in 1994. My recommendation is to use the i1 (or eye-one) series from X-Rite, specifically the i1Display 2 or greater. This is one area where I don’t want to be in doubt, and I want to be sure it works. Buy once and buy well. I’ve bought too many bad systems, and made inaccurate prints, to mess with a “bargain.”
Personally, I use one of the >$1,200 i1 setups that uses a spectrophotometer. Work bought it, or else I’d use the i1Display 2. X-Rite has earned my trust with this product, and it will take a lot to make me change.
Besides the hardware, you’ll have to know how the software works with your OS. On the Mac, i1 automatically sets the profiles you make as the system profile. With another OS or calibration package, you may need to do that manually. Yes, you have to read the manuals when seeking accurate color.
Date of Last Calibration
In my experience, a calibration can last a long time–even years, as long as there is not a severe physical change in the display. But, if you are having problems, re-calibrating is a good place to start. I wouldn’t re-calibrate more than once or twice a year. Doing it every month or two may cause you headaches because you may just get a different calibration than a more accurate one. Once you have a good calibration, stick with it so you can stay tuned into your display with your mental profile. Mental profiles are harder to recreate than ICC profiles.
Monitor Luminance Value
This is another big one. Calibrated displays should be much dimmer than a monitor out of the box. Specifically, we like our LCD displays at 90-100 Cd/M2. This is set in your calibration software, if it allows it (some bargain systems don’t, or you have to activate an “Expert” mode). Brighter than that, and it gives a false impression of tonal value. If it’s dimmer, it muddies the colors and shadow separation.
All you need to know here is D65 and you are all-systems-go. Set this in your calibration software. Don’t mess with the color settings in the OSD of your display.
Type of Viewing light Used to Evaluate Prints
If you’ve succeeded in everything right up to here, this is where it can all fall apart. To get your print to “match” your monitor, you have to view the print under color-accurate light. That means a high CRI rating (98 or better) and a color temperature of ~5000K. Normal incandescent bulbs won’t work because they are about 3200-3400K. Actuall sunlight isn’t good either — it’s a little too blue from the sky, and much too bright.
SoLux 4700K bulb for comparing prints to monitor.
What you need is a 4700K SoLux bulb that works in commonly-available light fixtures. For $20 you can achieve a more accurate solution than the expensive color viewing booths.
If you want to learn more on viewing lights, read my post “Choosing the right light for viewing your prints.”
If you’ve covered all of these bases, chances are you are seeing your photographs as accurately on screen as is currently possible. Of course, any time software and hardware is involved, there may be software errors or configuration errors…but those are usually rare.
If you haven’t covered all of your bases, then you should not trust your monitor, and you have a shopping list that will get you to a place where you can. It’s really as easy as that 99% of the time.
The biggest challenge most photographers face in achieving a color-accurate display is forgoing other accessories to invest in a good monitor and calibration system. But this is a false economy. A good monitor and display system can last for at least five years, in my experience, so a $1500 investment will cost you less than $1 a day. How much do print redos, or dissatisfaction with your work cost you?
I’ve learned the hard way (through experience) that there is no “close enough” monitor if I want my prints to “match” my screen. It’s either color-accurate or it’s not…so I choose to go color-accurate.