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Sound too good to be true? Well, maybe…

I’m not running a contest, but I can tell you how to see if you’ve won. If you have an Apple Cinema Display or an Apple iMac, you probably already have a color-accurate monitor.

Apple has a long history of offering top-grade monitors. In particular, their Cinema Displays and some of the large iMacs (24” and up) have been color accurate in the past. (We use a 23-inch cinema display at West Coast Imaging, and it’s a very accurate monitor.)

The problem is that Apple does not market these monitors as being color-accurate, like NEC/LaCie/Eizo does, by providing specs. Apple can change the displays at any time, so you don’t have absolute certainty of getting a color-accurate monitor. That makes a purchase of an Apple display as a color-accurate monitor a bit of a gamble, but at a practical level, you can usually win.

It works out even better if you already own or plan to buy an iMac, because the monitor is just part of the overall computer purchase price.

Even knowing this, I’m always hesitant to recommend buying an iMac for color accurate work because I don’t have the chance to test every model as they are released.

So, when one of the WCI staff members purchased a new 27” 3.2Ghz i3 iMac for personal use, I had him bring it in so we could compare it against our other color-accurate monitors.

We calibrated to a variety of white points from 5000k to 6500k and compared it to our  NEC-2690WUXi2 and a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display (both calibrated to 6500K.) We settled on a white point of 6200K for the iMac, as this gave the closest match to our other displays.

So how good was it? Pretty good. The higher end displays were more accurate, but the iMac was way better than some well regarded but not “color-accurate” monitors I’ve recently tested like the DELL U2410 or the NEC 231WMI-BK.

Where it fell short was in some of the reds, and subtle magentas.

So, was it good enough?

It depends on your use. If you already have an iMac or Cinema Display, and don’t have a color-accurate monitor, I’d recommend getting a monitor profiling kit like the i1 Display 2 and using it.

Based on my experience, most photographers are going to be more than happy with its level of accuracy.  And if you already have it, it’s a free equipment upgrade. Considering most people aren’t using a true color-accurate monitor, it’s a huge upgrade for the vast majority of photographers.

Now you might ask, Rich, would you use it?

Fair enough.

Well, I’ve been looking at color-accurate monitors for about 17 years, and I sweat color changes of one point in Photoshop’s color balance tool. In fact, I know I’ve got the right color balance when I go back and forth by one point and wish I could split the difference. (Actually there is a way, but at that point I’m within the repeatability of the output system so it doesn’t need half point accuracy.) I would see the difference between the iMac and my color-accurate monitor.

Having the extra color accuracy of a more accurate monitor helps me achieve greater accuracy, just like Iron Chef Morimoto’s $5,000 knives do for his cooking.  I’m still going to buy the higher-end displays.

Long story short, if your iMac or cinema display is your most accurate display, profile it and use it.

If you don’t have an iMac or cinema display, and need to buy a color-accurate monitor, look at the ~$340 NEC P221W or the ~$640 NEC PA231W that will give you more accuracy than the iMac I tested. Pros who make a living with their photos will find a highly accurate monitor is less than the cost of travel to most shoots.  And if you are a very serious amateur, it might be the upgrade that takes your printing to the next level.

So did you win a color-accurate monitor? Is there a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? You tell me.

One of the biggest misconceptions in color management is the belief that you calibrate your monitor and printer to match each other.

If  you think that’s how it works, you’re not alone.  And that belief will cause you problems and frustration at one point or another, if it hasn’t already.

Want to break through the misconception and learn how it really works? It’s not hard, it just requires a little under the hood knowledge of color management.

Let’s start with an example from music. Consider this: If a guitarist and a cellist were playing the same piece of music, would you expect the guitar to sound like the cello? No. We all know that the character of instruments is different, even if they are playing the same notes, so we don’t expect them to be the same. This is also how we should think (though, to a lesser degree) about monitors and prints.

The problem with the idea of making your monitor and printer “match” is that it forgets about the file itself…and the fact that the file is the most accurate representation of color.

Files, by their nature, are what contain the colors we want to reproduce. They are the most accurate representation, even though they record color in a numeric form our eyes can’t see. To see the colors, we need output devices, monitors and printers, which convert those numbers into a visual representation. To understand how they work together, we need to understand how colors are stored and translated.

Files contain the formula to actual colors, not just a vague definition of a color. A pixel value of 211R 0G 0B doesn’t just mean the 231st step of red above zero. It means a very specific color, as plotted in the spectrum as defined by a specific ICC profile.

The problem with monitors and printers is that they are each limited in the colors they can reproduce. This is constrained by things like gamuts (the range of colors they can create) and white points. When we measure and define the colors a device can produce, we have its colorspace, which can be described in a ICC profile.

The file almost always has more colors than the devices we use to display color. The way color management works is it uses these ICC profiles which describe a device’s colorspace to map the colors from the file’s colorspace into the device’s colorspace as accurately as possible.

Why?  Well, you can’t just feed a pixel value of 211R 0G 0B from the file into a printer or monitor and expect to get the right color red. In all likelihood, you’ll need to feed in an entirely different combination of RGB values to the output device in order to get the same exact color as defined by 211R 0G 0B in the file. The color profile contains the information that lets the computer translate color from one colorspace to another.

This is the important point. Color management IS NOT trying to make the monitor match the printer. Instead, it’s trying to make each device, independently of any other device, represent the file as accurately as it can, within its own limitations. The file is always the starting point; monitors and printers are just representations of the file.

The reason we see a “match” between profiled monitors and printers is this: When we make each device represent color as accurately as possible, if the two devices are similar enough, then those two devices often display the color in a similar manner…so similar that we can say we have a “match.”

This is what leads to the idea of the “match,” and that idea causes many photographers great frustration. When one of the devices is more accurate than the other (usually the print, because a good print is more accurate than any monitor), then the photographer sees a difference between the two, and no longer thinks they are “matching.” The usual response is to think something has gone wrong, because they are expecting a match.

Instead, the photographer should understand what color management does, and conclude that they are seeing the limitations of the device. You have to realize that devices like monitors do not represent the print 100% of the time so you can shatter the myth of the match.

Now, I’m not recommending you throw away your color-accurate monitor, but to understand and work with its limitations. A true color-accurate monitor that has been accurately profiled can produce an extremely good “match” to a print for a wide variety of photographic applications. But when it doesn’t, we should look at the print (printed with a proven ICC profile) as the most accurate representation. One would not expect a student violin to sound like a Stradivarius, would they? So, while our monitor may be good for many performances, we’ll need to pull out the Stradivarius (the print) for our most breathtaking music.

Color Management is called “management” not “matching” for a reason, and now you know why!

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)

i1Display2

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.

Monitor Whitepoint

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.”

Wrapup

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.

I love B&W prints. After practicing making B&W prints in the darkroom in my high school years. Seeing the beautiful tonal renditions it is capable of, then being drawn in by the prints of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, I have been hooked ever since. While many people prefer color photography because it looks more like the eye views a scene, that doesn’t bother me. B&W is fully capable of recording what our heart feels about a scene; the things that transcend measurable physical phenomena.

B&W is an important part of my personal expression, so it’s time we start talking about it on Crafting Photographs, and what better way to do it than with an EXAMPLES video!

This latest video is an overview of my basic techniques and approaches. It covers Photoshop work as well as issues with scanning and understanding how curves create tonal relationships. I hope it starts to demystify B&W printmaking for you!

 

One of the most common mistakes I see on workshops is students making lots of local changes, but ignoring the global changes. When they ask me how I would approach their photo, I typically get it right where they want it with basic global changes and a few local changes.

I’m convinced that making global changes first will have a huge impact on how you print your photographs. I’ve emphasized this in my latest video EXAMPLES – The Making of a Photograph: Mono Lake Sunrise.

In this photograph, it’s the global changes that do 95% of the work, with local changes that refine the photograph. It still needs local changes…but they are easy to make when the heavy lifting has been done by the global changes.

You’ll need to view it in HD to see the numbers in the info palette. Also, the color change I make at the end is very subtle, and it didn’t carry through in the video format, but it’s there in the real file.

Use the blog comments section to ask questions about this video and further the dialog on how and why I made the adjustments I did.

Thought of the Day

The fundamentals of photography haven’t changed since the first photograph was made, only the tools with which we achieve them.

Making Printing Simple

Big Sur Coast, California

I think any photographer can learn how to make creative adjustments to their photographs so the prints look the way they intend…and I think it’s actually an easy thing to do.

When I look at my printing methodology (which is the same approach we’ve used at West Coast Imaging for tens of thousands of photographs, and the same one I’ve taught to a few hundred students over the years), it looks really simple.

Like a lot of things, it takes a day (or three) to learn the basics, and a lifetime to master the art.

First you need to start with a well exposed photograph. 

This should be the goal every time you click the shutter. It’s a lot easier to make a great photograph from a well exposed original than it is from a poorly exposed image. You will simply get better results.

It’s OK to fix your mistakes, but the basis for your workflow should be to make good exposures, and learn the tools that work for good exposures.

Use basic tools in Photoshop

I’ve found that on well exposed photographs, I can do 99%ish of everything I need to do  with just curves, color balance, hue/saturation, and selective color when coupled with layer masks, the info palette to see the pixel values, and some smart sharpening. Throw in a RAW converter for digital camera files (but I’m a 4×5 film guy, so most of my “RAW” conversion happens on scanner).

Notice there there are a lot of things I don’t use. I don’t use levels, I don’t look at histograms, I don’t soft proof, I don’t look at gamut warnings. I use them so rarely that they are almost nonexistent in my workflow. If you like cooking with those pots and pans, that’s fine, but if you want to take my cooking class to see how I make things taste the way I do, you’ll have to put them on the shelf for a while because they are not part of how I cook. I’ve have a lot of tools and ingredients on the shelf, and I have no problem using them when appropriate, but I really think you can do most of what you need with the simple tools I listed above.

Once you have the right tools, then you have to learn to use them properly. Even the best tool in the world can mess things up when used for the wrong application. Ever try to use a table knife for a screwdriver? I thought so:) Like you, I’ve got the bent table knives and damaged screws to prove I used the wrong tool.

Using the right tools properly is part of what I’m trying to show in the EXAMPLES video I just made. Making a beautiful print can be as simple as a few layers. You can do a lot with a few simple moves. But that’s where the challenge comes in: You have to practice those simple moves over and over again so that you can work on instinct. There is a reason Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid had Daniel-san practice “Wax on, Wax off” so many times, and there is a reason every great athlete practices endlessly to get the perfect golf swing, the perfect basketball pass, the perfect swimming stroke. Practice is about developing good habits and eliminating bad ones. Photography is the same way, so you have to practice good habits if you want to be a master and not a hack.

Printing really can be easy. It just takes using the right tools, and lots of practice.  I’ll keep posting to show you how, if you keep reading.

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