Monitor Calibration and Color Management

At some point during your journey to become a better photographer you will stumble (or crash!) into the issue of color management and monitor calibration. This topic PLAGUED me for months – I almost gave up all together because it was SO confusing to me but I’m really glad I stuck it out. I’m going to share some basics here, if you have any questions please let me know and I’ll try to answer them to the best of my ability.

First, an example of an image edited the way I inteded it to look on my calibrated system:

and now what it would look like if I weren’t calibrated (too much red!)


And now a few facts about color management and calibration:

1 ) What is Monitor Calibration? Monitor calibration is done by buying a software package like the sypder2 express (which I used) which comes with the software and hardware (A little alien spaceship looking thingy that you hang on your screen.)  You install the software and then put the hardware on when it tells you to and then it runs your monitor through a series of colors while the hardware reads the way those colors are coming through your monitor. Then, based on the results it creates a “monitor profile” and stores it in your computer and sets your computer to read that profile in certain “color managed” programs.  Which brings me to…

2) What are “color managed” programs? Only CERTAIN  programs, applications, browsers and even operating systems are color managed meaning that they will obey the “ICC color profile” that is embedded in your images.  What are those programs? For starters, serious image editing programs like Photoshop and Lightroom and also browsers like Firefox and Safari.  Internet explorer does NOT. This means that once you actually calibrate you may be really frustrated because your images seem to look completely different depending on how you view them! They may look different on firefox compared to your computer and internet explorer. It can all get very confusing.

3) Why is it so important to color manage? If you don’t color manage, you are editing your images based on no known “correct” set of standards. Almost ALL monitors come factory configured to be much too blue/cool, which means that you will try to achieve pleasing skintones in your images but because your monitor is showing you too much blue, you will end up adding too much yellow or warmth to compensate!  This will be particularly evident if you try to get your images printed at a professional quality printer (such as WHCC which I use, or MPIX which I recommend as well).  They will NOT look like what you see on your monitor, unless your monitor HAPPENS to be perfectly calibrated which is highly unlikely!

4) Ok, that sounds so easy! What is so confusing about monitor calibration? Well, to start with, I found it confusing (and no body told me) that you actually should not choose your monitor profile as your color settings in photoshop. You should always leave those settings as Adobe SRGB North America All purpose.  Photoshop is already adjusting the way you see your images by accessing your monitor profile’s  LUT (look up table) that it created when you calibrated and showing that to you.

Then – THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT – you MUST have “Convert to SRGB” and “Embedd ICC profile” checked when you save your JPGS out of photoshop, otherwise your images will NOT be correctly read by anyone (yourself included!) who views them on the web even in a color managed browser! If you don’t included the ICC profile the images are considered “untagged” and the results will be anyone’s guess.

5) The type of monitor you have does matter. My home computer is a nice Dell XPS that came with a gorgeous looking and 22inch glossy wide gamut monitor that was big and fabulous.. or so I thought. The problem is that the version of the calibration software I have doesn’t work with either glossy or wide gamut -I would need the spyder 3 for that.  In fact, even with spyder3 software wide gamut shows more vivid colors which seems great, but is dangerous for photo editing. What was happening was that the colors would look rich and gorgeous to me but when I would view them at work or other monitors they looked dull and lifeless! I wasn’t adding as much saturation as I really needed to. In the end I switched my gorgeous big monitor for a smaller non glossy version that I KNOW is color correct.  And I know that because..

6) Do a test match print from where you plan on printing photos. I use WHCC for my prints and when you set up a wholesale account with them you upload 5 images and they send you 5 prints and you look to make sure they are what you see on your screen.  Even if you use a good consumer lab like MPIX you should also do this to double check  profile and set up.  After all, the ultimate goal of color managing is making sure that your prints are what you see on your screen so there are no unpleasant surprises.

I hope that wasn’t too confusing. You may not be thinking about this yet, but at some point in your journey of learning photography you will probably end up needing to.

Until then, have a great weekend!

6/11/10- Update: I recently upgraded from the fairly ancient Sypder 2 express to the X-Rite EODIS2 Eye-One Display 2 and it made a very big difference in all the monitors I tested it on – glossy and non glossy, wide and regular gamut.  My conclusion is that you get what you pay for when choosing a calibration unit.  Though if you can’t afford the almost $200 I would rather see you get the Sypder 3 Express vs no calibration at all!

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ariana says:

Hi Lacey,
I actually had used the sypder 2 express which is quite old technology. I had heard that it would work fine on non glossy non wide gamut monitors, but I have since discovered that is not the case..

And I know that because I very recently upgraded to the X-Rite EODIS2 Eye-One Display 2
and it really changed the colors of both my glossy wide gamut screen AND the non glossy regular gamut screen I use at work!

The advantage to the eye one is that it also calibrates brightness which I believe the spyder does not.

To find out whether your monitor is wide gamut or not just google the monitor model name and you will usually find the specs for it! Glossy is fairly obvious, do you see your reflection in it? :)

Hope that helps!

Lacey says:


Do you still calibrate with the Spyder3Express?

And call me dumb, but what do you mean by this: “decent non glossy non wide gamut screen” ? How do I know if my monitor is one of these?

Calibration has been plaguing me and I know I need to do it before I dive into figuring out editing, but I just don’t know which one to get since I’m a non-pro…

Thanks for your info!

ariana says:

Ashley, you won’t regret it :)

Ashley says:

I got my calibrator! I did my desktop…laptop is next! I can’t wait to play! thank you thank you!

Kristen says:

Thanks! And great, now I’m going to need a new monitor! If I could turn back time, I swear, I would have majored in this in college, would have actually been useful :)

ariana says:

Kristen, you download firefox (free!) and to answer your question YES, you need a business just to keep from going bankrupt :)

Kristen says:

Wait, you say have a Dell, as do I. Do you use internet explorer or did you download Firefox? Possibly a dumb question, I haven’t searched to see if you can download Firefox. Calibration is yet another thing on my Christmas list, geesh, aren’t you finding you practically HAVE to have a business to keep up with costs?!

ariana says:

Sarah, I’d buy a basic display and plug it in.. Laptops are notoriously difficult to get true color/brightness mostly because of the viewing angle discrepancy!

Sarah says:

How would you calibrate an iMac? I don’t really have the option of switching monitors considering the monitor is the computer… Any ideas?

I have been very lazy about not calibrating my monitor (mostly because it confuses me and I thought it wouldn’t ‘really’ matter, but I was wrong…) and would like to attempt a good calibration.

Kimberly says:

Yep, probably will have to go that route.

ariana says:

Kimberly, you could buy a cheap flat panel and plug it into the laptop just for photo editing right?

Kimberly says:

Thank you for this… I’ve been pondering color calibration lately, but I only have a laptop at this point… ugh. But this was a great post and I’m sure I will be referring back to it in the near future!

ariana says:

Thanks Stephanie, I FINALLY got off my butt and made one. I’m just happy it’s SOMETHING lol :)

Stephanie says:

I love your watermark! :)

Alicia says:

Becoming Home.
Becoming Mom.
Becoming Tech-Savvy Photographer Extraordinaire?

kerri says:

i had ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA ABOUT ANY OF THIS! thank you so much. looks like i need to find me an alien spaceship!

Miss B. says:

I always love your Photoshop + photography posts. This has always been the most frustrating for me and you broke it down so simply (as always). What non-glossy monitor did you get? I have a Mac but curious:)

ariana says:

@Miss B. I actually didn’t get it, it came with my DELL at work (I traded with my work monitor.) It’s some generic dell flat panel non glossy monitor. But I don’t think it really matters so much so long as you get a decent non glossy non wide gamut screen! The think was that when I compared my test prints from WHCC with my fancy monitor and with this generic one this one was SPOT on and the fancy one wasn’t.

The other thing I didn’t mention is color management on a laptop – I did calibrate my laptop but I don’t trust it at all because the brightness of the screen varies depending on battery power/vs plugged in etc. I trust it to browse other’s photos, but not to do any real editing.

Lisa says:

Thanks for the information!

ariana says:

Well, calibration is sort of a one time thing (you have to recalibrate every couple of weeks, but once you figure out your set up you are done!) but as far as other thing go? I depends a lot on the images. As I become a better photographer and really learn to get the exposure correct in camera that helps IMMENSELY. Under or overexposed images lose color and contrast, when it’s correct, the images need VERY little tweaking. The one above I spent maybe 4 minutes on? First I adjust the whitebalance in ligthroom, then I just brought up the shadows a little bit and used the saturation sponge to saturate the brick a tiny bit. That was it!!

Lynn says:

Wow…just a question. How long does it take you to tweak one photograph?! It seems like there is A LOT involved!