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When I am talking to people about printing digital images, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Is that the way your photo looked on your computer screen?” My answer is always Yes, of course, which then follows with another question from them, “How come I can’t get my prints to match my screen.” My answer? Well, the answer has two parts – only one of which this article will address: having a properly calibrated & profiled computer monitor.
It is nearly impossible, not to mention a waste of time to attempt to calibrate a monitor by trial and error. Not only are you wasting paper & ink making print after print, but you really don’t have a definite reference point for the basis of your calibration decisions. The only way to properly calibrate a computer display is with a piece of hardware called a colorimeter. There are two major companies who manufacture these devices: Datacolor (formerly Colorvision) and Gretag MacBeth (now owned by X-Rite). I have tested and used both for my personal color-management setup, but I have decided to stick with the Datacolor product due to its more user-friendly software interface and the impercetible ‘advantage’ of the three times as expensive X-Rite product. Additionally, the Datacolor Spyder3 includes a calibration test for gray tones (for black & white image tonality) and the X-Rite does not.
The act of running a monitor calibration allows the colorimeter to reference known color (and in some cases grayscale) values and detect how the monitor is displaying them. To whatever degree the monitor is displaying them incorrectly, the hardware instructs the software to make a correction in the appropriate direction and to what degree in order for that ‘known value’ to be displayed by the monitor. Some colorimeter units, including the the Datacolor Spyder3 will measure the ambient room lighting and take into consideration how it might effect the ability of the monitor to accurately display color. The units that measure room lighting also have an option to be mounted on your computer desktop and measure the ambient light at regular intervals so it can make whatever adjustments necessary as the light might change throughout the course of the day.
The software for the Spyder3 is extremely user friendly. The initial calibration takes no more than 20 minutes and it guides you through the entire process. Before the colorimeter actually performs its tests, the software assists you in adjusting your monitor’s onboard controls for the proper brightness, contrast and color balance native to the monitor. Once this is complete, it runs the color (and gray) reference values and generates a profile for you that, once saved, will load and become active everytime you start the computer. Once the profile is generated, the software shows you what your display looked like before the calibration and you can compare it to the post-calibration state. The difference is remarkable, even when you thought your screen was pretty accurate out of the box! Lastly, the software will remind you (depending on the length of time you choose) to alert when a recalibration must be performed. On newer monitors, once a month should be fine; older CRTs should probably be done once a week. The reason for this is because the light elements inside the monitor shift and can cause a scientifically significant difference in the representation of your color display.
Check back often for further discussion on color manangement with respec to digital camera files and inkejet printing!