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Digital Darkroom, General Stuff

Monitor Calibration: Using a Spyder4Pro


Monitor CalibrationHello, everyone. Welcome to another rather important topic that I feel I must write about, one that I find often overlooked by new (and even more experienced) photographers: monitor calibration

What is this morning calibration thing all about? Is it that important? Should we all calibrate our screens?Well, that’s what I’ll be discussing today. To begin with, I’ll talk about what monitor calibration (screen calibration, display calibration, whatever you call it) is, and why it’s so very critical, before moving on to a couple of different methods of calibrating your screen, including the use of the Spyder4Pro calibration device, and then figuring out a way of ending the article without dragging on too long! Alright then

What is Monitor Calibration?

To put it as simply as I can, monitor calibration is the process of adjusting your display’s settings to ensure its output matches a known standard. This involves the adjusting of white points and black points and gamma curves and brightness and whatnot, but nevermind all those complicated bits – it’s beyond the scope of this post. All you need to know is that the purpose of calibrating your monitor is to make sure what you see on your computer’s screen is accurate! Calibration guarantees that the image that you see on your screen is truly how it is! By calibrating your screen to a known standard, you can rest assured that what you see on your screen is 100% accurate

Why is Monitor Calibration So Important?

Yeah, it’s no use just knowing what the process of screen calibration does if, not knowing the importance of it, you don’t actually do it. So let me try to break it down for you

Monitor calibration is HUGELY important. I can’t stress this fact enough. In my previous posts, I mentioned the critical trio of exposure/composition/focus as the most important when shooting your picture, right? Well, monitor calibration is just as important as those three in your post processing work

Why? Because no two monitors will display an output the same! Not even two of the same brand or model. Due to various settings (like the ones I mentioned above) being slightly differently on each display, what you see on one screen can look slightly or even drastically different to what you see on another. Colors could look different. Contrast and color saturation could look different. One screen could portray the image looking really good, while the other might make it look rather average or even bad. And which one is correct? There’s no way of knowing! If neither is calibrated, they’re probably both inaccurate, and therefore both wrong, and you will find that out when you PRINT your image, and find your resulting print looking quite different to the image you thought you saw on both these screens. Are you seeing the importance of having an accurately calibrated monitor now? This, unfortunately, is what happens with most people and their monitors today

Calibrating your display to a standard will make sure that what you see is truly accurate, and therefore will be what you get when you print your image. However, calibration is not only important for those of you who regularly print their images. Agreed, having a calibrated screen is of absolute importance when printing your images, which allows you to preview your print accurately on-screen before you actually print – although ideally, you need to ensure the printer is calibrated too, and that’s a whole new story – but it is equally critical when you simply want to view your images on your computer, and edit them using Photoshop or Lightroom or Aperture or whatever. Because when you view your photos on a calibrated screen, you know that the picture you’re seeing on your screen is how it really is. You will know if they need to be edited – if they need a bit of a bump in contrast, saturation, a white balance adjustment – or if they just need to be left alone. You will know what they truly look like after editing. And you know that if, some day, you decide to make prints, there will be no nasty surprises and your printed image will look exactly the same as the one on your screen did. And if someone sees your shot on their screen and complains that they find it too contrasty or too flat or whatever, you can smugly say “no, it looks fine on my calibrated screen!” (unless you actually screwed up and it really IS too flat or contrasty!). It’s all about accuracy, and this is something you really, really need

When viewing other people’s images too, having a properly calibrated screen means you’re seeing a true version of the image that you’re viewing. If it was taken by a professional photographer, it is very likely that he/she used a calibrated screen while editing, and therefore you would be seeing exactly what the photographer meant for you to see. And if you find some point that you’d like to critique – maybe a slightly incorrect white balance –  you can do so with confidence, knowing fully well that this error is not caused by your screen! By using an accurate display yourself, you can better appreciate the hard work of your fellow artists, and even help them improve

You wouldn’t realize how inaccurate your screen’s display really is until you calibrate. I was genuinely shocked when I saw a before/after version after I first calibrated my MacBook with a Spyder4Pro device (more on that later); turns out my LCD had a rather severe blue cast that you can’t blame me for noticing when using the same screen day in and day out and having little to compare it with. I had to go back and re-edit all of my archived images! It’s to avoid this sort of inconvenience that I urge all you beginners to start off with a calibrated display. Start with a good, calibrated monitor, so you don’t need to shoot for a couple of years, then realize then importance of calibration and find yourself having to re-do all your thousands of shots, because none of them look as they did on your uncalibrated monitor

Of course, the quality of screen you have will help too – specialized LCD panels are much better than a laptop’s screen in general, and some types of LCDs are better than others – but no matter what you use, calibration is important. So get the best screen you can afford, and calibrate it. Consider it as important as getting a good camera and lens – or at least second in line!

How to Calibrate Your Monitor

There are basically two ways of calibrating your display: calibration via hardware and calibration via software. I’ll quickly go through both, and talk pros and cons and what they do and what they don’t – the usual – before going through each in detail afterwards

Oh, and I think this is a good place to point out that monitors tend to ‘de-calibrate’ themselves after a while; so, either using hardware or software, you definitely should recalibrate your display at least once a month!

Alright, getting that out of the way, let’s get down to the details

Software calibration: Applications that calibrate your display can be free or paid, but even the paid versions are much cheaper than hardware. And that’s the single benefit of software calibration: price. How do they work? If you’ve ever used the Color Management tools in Windows 7 or the Display Calibration Assistant in OS X, you know what software calibration is. Quite simply, software will calibrate your monitor by displaying various guides on-screen, and then adjusting the various settings based on what you see and how you respond to what you see. For example, it’ll show you a screen of different boxes, each with a different shade of white, and ask you to adjust a slider until you can see a clear difference between two particular boxes. Because it involves the human factor – the human eye sees the screen’s output differently in various lighting conditions and so on – software calibration is not very accurate. And since there’s no way of matching this output to a standard with just your eyes, you’re not truly calibrating it at all. However, it is obviously better to use software than to not calibrate at all, so if you want to keep things free, this is a good place to start

Being built in to your operating system, the easiest option for you would be to use the calibration tools in your system – Windows or OS X both have pretty decent software calibration options. For Windows users, look under Control Panel/Color Management and open the Advanced tab. Here, you will see a “Calibrate Display” button on the bottom. If you’re a Mac user, go to System Preferences and open Displays. Click on the Color tab, and select Calibrate. I believe OS X will prompt you to calibrate your screen while setting up your new MacBook

For more software options, I’ve found a couple of decent alternatives to the built-in ones. These include:

  • QuickGamma (free, Windows only)
  • Calibrize (free, Windows only)
  • SuperCal (paid, OS X only)
  • CalibrationAider (free, Windows, OS X, Linux)

Again, I emphasize the fact that, as your eyes can be affected by a lot of external factors that have nothing to do with the monitor itself, and as you have no standard to go by, calibrating via software is not accurate. It’s fine if you’re just a hobbyist who wants a slightly more accurate display and is not too worried about total color accuracy; but if you’re an amateur photographer, and you want to improve, and you want to create good shots and you want to make it in the photography world, you definite don’t want to use the software method

Hardware Calibration: This is what you want! It is some form of hardware calibration that all professionals use to get the best from the display, and if you’re serious about photography, this is what you want too. How do these work? Well, although known as hardware calibrators, these are actually a combination of both software and hardware. The software part is pretty much the same as what I described in the earlier section, but the hardware part is where it becomes interesting. The hardware, a device known as a colorimeter, connects via USB to your computer, and is placed on your screen – see images in the sections below – which then reads the various outputs displayed by its software counterpart and, based on what it reads, adjusts your monitor settings until it confirms that what your screen displays is 100% accurate. Makes sense? Hope so!

The hardware bit, the colorimeter, does the same job as you do in the software calibration method. It basically replaces your rather inaccurate eye with its own, super-accurate sensor, that can detect the screen output without any error, and set the screen accordingly

I use the awesome Datacolor Spyder4Pro screen calibrator, and I highly recommend it. It costs around $159. DataColor has two other options as well, the Spyder4Elite and the Spyder4Express, but I find the Spyder4Pro perfect for most people, including myself! The Elite is more expensive, and comes with a few more features and calibration options, so if you can afford it, go for it…but I urge you to avoid the Express, as it’s too basic and limited. If you’re going for a Spyder, get the Pro or Elite. The Spyder also works with a free iOS app by Datacolor, called the Spyder Gallery, which uses the colorimeter to calibrate your iOS device. Unfortunately, this app can only control the display output within the app itself, and not throughout the system, meaning if you want to view accurate images on your iPad or iPhone, you have to view them through the Spyder Gallery app, and not through 500px or Facebook or your Photos app. However, you can access all your iPhone/iPad’s photos, as well as connect to Facebook etc. through Spyder Gallery, so you can’t really call it limited…and I think it’s a very cool little feature

There are quite a few other hardware calibration systems out there too, but the only one I can firmly recommend other than the Spyder is the X-Rite Colormunki. It costs around the same as the Spyder4Pro and does a similar job too, and in addition, it allows you to calibrate your photo printer

Monitor Calibration Devices on Amazon

Monitor Calibration Devices on B&H Photo

If you want to get either of these, as you know, buying from links I post on my blog helps me a lot, so use these links if you’re buying. Thanks!

So yeah, that’s hardware calibration. It’s accurate, it’s fast, it’s super easy.  It’s just better. If you can afford it, this is what you should do. And seriously – after spending $2000 on your DSLR and lenses, I think you can afford another $150 for something this important!

Hardware vs. Software Calibration

Well, you know the hardware method is superior in every way. The only question is the cost – at least $150 for a good one. However, I think you would find that money to be very well spent if you do, and I have no hesitation in recommending any of the above mentioned hardware systems to you

But just to give you absolutely clear idea, know that if you’re an aspiring photographer, really keen about the quality of your images, and often printing images, hardware calibration is a must. On the other hand, if you just shooting random pictures as a hobby or if you’re just interested in making snapshots as memories, you probably wouldn’t need perfect calibration, and the software method should do fine. As always, it depends on what you want

Calibrating Your Monitor Using Software

Alright, let’s assume you decided to check out software calibration before dumping the big bucks on hardware. Fair enough

Software calibration is pretty simple. You just need to go through these preparatory steps, then fire up the software, and follow the on-screen instructions. Alright, before you start:

  • Reset your monitor to default settings (only if you have external display controls on your monitor) and remove all other calibration apps
  • Turn on your display for at least 30 minutes to warm up
  • Set your screen resolution to maximum
  • Make sure there’s no direct light falling on your screen. Ideally, you should be in a fairly dark room with no direct light sources when calibrating
  • Adjust screen brightness to a level that is comfortable for you in that environment

NOTE: These same preparatory steps apply when calibrating via hardware too

Alright, once all that’s done, load your application and follow the on-screen instructions. Some may advise you to do the stuff I’ve listed above, and some might not – either way, do all that I mentioned here, and then continue

Here, I’m going to briefly discuss how the OS X Display Calibration Assistant works, as it’s the only software one I currently have on my computer! Others will work pretty similarly, and I’m sure you can figure it out if you use another app

The first part is a series of five steps to ‘determine the display’s native luminance response curves’, whatever that means! Basically, in each of these five steps, you play around with sliders, trying to manipulate the little Apple image in the center, according to the instructions i.e. you’re trying to match the brightness of the Apple shape with the background, or trying to make the Apple shape neutral compared to the background. Try doing it, it’s not as weird as it sounds. The first two pictures above are two out of these five steps

Next up, you set your target Gamma setting by looking at a sample image, as shown in the third image above. This is to get the optimum contrast for your display. Here, you completely rely on your eyes, and your idea of optimum contrast. There’s no real guide whatsoever

Lastly, you set your white point, as the last image above shows. This is basically white balance. They recommend using your display’s Native White Point, and as it can be really messy to manually adjust these, I too recommend leaving it at that

And that’s it. The software will save your settings as a color profile, and load it every time you boot up your computer, so whatever you see on your screen is based on this profile. Unfortunately, unless you’re really good at this, and your eyes are superhuman, this color profile will never be perfectly accurate

Calibrating Your Monitor Using Spyder4Pro

Looking for the perfect color profile? Enter hardware calibration! Here’s how you get a perfectly calibrated screen using Spyder4Pro, my screen calibrator of choice

I thought of making a review on it, but there really wouldn’t be a lot to write about so I’ll say it all here: the Spyder4Pro does the job beautifully, and keeps things really easy. It seems to be built pretty well too, and for something that really doesn’t need to take a beating, it seems solid enough. It’s an industry standard, so its performance is unquestionable, but to put aside any doubt, I compared a print that I made (using a lab’s calibrated printer) with the image on my screen and noticed they look perfectly alike. Proof that my screen is well calibrated. Spyder rocks!

Alright, just like when calibrating using software, follow the preparation steps:

  • Reset your monitor to default settings (only if you have external display controls on your monitor) and remove all other calibration apps
  • Turn on your display for at least 30 minutes to warm up
  • Set your screen resolution to maximum
  • Make sure there’s no light falling on your screen. In fact, use your screen in a fairly dark room with no direct light sources when calibrating
  • Adjust screen brightness to a level that is comfortable for you in that environment

NOTE: I’ve described the use of the Spyder system, but it should apply to all other hardware systems such as the Colormunki too

Once all that’s done, you can go ahead and plug in your Spyder via USB, and open up the Spyder4Pro app. The first page of this app will tell you to follow the prep steps that I outlined above, and since all that’s done, you can continue

Spyder4Pro Software

Clicking next will bring you to another window. The first time you calibrate using this software, you will see the first page that I’ve displayed below, where you will be prompted to select four settings. I suggest leaving all of them at their default, recommended values. In the future, you will be shown the second page I’ve displayed below, where you can opt for a recalibration using the same settings, a full calibration using the same settings, or a full calibration with new settings

Spyder4Pro Software

Choose FullCAL the first time, and click next, which will bring you to the Place the Sensor screen – the first screenshot below – which is a visual guide that tells you where to place your colorimeter on your display. Place it there, as shown in the second screenshot below, and click next

Spyder4Pro Software

 

After that, your screen will start flashing all sorts of colors and different shades of grey as the Spyder starts reading your display and calibrating it as necessary. It should take around 3-5min the first time, and less than that when recalibrating

The Spyder4Pro Software doing its thing

The Spyder4Pro Software doing its thing. The display goes into many different colors – by chance, I happened to capture the most boring ones!

And that’s it. Once you’re done, you will be prompted to name and save your new color profile – and that’s it. Set a reminder for you to recalibrate – I calibrate mine every 2 weeks, but you can safely set yours to remind you every 30 days – and you’re done!

Calibration Done!

Calibration Done!

Like with software calibration, the Spyder4Pro software saves your settings as a color profile, and loads it every time you boot your computer. I’ve been using Spyders for a while now, and it’s never let me down!

Yes, and that’s what monitor calibration is all about. I hope I was able to drive in the importance of using a good, calibrated monitor for all your digital photography work. In summary, monitor calibration is a critical part of your workflow. By calibrating your screen, you make sure that what you see is 100% accurate in terms of color, contrast, saturation, white balance, and all that – allowing you to view and process your images knowing fully well that what you see is truly what your image looks like. Of course, when you share your pictures online, you can’t control other people and their screens, so they might not see exactly what you see…but at least you’ve done your part, and your original picture is truly just like how you want it. And all photographers and other digital artists out there, with their own calibrated screens, will be able to fully appreciate what you’ve done


On top of all that, of course, having your screen calibrated greatly helps when printing your images. As your screen now displays a truly accurate picture, you can rest assured that what you print will look exactly like what you see on your display. If you own a high quality photo printer, and you seriously want to be 100% sure of both screen and printer output being the same, you need to calibrate both your screen AND your printer – printer calibration being a whole new topic, I won’t be covering it here today – but in general, your printer’s default color profile should match your screen’s closely enough for most people’s requirements. Printing at a lab, with their calibrated printers, should be fine too

NOTE: The Colormunki system calibrates both your screen and your printer, so if you’re serious about your own photo printer being as accurate as possible, this would be a better option than the Spyder

Monitor Calibration Devices on Amazon

Monitor Calibration Devices on B&H Photo

And with that, I’m done for today. Get out there and get yourself a Spyder4Pro – in fact, stay where you are and just click on a couple of the above links, which would be much better for me – and go calibrate your screen. Alright then. Until next time

Did you know that I’m currently working on this site full-time? Please consider making a small donation if you can – thank you!

By Heshan Jayakody
All content in this post is my own
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Discussion

25 Responses to “Monitor Calibration: Using a Spyder4Pro”

  1. ah, very interesting read. i knew something about monitor calibration, but this really opened my eyes. so you recommend a spyder device, then? it’s not like we’re spoilt for choice, in this area, as for this price i can only find the spyder and colormunki – but you seem to be satisfied with it

    thanks for sharing this very useful information here. really opened my eyes!

    Posted by Jas | April 13, 2013, 10:18
    • The Spyder is definitely something I’d recommend. It just works easily, and does the job very well. At around $149, it’s one of the most reasonable too. However, I hear good things about the Colormunki too, which does a similar job, and allows printer calibration too, which you can’t do with the Spyder. But to avoid confusing people who are trying to make a decision, I’d just say go for the Spyder. I have personal experience with it – I recommend it!

      And I’m glad you found this post helpful!

      Posted by pixelogist | April 13, 2013, 10:26
  2. Oh, this post was so useful! I really learned a lot here! I have a Dell LCD panel…would I really see such a noticeable difference if I calibrate it with a Spyder or something? And is there any monitor that can be considered accurate straight out of the box? Thanks for this great post!

    Posted by Milton | April 15, 2013, 23:12
    • Glad to have helped! You would definitely notice a difference when you calibrate your monitor for the first time. How much of a difference depends on a lot of things, but if you’ve never calibrated before, you’ll see some sort of change, I assure you

      To answer your second question, you can get the most expensive LCD panel money can buy, but I’d still advise you to use some calibration system to calibrate it. Some claim to be calibrated right out of the box, but who knows? Besides, like I said, monitors tend to ‘lose’ calibration as they are used, and I recommend recalibration every month, at least – so even if a monitor comes pre-calibrated, use it for a month or so and you should think about calibrating again!

      Posted by pixelogist | April 16, 2013, 06:29
  3. Thanks for sharing this great info! I never knew this was so important, really. After reading this post and then researching a bit more, it seems really obvious!

    Posted by Alwin | April 16, 2013, 05:43
    • You’re welcome, Alwin :) Yes, it’s not the most common advice that you’d get when you learn the basics of digital photography, but I think it’s super important to know about the value of using a calibrated monitor, right from the beginning

      Posted by pixelogist | April 16, 2013, 06:34
  4. I never knew this sort of thing existed, really! Thanks for opening my eyes. Now I’m starting to wonder if all my shots are really different to what I’ve been seeing. I don’t make prints often, so I don’t know. It really makes sense; I’ve been shooting for around 4 years now, I hope I don’t have to go and re-do all my photos. I’ve shared them around a lot online too :(

    Posted by Jan | April 20, 2013, 08:24
    • Glad to help, Jan :) Yeah, I was shooting for a couple of years before I realized that this sort of thing existed too. And while I did notice a difference in my photos, luckily for me they all tended to look a bit BETTER than what I was seeing on my uncalibrated screen, so that was a very pleasant surprise. However, a few did need to be re-edited after viewing it on a calibrated monitor. Let’s hope you find yourself in a similar situation – but you really should get your screen calibrated!

      Posted by pixelogist | April 20, 2013, 10:33
  5. I recently discovered this post, and actually went out and got myself a Spyder4Pro after reading some reviwes – including this one. I just thought i’d stop by and say how much of a difference I noticed! Many of my pictures needed to be re-edited, unfortunately, but now i have peace of mind knowing that I can see my images like they truly are!

    Posted by Tomas | April 30, 2013, 10:33
  6. Ooh nice post!! A topic that has greatly intrigued me recently, this topic about screen calibration. I really didn’t know what to make of it. First, I guessed it was just some sort of gimmick – I mean how wrong could my monitor show my colors and whatever, right? Then the more I read about it, and the more I saw in comparisons, and the more I learned about what actually happens inside a screen, I was stunned! Seeing my friends’ screen before and after, and now my own, I really see why it’s considered so important. Not that I need to give any more recommendation to this as you’ve done a great job explaining it, but I’m at least going to add a big +1 to what you said!!

    Posted by Cathy | May 1, 2013, 15:41
    • Thanks Cathy :) Great to hear your thoughts. I too went through a similar process some time ago – moving from scornful doubt to utter disbelief as I researched more on the topic. Haha. Glad to hear you’ve got your screens calibrated now! And thanks for stopping by to tell us the story!

      Posted by pixelogist | May 1, 2013, 16:01
  7. Absolutely, a vital bit of gear. If you shoot digital, you need to use a calibrated screen. I mean, what do recording musicians use to listen to their album before releasing it? Apple Earpods or high quality headphones/speakers? Right? It’s the same thing for photographers! Lol

    Posted by Eric | May 8, 2013, 15:27
    • Great comparison there! It’s exactly that – every artist needs to preview their work in the most accurate form possible, and in the case of music and photography, this requires some certain gear. A painter doesn’t need anything additional – he just uses his eyes – but a photographer needs a calibrated screen

      Posted by pixelogist | May 8, 2013, 18:10
  8. You’ve convinced me! I’m getting a spyder4pro tonight! Thanks, pixelogist

    Posted by Yan | May 10, 2013, 16:27
  9. I just got my Spyder after reading your post, and goodness, there is a major difference! Some of my pictures look terrible, afterwards. Omg why didn’t I do this earlier?! No wonder people think my photos suck!

    Posted by Ana | June 24, 2013, 07:17
    • Haha yeah.. it can be quite astounding to see the inaccuracies that you’ve been living with. Sorry to hear your photos look worse than before – that’s not always the case

      Posted by pixelogist | June 24, 2013, 09:47
  10. That was an extremely interesting read! Thanks for sharing this. I had no idea about screen calibration or anything of the sort. Wow

    Posted by JJ | July 17, 2013, 16:22
    • You’re not alone in not knowing much about screen calibration! But it’s such an important part of photography that it’s a shame many people don’t even know it exists, if you know what I mean. I hope you’re thinking about calibrating your display now!

      Posted by pixelogist | July 18, 2013, 07:23
  11. Thank you for your review. Does the Spyder 4 pro adjust the brightness of the screen to it’s optimum setting or does it leave it at the setting that you set manually at the beginning of the process?

    Posted by Lester Kwok | November 12, 2013, 13:55
    • Cheers :) When calibrating your screen, the software lets you choose between Native brightness – where you set the brightness to a level you’re comfortable with – or it uses the sensor to detect ambient light, and gives you a recommended brightness setting.

      I usually calibrate my screen in a dark room, with no external light falling on the screen, as recommended. And in this case, I prefer to set my own brightness level, as I feel it is a personal thing, and I feel I like to have control over this. My eyes are rather sensitive too! But people disagree over this: some say automatic brightness settings from the sensor is best, while some like myself prefer to do it manually. Either way, brightness is a very important part of an accurate monitor

      Thanks for stopping by! :)

      Posted by pixelogist | November 12, 2013, 16:39
  12. I bought the Spyder4 pro and have spent an entire day trying to get my monitors calibrated. I have dual displays and even though I calibrated them both, one monitor comes out greenish and the other one red. This is a major problem because on one screen the skin tones look yellow and on the other screen everyone looks badly sunburnt. I don’t know which one is correct. It also makes me question the accuracy of the Spyder at all. I did download another program called dispcalGUI which has done a better job so far (only done the reddish monitor). It does take 3.5 hours which is a long time.

    Posted by Karen | February 10, 2014, 17:03
    • I’m sorry to hear that. Sounds like both monitors were not calibrated properly? This might sound obvious, but have you tried re-calibrating both again? I haven’t worked on calibrating dual displays, so I can’t be more specific on this – but I think a re-calibration should work. It took me two attempts to get it right too, the first time

      The Spyder is very accurate, and unless you got a faulty product, you should get it right after another attempt. If not, I suggest you return the Spyder and get a new one. I’m not sure about the other program you’re using so I can’t recommend it

      Let me know how it goes :) Good luck

      Posted by pixelogist | February 10, 2014, 17:24

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