This article was originally written for photographer members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and deals with why it is important to view images on a calibrated system, images destined for publishers. Much of what is here, though, applies to home users too, especially if you're serious about making prints.
Computer Monitor Color Calibration - Why?
It used to be that you and your prospective client saw the same image. You sent an editor the transparency, and unless one of you was colorblind, you both saw the same thing.
Not anymore. Digital imaging (whether scanned from film or shot digitally) is here to stay, and maintaining color consistency throughout the chain is critical. While you canít control your editorís computer equipment, it is a safe bet that professional publishers use carefully color-calibrated equipment. But most of us photographers do not.
Every computer monitor displays images differently. If your monitor isnít calibrated, you have no idea what an image looks like. Bring the image into Adobe Photoshop, tweak it and you may end up with something that looks good to you but appears bizarre to a publisher.
What to do? Thereís only one real way to accurately calibrate a monitor, and thatís with a physical device that reads your monitorís colors and resets them for you. Although several are on the market, the best ones Iíve seen are those manufactured by Datacolor. I'm currently using their Spyder3 Elite. They also offer a couple of lesser expensive options. Which one is best for you depends upon your needs, and the best thing I can recommend is to visit their website and compare the products. They have several videos that will show you how truly easy it is to calibrate your monitor.
As you might guess, these devices look like spiders and connect to your computer via USB port. Simply install its software, lower your office lights, hang the device over the front of your monitor and, in about five minutes, your monitor will be accurately calibrated. For consistency, monitors should be recalibrated monthly. I found Datacolor's products easy to use, and when I had questions, their tech support was excellent.
Calibrating your monitor will change the way everything looks. In general, images viewed on your computer, including your desktop, will appear a bit darker. It takes a bit of getting used to. BUT...the real key here is that when you use programs such as Adobe Photoshop or other products that allow you to select a working color space or monitor profile, you will see your images as they truly look. Such programs are are designed to use color management, and automatically default to the monitor profile created by your Spyder.
Many of today's editing programs, and even the software that comes with your camera, will allow you to select a color space. If you use several programs during your work flow, it is important that they all be set to the same color space so that you retain consistency through the work flow.
One downfall of Windows itself is that it isn't a color managed program -- it should be, but isn't. That means that if you use Windows Explorer to view thumbnails of your images, or open them in Windows Fax and Image Viewer (both of which I do often), you're NOT seeing your images in a color managed space. Not a real big deal if this is just a minor step in your process, but you should keep it in mind, and make sure your final edit is done in a program that does show the true colors.
A very good substitute for the Windows thumbnail/Image Viewer or Photoshop's Bridge is BreezeBrowser Pro by Breeze Systems. Although designed as a tool for viewing RAW files, it also allows you to view JPEG images (believe it or not, not all RAW processing programs do view JPEGs, which has never made sense to me), IN A COLOR MANAGED SPACE! That means even your thumbnails will be color managed (if you want -- it's an option in the program). It is a great program for several other reasons, too, and if you're looking for a better program than that which came with your camera for processing RAW and JPEG images, check it out at Breeze Systems.
Calibrating your monitor ensures that youíre seeing your images as they truly look. It is the first and critical step in preserving color management throughout the chain.