Monitor calibration is something ignored by 99% of computer users. Ignorance is bliss, but if you are a photographer or you create other forms of visual media and art on your computer properly calibrating your monitor can ensure that your work will appear properly on as many screens as possible. If you do not do these things but still wish to ensure you view things as the artist intended, then read on.
If your screen is set too bright or your color temperature is off it means your image will look completely different to someone who uses a dimmer screen or has the correct color temperature. By outputting your work at the standard brightness levels and color temperature you can at least ensure people will view your work consistently. Their monitor settings may be wrong but if your work was created at the standardized setting at least it will appear consistent to all the other content that the user views. It also means you will get better results from printing.
A very basic calibration can be done by looking at some test images but in order to get you all the way there you will need a hardware colorimeter to aid in the calibration. One of the cheaper options is the Spyder4 Pro ($149.99) by Datacolor which we’ll cover in this review. There are many other options out there but this is one of the more budget conscious ones. Datacolor also has the Spyder4 Express and Spyder4 Elite. The Spyder4 Pro falls in between those two products. The Express version is completely automated and only allows calibration of one screen. The Pro, reviewed here, allows you more control, has an ambient light sensor, and can be used on as many displays as you want. The Elite uses the same hardware as the Pro but the software allows projector calibration and some other benefits.
Inside the box you will find the USB-powered Spyder4 Pro colorimeter, user manual, software CD and a microfiber cloth for cleaning your monitor screen. You can skip the CD and download the latest software right from the Datacolor website. The colorimeter itself comes with a desktop stand which can be used to store the device when not in use and it is also used when doing ambient light measurements. It is a USB 2.0 device that requires a powered USB port but it also worked fine on a USB 3.0 port on my laptop.
On the USB cord is a heavy counterweight which can be slid up and down the cord. This is so you can hang the colorimeter over your monitor with the counter weight behind to hold it in place. The Spyder4Pro can calibrate all types of monitors including CRTs, LCDs, LEDs and Notebook screens. There is even an iOS app to calibrate for your iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone. The calibration is limited to the Spyder app though, meaning in order to view your photos on a calibrated screen you must view them in the Spyder app. It does not calibrate the screen outside of that.
When calibrating on a Windows PC or Mac, your calibration will be available for the entire system. The Spyder utility ensures that it is loaded on boot up. You can also easily swap back and forth between calibrated and uncalibrated to see the difference.
I calibrated both my laptop and desktop using the device and the photos in this article are showing the laptop calibration. There are some differences between desktop and laptop calibration. With the desktop you have the option of adjusting brightness, contrast and color on the display itself while with a laptop the only physical control you usually have is brightness.
After letting your monitor warm up for at least 30 minutes, the software will guide you step by step through the calibration. It will get you to make adjustments to your monitors physical settings in increments and then keep re-testing until you achieve the desired brightness level. For photo editing in a moderate to low amount of ambient light, a brightness of 120 cd/m2 is ideal. This can initially be shocking to some people because they may be used to having their brightness and contrast cranked all the way. For instance, my monitor came from the factory with a brightness setting of 90/100. After calibration it was set to 18/100! The software will also ask you to set your color temperature setting to as close to 6500k as possible. The wording on this varies across brands but usually this will be called something like Normal or Medium under the color presets. It may also be explicitly named 6500k or D65. Why 6500k for the color temperature? That is the color temperature of daylight.
The software will then use the colorimeter to fully calibrate the color of your display. When it is finished, it creates an ICC (International Color Consortium) file to be used on your computer. The ICC file will be loaded every time you boot your computer to set your color calibration. The whole process from start to finish only takes about 10 minutes (less time on a laptop screen). The software also has a “Check calibration” feature that you can run every month or so to make sure everything it still in tip-top shape.
There are also other tools included to measure the quality of your display. It will give you information such as your brightness level, black level, contrast ratio, and gamma level. In addition it will tell you how much of the color gamut your display can produce in SRGB, Adobe RGB and NTSC color spaces. For example, my laptop covered 97% of SRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB. My desktop monitor covered over 100% of SRGB and 85% of Adobe RGB. SRGB is the color space used on the internet and for most media, though Photographers will often edit their work in the AdobeRGB color space for the extra colors and better print quality. Whenever it goes to the web it is always converted to SRGB however.
Before using this colorimeter I only calibrated as best as I could with my eyes and I have learned I barely scratched the surface doing that. Photographs look better now, and I can be more confident when editing my work knowing that it will be shown as intended in prints and other people’s screens. I even see flaws in some of my images that were not apparent before. Now that they are plainly visible they can be fixed and I won’t be surprised when they suddenly show up on a print or when viewing it on a different screen.
- Easy to use software
- Will improve the quality of your end result if you are a photographer or media artist
- Works on any monitor
- While it is one of the more affordable options, it is still expensive for something you use once then put away for a long time. The Express model makes things easier but unfortunately only works on one display at a time.
- If you have dual monitors on one system, you need to get the Elite version. The Pro only supports one monitor per system.
- The iOS app only calibrates inside the app itself (probably an iOS limitation) and the app is also in need of some updating to support the retina-display iPad properly