Having accurate and consistent color on your monitor is essential for anyone working in design, photography, videography or other visual fields. An inaccurate monitor can lead to errors and inconsistencies in your work. Fortunately, color calibrating your monitor is a straightforward process that anyone can do at home with the right tools.
Why Monitor Color Accuracy Matters
Our eyes dynamically adjust to the lighting conditions around us. This means that the same color will look different under bright sunlight versus under artificial indoor lighting. Monitors have a fixed brightness and color output that doesn’t change. If the colors on your monitor don’t match the real world, your work will look incorrect when viewed under different conditions.
Some examples of how inaccurate monitor color can negatively impact work include:
- Graphic designers end up picking colors that don’t match their original vision.
- Videographers capture flat, dull footage because their monitor was too blue and bright.
- Photographers miss subtle hue and saturation shifts when editing photos.
Professional print shops, product manufacturers, and video studios all calibrate their equipment to maintain consistent color. As a creative professional, you need that same level of control over how your work looks.
How Monitor Color Works
Understanding monitor color technology helps explain why calibration is necessary. Computer monitors create color by mixing different amounts of red, green, and blue light. Most modern LCD displays use 8-bit or 10-bit color, meaning each primary color has 256 or 1,024 available intensity levels.
By varying the RGB intensities, monitors can reproduce millions or billions of colors. But the exact shades that get displayed depend on the physical characteristics of the monitor and the current calibration settings. Issues like these can throw off color accuracy:
- The backlight changes intensity over time.
- The display panel ages and shifts color.
- The default color profile doesn’t match the monitor.
- The ambient lighting changes the appearance of colors.
Through proper calibration, you can account for these variables and maintain accurate, consistent color.
Monitor Calibration Process
Calibrating your display involves adjusting its settings so colors appear correctly. This requires three things:
- Calibration software to create and load color profiles.
- A measurement device to analyze monitor output.
- A calibration test pattern to sample color accuracy.
Here is an overview of the calibration steps:
- Attach the measurement device to the monitor and launch the software.
- Select your target brightness and white point settings.
- Display the test pattern and measure colors at many points.
- The software compares measurements to the ideal values.
- It creates and saves an ICC monitor profile with corrected RGB values.
- Enable the profile in your operating system color settings.
High quality calibration ensures colors are accurate to within a delta E of 2 or less. This precision is essentially indistinguishable to the human eye. Now let’s look at monitor calibration tools in more detail.
Choosing Calibration Hardware
The measurement device is the essential calibration tool that samples colors shown onscreen. There are several types ranging widely in price and functionality:
|delta E 2-3
|delta E 1-2
|delta E <1
Colorimeters are small devices that attach directly to your monitor screen. They measure the RGB light given off by different parts of the display. Spectrophotometers are scientific instruments that analyze color spectra at a high level of precision.
For most home and office use, an entry-level colorimeter like the Datacolor Spyder5 or X-Rite i1 Display Studio will provide excellent results at an affordable price. Go for a higher-end model if you need the utmost color fidelity.
The software is what interprets the measurement data and adjusts your monitor’s color profile settings. Many colorimeters include software, or you can use the built-in Windows and Mac OS calibration tools. Here are some third-party options as well:
- Datacolor Spyder 5: Works with Spyder colorimeters. Good preset options.
- X-Rite i1 Profiler: Supports many X-Rite devices. Lots of advanced controls.
- BasICColor Display: Partnered with several devices. Wide gamut support.
- SpectraCal CalMAN: For use with spectrophotometers. Extremely precise.
Make sure to use the software designed for your measurement device for the best results.
Types of Calibration
There are a few different calibration methods, each with their own pros and cons. Choosing the right approach depends on your color accuracy needs.
White Point Calibration
This adjusts the white balance of your monitor, measured in degrees Kelvin. Typical values are 6500K for print design and 5000K for web and multimedia. A white point calibration improves color accuracy moderately but doesn’t create a full monitor profile.
Gamma controls the brightness of midtone colors. Image editing software assumes your monitor gamma is 2.2. Calibrating gets your monitor to match this gamma curve. Improving gamma accuracy enhances detail in shadows and highlights.
A full calibration samples red, green, blue, and sometimes additional colors at many different brightness levels. This generates an ICC color profile that comprehensively corrects monitor inaccuracies. For the best results, perform a full calibration monthly.
Step-by-Step Calibration Guide
Follow these steps to calibrate your monitor display using a colorimeter and calibration software:
Connect the colorimeter to your monitor and install the calibration software.
Open the software and select your desired calibration settings:
- Brightness level (80-160 nits is recommended)
- White point temperature
- Target gamma
- LCD white LED, CCFL, or wide gamut
Position the colorimeter on your monitor, ensuring complete contact.
Start the calibration process. The software will display a sequence of colored patches.
The colorimeter analyzes the test patterns. Don’t disturb or remove it during this process.
When the calibration completes, the software will generate an ICC profile.
Enable this new profile as your monitor’s default color space for improved accuracy.
Follow the on-screen instructions provided by your calibration software. The process takes 10-20 minutes for a full calibration. You’ll need to repeat these steps monthly for continued color accuracy.
Advanced Calibration Tips
Here are some expert recommendations for improving monitor calibration and getting the best results:
- Warm up your monitor for at least 30 minutes before calibrating to stabilize brightness and color.
- Work in a moderately lit room and minimize ambient light on the screen.
- Pick a conservative brightness around 100 nits to minimize eye strain.
- Aim for a white balance of 6500K and gamma of 2.2 unless you have specific needs.
- Use the native resolution of your LCD display for sharper detail.
- Disable any contrast, brightness, or color enhancing monitor features.
- Verify calibration success with test images before relying on the new profile.
Following best practices for your workspace lighting, software settings, and schedule will lead to accurate, consistent color on your calibrated monitor.
Maintaining Accuracy Over Time
Monitor calibration settings gradually drift over time. Here are some tips for maintaining accuracy between full calibrations:
- Keep your workspace lighting consistent by using daylight or color-neutral bulbs.
- Don’t turn up monitor brightness unnecessarily to avoid uneven aging.
- Visually check for color shifts each week using test images.
- Recalibrate if you notice visible inaccuracies appearing.
- Confirm consistency by comparing prints from your printer to onscreen previews.
With proper calibration maintenance, your monitor can hold a delta E under 3 for up to 2-3 months at a time. Periodic recalibration keeps it under 2 indefinitely.
Getting Help with Monitor Calibration
If you need assistance or expert advice setting up calibration, a few options are available:
- Search online monitor calibration forums and communities to find tips from other users.
- Consult makers of hardware and software like Datacolor, X-Rite, and BasICColor for technical support.
- Hire a monitor calibration specialist to handle the process for you.
- Use a monitor pre-calibrated from the factory for immediate accuracy.
Getting help can be especially useful when working with wide gamut displays or advanced calibration workflows. But with minimal equipment and software, anyone can achieve great color accuracy on their own.
Calibrating your monitor is the only way to ensure colors match between what you see onscreen and the final output. An accurate display prevents errors, inconsistencies, and surprises when your work is viewed elsewhere. The calibration process is straightforward using an affordable colorimeter and software. For optimal color fidelity, calibrate your monitor monthly and maintain a controlled lighting environment. With a little effort, you can trust what you see on your display and produce amazing visual work.