The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Getting Accurate Color on Your Monitor
We sat down to write a practical, hands-on guide to tame color in your digital world. This is not an exhaustive walk-through of color theory or management by any means. Rather, you’re getting the benefit of hard-won experience over the course of many years in the advertising and print industry.
Imagine a trusted friend coming along your side and offering their best advice on how to go about calibrating your monitor, why it’s so important and without explaining every detail to you. They’ve spent all the time researching and trying out different approaches and you are just fortunate to get the benefit of that time.
We’ll also include links to other sources if this gets you excited to dive deeper into the world of color management.
There are buckets of information available on this topic, and as you dig into it, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the technical terminology and even conflicting opinions on ways to go about managing color. I often wished that there was a place to go that would simply tell me what to do without explaining every single aspect of the process. I was looking for a trustworthy source to highlight what I needed to know, but also spare me from the pitfalls that could cost me time and money.
In today’s digital world, color management is more important than ever. Our hope is to lead you on the path to color Nirvana in a few easy steps. Be warned, there are hard costs involved here. But if you’re ready to make the investment in yourself, join us as we go down the rabbit hole.
As a Retoucher your monitor is your entryway into a world of color and digital data. What you see on your display is the only link that you have to what you’re creating.
Pause for a moment, and ask yourself: “Is the color I’m seeing on my display accurate? Can I trust it? Will my client and viewers see what I want them to see?”
Without proper color management, it’s impossible to answer that question. We cannot trust what we see. Our eyes and brain are brilliant at tricking us as they adapt to situations around us. Our perception of color can vary greatly depending on our environment or even our mood. You just cannot trust your eyes.
This is part of the reason we tend to use so many help layers – “visual aid” – when retouching.
A monitor is simply an output medium, just like any other media device. Try to reframe the way you see your monitor and think of it as a living piece of paper instead. Your image contains data and this data is translated internally to display color using combinations of Red, Green and Blue light. More often than not, those translations are inaccurate – that is just a given. To compound this problem, when changing color spaces between different devices there is so much that can be lost in translation. Thankfully though, with proper calibration, we can get a detailed color translation for our systems that output to our displays.
Profiling is like your own personal color translator
Think of calibration/profiling as an interpreter that translates the language of your image into something the hardware in your computer can understand and in turn communicate to your display.
Without this link it’s chaos and important color information is being misinterpreted. With it, you can ensure clear communication between all of your devices and not just your devices, but it also allows for your images to be accurately displayed on other calibrated/profiled displays — the possibilities are endless. We can’t begin to tell you how incredible it is to be able to truly trust what you see on your display.
Step 1: A Solid Display
As a professional retoucher, digital artist or photographer you will have to invest in a solid LCD display panel. There are hundreds of options available. Determining what is right for your needs is no small fete. If you’re interested, there is an incredibly helpful tutorial on purchasing a display that was done by Digitaldog.net, it costs $3 and saved me many hours of research, not to mention money when it came down to purchasing a new display. Do yourself a favor and take a look.
It’s important to note that what we’re about to share is applicable to the environment that we work in. If you’re just starting out this may not be the most useful information for you but it’s certainly something that you can keep in mind for the future.
Here are a couple of important specs that you may want to look for when making your next display purchase:
- IPS panel for uniform luminance coverage and better viewing angle.
- Color Gamut for a greater amount of displayable colors. This is important – especially if you deal with print on a regular basis – and it will cost quite a bit extra. If at all possible you are looking for a “Wide Gamut” display that will cover 98-99% of the Adobe RGB gamut. It is also important to understand that wider color gamut is more important for retouching than higher display resolution.
- Resolution. Higher display resolution is great, but you don’t need to go 5K. For example, my display panel has a native resolution of 2560 x 1440.
- Backlight type. There are many lower end panels that still use CCFL to backlight their displays. If you can avoid this you will be able to attain a more accurate color.
- Don’t get tripped up on maximum brightness or contrast ratios, most new displays can comfortably hit contrast levels for most anything you will need.
I realize that spending a large amount of money on a display seems irresponsible and may be prohibitive to the casual hobbyist. I can promise you that it will be worth every penny in the long run. You don’t have to shell out thousands of dollars for a display but there is a threshold that you need to hit in order to attain consistent and accurate color. Consider it an investment in your future as a professional. You will be spending countless hours in front of your display, and what you put into it will be returned many times over.
Stephen: I recently upgraded to an NEC 272w LED Backlit Wide Gamut LCD Display. It’s one of the best panels currently available for the budget conscious professional with all of the important features you’ll need, for the least amount of money. One of the key features that I love is that it allows for internal calibration of the hardware in conjunction with your Colorimeter, effectively taking you completely out of the equation.
Daniel: I am currently using a Dell U2711 27″, but their latest
Dell U2713H 27 DELL LCD Screen Monitor 32″ (UP3218K) model is probably the best priced Wide Gamut display on the market right now (May 2015) that you can hardware-calibrate.
Step 2: Hardware Calibration Device
A brief overview of Colorimeters and Spectrophotometers and why you need to invest in one
As we mentioned earlier, your eyes are adapting constantly to the environment around you as your brain continually makes adjustments to trick your mind into seeing neutral color. As this occurs it affects your perception of the color that you see. A great example of this, just recently, was the “blue and gold” dress debacle that ‘broke the internet’.
It’s enough to drive a person crazy. This is such a great illustration to show us that our eyes are terrible at remembering color and because of that, we cannot rely only on our eyes to determine accurate color.
Enter a hardware device that can read and measure color for us.
There are two types of devices that will allow you to do this.
- A colorimeter, designed specifically to read light. Used to calibrate output devices that emit light such as monitors.
- The second device is a spectrophotometer, it can pick up light and also send out light and read the reflected values. This opens up the realm of analog output devices like printer calibration, but that’s another article for another day.
In our experience, a solid colorimeter is the cheapest and most accurate way to calibrate your display. There are several devices on the market that will do a decent job for you. We’d also recommend opting for the higher quality colorimeters instead of the cheaper consumer devices that sell for half the price of pro devices.
As with all things in life you generally will get what you pay for, and spending a little extra on a solid colorimeter will assure that the profiles you’ll be creating for your monitor will be stable and dependable.
Here are some devices that are readily available that we recommend:
i1Display Pro – its average cost is around $250. Best bang for the buck as colorimeters go. You’ll be able to use this for many years to come and its full feature set and accuracy makes it a solid investment.
ColorMunki Display is another solid colorimeter, similar to the i1 Display Pro. There is also a version available that functions as a spectrophotometer that may come in handy if you were to create an ICC profile for your printer.
There are a host of colorimeters available to help calibrate your display. Each has their own unique characteristics. Our recommendation is to stay away from cheaper consumer varieties. Any of the above devices will do a great job for you and last you many years to come.
We’ve covered the importance of your display, you’ve purchased a colorimeter – next step in the process is getting your display calibrated
Once again there is a host of different pieces of software out there. Usually, your colorimeter will come with its own software. Sometimes it’s provided with your monitor, there are even proprietary solutions that use their own drivers and software to connect to the hardware devices.
However, not all calibration software is created equal. We’re going to list a couple of tools that are available to choose from and some of the important features that you’ll want to look for, and then make our recommendation based on personal experience.
i1 Profiler is created by X-rite and offers a host of different solutions for calibrating displays, printers, scanners, even projectors, but will be limited by the functionality of the calibration device that you’ve purchased. You’ll also need to own an X-rite measurement device in order to use the software.
Spectraview II offered by NEC covers a wide range of calibration options for $89. If you’re thinking about investing in an NEC display, that allows for internal hardware calibration, I can’t recommend this more highly.
Dispcalgui.hoech.net offers an open source feature-rich tool, which has a wide range for those of you looking for a solid piece of software that will allow you to dive into more technical and advanced features. You also might want to try this software in order to unlock more functionality from lower-end “feature limited” colorimeters.
EFI offers the Fiery Color Profiler suite, but I did not have much luck in generating accurate neutral profiles for my displays. I even attempted multiple colorimeters and spectrophotometers but felt that the neutral colors were never quite as good as what the other pieces of software above were able to achieve.
Spyder 5 Datacolor Software. If you purchase a data color device, the Spyder 5 software is included with the device. We recommend at a minimum the Spyder5Pro, which will give you more options when calibrating your display.
Step 3: Your Workspace
A note about your working environment and how it may affect your perception of color
In an ideal world you would be able to create the perfect working space and environment for yourself, but as we all know, that is seldom the case and most of the time you have to work with what you have. There are some pitfalls that could greatly affect your perception of color even with a perfectly calibrated display, which may be worth noting.
You want to work in an environment where the ambient light is lower than that of your display, but not in complete darkness. The monitor luminance should always be the brightest light source in the room, so your eyes adapt to its gray balance.
We recommend having the monitor about 30-40cd/m2 brighter than the room brightness. This is enough for your eyes to adapt to your monitor instead of ambient light and it is still comfortable and not too tiring to your eyes. Note from Daniel: the ambient light in the room where I work is very dim (about 40-50 cd/m2), which allows me to have my monitor brightness to be set to 80-90cd/m2 max, which is also not very bright.
Avoid bright reflections or any direct light on your display. Ideally, you should aim to have some soft indirect light source slightly behind or above the monitor. Drawing the curtains or setting your display in such a manner that there are no strong reflections will go a long way to help your eyes perceive the color you view on your display more accurately.
Avoid bright colored paint on the walls. There is special neutral gray paint available to avoid any color casts that may occur from brightly colored walls in your workspace.
I, for one, have never gone to such extreme measures and even though it’s a recommended best practice it seems completely impractical. Can you imagine having gray colored walls? Going with something more neutral though is recommended. You can imagine what staring at a brightly colored red wall behind your monitor will do to your perception of color as your brain will constantly be trying to adapt between the two.
In that same vein, and this is something that both Daniel and I do, try to avoid brightly colored desktop backgrounds. I set my desktop to a neutral medium gray when doing any color critical work. It’s not as pretty or inspiring as a beautiful piece of art or a scenic photo may be but an easy sacrifice to make in order to give my eyes the best chance to accurately perceive color. It’s also good to switch to back to your desktop to from time to time especially when working on brightly colored images or using “help layers” as a solar curve while working.
Step 4: Using Your Colorimeter & Setting Calibration Targets
All of the above-mentioned software tools offer a step-by-step guided walk through of how to go about calibrating your device. They generally have a linear workflow that involves:
- Preparation. Prevent any strong light from illuminating your display directly, as it might reflect into the sensor of your calibration device.
- Selecting your target values (see below for our recommendations).
- Calibration stage. Calibration means interactively adjusting your display settings to match the target values of gray balance, luminance and contrast levels. This is where your display is set to its optimal conditions for the target values you have chosen.
- Profiling stage. Profiling is the process of characterizing an output device, measuring how it responds to known input values, and where detailed corrections are created by the hardware and software simultaneously. Once this stage is complete all of the found information is written into a device specific profile (not the same as device link profile). The result is a unique characterization of one single device, its parameters, and its custom color translations. The profile type can be an ICC profile or a 3D LUT.
This step of the process can often be frustrating because there is too much information available regarding this topic. Now, we have the option of going into great depth regarding luminance, white point targets, gamma curves, contrast, and all that fun stuff. However, these topics have been covered in depth in myriads of articles on the web, and if you’re a newcomer to color management and calibration it will only serve to leave you confused with your head spinning in a hundred different directions.
For the purpose of this guide we’re going to offer you simple best practice suggestions for a Retouching, Design, or Photography centric workflow that best accommodates output to both digital, as well as print media.
It’s a middle of the road approach that has served us well over the years. It’s worth noting that there are specific contexts that you may want to calibrate too. This ‘middle of the road’ approach is our recommendation for those of you just starting out.
I myself have used these targets for both commercial printing and retouching and have never had any trouble. The critical thing is ensuring that you have accurate color. After that, proper color management takes over and your images can easily be translated for a host of different media and applications. That’s one of the true beauties of calibration and color management.
Here are some commonly used working specs:
- Office Web Standard: D65, Gamma 2.2
- Photo Standard for print: D50, Gamma 2.2
- Soft proof D55, 160cd/m2, L*
- Prepress D50, 130cd/m2, L*
It’s important to note that prepress and softproof workstations follow specific target values that conform to ISO standards to be a legal reference for proofing. They have to carefully set up their space and maintain consistent conditions. In our experience, we seldom need to calibrate to those specific targets when implementing proper color management.
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS FOR RETOUCHERS:
Luminance: 100 – 120 cd/m2. Depending on the brightness of your work environment this number may be slightly lower or slightly higher. See above section for recommended workspace environment. It’s helpful to know that the luminance level isn’t as critical as long as you’re roughly in this range.
Color Temperature: D65 – most displays are base calibrated to this gray balance and you will get the best tonal range and widest gamut sticking to this value if you cannot hardware calibrate your monitor.
Tonal Response Curve: Gamma 2.2
Contrast Ratio: Native
EXAMPLES FROM THE PROS
We also asked some of the top retouchers in the industry to share what they use and here is a sampling of the responses we received:
- Native White Point
- 2.2 Gamma
- 120 cd/m2.
By the way, I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to prefer a brighter setting than 120, but experience has shown me that actually makes it harder to see shadow detail.”
“I’m using an NEC MultiSync PA272W – It’s an IPS Panel LED Display. NEC calibrator (essentially an X-Rite i1 Display Pro) with the SpectraView II Software for monitor hardware calibration using the internal LUTs.
- Luminance – 120 cd/m2
- Color: D65
- Tonal Response Curve: Gamma 2.2.
- Contrast: As requested per calibration software.
- Apple Cinema Display
- X-Rite i1 Display Pro
- Luminance: 120 cd/m2
- White Point: CIE
- Illuminant D65
- Dell U2711 2K Monitor
- X-Rite i1 Pro
- Luminance: 90-100 cd/m2 (only calibration, not a profiling target)
- Grey balance: 6300K (daylight reference)
- Tonal Response Curve: L*
- Contrast / Black Level: native
- No automatic ambient light adjustments
- Profile type XYZ LUT + Matrix no black point compensation
- Sampling around 175 color patches, with emphasis on neutral shades
For a more in-depth look at color management and calibration targets here are several phenomenal resources that you can hit up:
Once these options have been selected the software will guide you through the rest of the process. The colorimeter will take readings from your screen and feed it back into the software which will, in turn, make adjustments to display the colors accurately on your monitor.
After this process, which can last up to 10-20 minutes, is complete it will ask you to save your profile. It’s good practice to save your ICC profiles with a consistent naming convention. For example, using the date and time will help you to easily reference it in the future.
Read this bit if you don’t care about any of the technical details and just want to know what to do:
- Investing in a solid display will get you better results when calibrating. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get by with less expensive options out there, but if you aspire to do this professionally it’s a worthwhile investment to consider. You’ll see more consistent and accurate color, a wider color gamut and smoother transitions from black to white. And you will be kind to your own eyes.
- Invest in an external hardware device for calibration if your monitor does not have an internal sensor. This is one of the most important things you can do for good color management as a retoucher.
- Take a closer look at your working environment. Always aim to keep the conditions that you work inconsistent so that your environment will never handicap your color perception and retouching.
- Let your monitor warm up for at least half an hour before jumping into color critical work or beginning the calibration process. Newer panels with LED backlight usually do require that much time to warm up.
- The software will guide you through the calibration and profiling stages. If you only have access to a low-end monitor and notice banding or clipped colors after the process, start over and skip the profiling stage. Color accuracy is not worth sacrificing your transitions for. Unfortunately, that is a physical limitation of a lower-end display.
- Make sure to choose your calibration targets according to your situation and needs. For Retouchers we recommend D65, Gamma 2.2 and a Luminance value between 100-120 cd/m2, Native contrast ratio.
- If you work day and night you might want to create different profiles for different monitor luminance values, so you can switch between them and always be able to see and handle colors consistently.
- Recalibrate from time to time (it doesn’t have to be every two weeks) but always before critical client work.
FYI: a professional print environment is being calibrated every day or even twice a day.