Color management guide by Arnaud Frich

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Updated on December 02, 2016

How to calibrate your monitor?

Now that you are convinced about the importance of calibrating your monitor with a calibration colorimeter, I am going to help you do it through this page, and especially to help you choose the right target values ​​(gamma, color temperature, brightness...).


iMac calibration with i1display Pro colorimeter


Key points if you are a beginner ...

Here are the key points to remember about monitor calibration. The rest of this page is aimed at those who want to learn more.

We saw that using a calibration colorimeter, or colorimeter, was absolutely compulsory to calibrate your monitor. Without it, it is impossible even to set brightness or contrast values of the screen. And I'm not even talking about color predominances... Screen calibration has to be performed with a calibration colorimeter.

There are several colorimeters on the market: they're distinguished by the quality of their components and of their calibration software. Prices range from single to double: from $100 to $250.

Colorimeters with glass filters are much more stable in time (since 2011, X-Rite colorimeters are guaranteed 3 years). Other colorimeters feature gelatin filters (colorimeters Datacolor and Colormunki Smile). The old generation of colorimeters, like the famous Eye One Display II with gelatin filter, ages and no longer works almost overnight, so be careful. At june 2016, if you own an old colorimeter (three-four years max.), I really recommend you to change it for this reason.

Monitor technologies evolve as well as color filters in colorimeters in order to adapt and deliver the best results. Of course, this requires a new investment (every five years averagely), but I really recommend you to change your old colorimeters, especially if you also changed monitor technology.

Recent monitors = recent colorimeters!

Next key points: My recommendations to choose your colorimeter suivre

Calibrate a monitor In the first part dedicated to monitor calibration, in the previous page, we defined important notions and vocabulary, such as calibration/gauging and characterization. We saw that these two steps are part of calibration in a general way.
In this second part, I will now try to show you why you should calibrate your monitor with a colorimeter and not to the naked eye from a random print for instance, and then explain the settings and ideal values to use to calibrate your screen according to your use of it.




Use a colorimeter or not?

Let's get rid of this problem immediatly! It is impossible without a calibration colorimeter, because the human eye has two major drawbacks.

  • It is unable to determine the level of brightness of a monitor, but we know it should be around 80/140 cd/m² depending on its main use,
  • And it is unable to "read" an L*a*b* color without having any comparison support.

Considering these two reasons, it is impossible to perform a good calibration to the naked eye. You could possibly approach something not too bad, especially on a very good screen but not more. And to close this old debate forever: defects are never linear. Your monitor is never too magenta on the whole spectrum but only between one brightness value and another. So no chance to correct a grayscale with such a local area of color predominance.
The very affordable price of calibration colorimeters, even the best ones, doesn't give any decisive argument to their detractors anymore! Let's thus happily step to calibration with a colorimeter...



Calibrate your monitor with a colorimeter

Colormunki Display BoxGone are the days when good calibration equipment was expensive. Nowadays, several generations of colorimeters succeeded the products are technically accomplished, except perhaps in their so-called economic versions (I did not say amateur). Two major brands have released monitor calibration kits, which qualities are no longer questioned: X-Rite and Datacolor. The differences between colorimeters and programs stand in their ability to set precisely:

  • Brightness - 80/140 Cd/M2 -,
  • Black point,
  • Gamma,
  • White point color temperature,
  • Ambient light,
  • Possibility to match several screens in order to align them in a colorimetric way,
  • Possibility to calibrate laptops well,
  • Possibility to calibrate Apple's iPad, - New !
  • Possibility to calibrate Surface Pro et SurfaceBook,
  • Possibility to calibrate a video projector.

Each equipment will be distinguished by its number of settings, its number of calibration modes - basic and advanced - and by its reports at the end of calibration, rather than by the quality of its colorimeter - difficult to assess at home, by the way.

If you consider that we are using the fourth generation of screen calibration colorimeters of very good value for money nowadays, you can certainly assume that the overall quality of colorimeters - 4 recent models today - is completely satisfying, except for two models: the Spyder4Express and Colormunki Smile that I would not recommend to photographers. However, depending on the price, we still see large differences in adjustment possibilities.


Glass or gelatin filters?

Colorimeters with gelatin filters don't age well. After two or three years, if you're not satisfied with your calibration anymore, consider the possibility that the problem is coming from the colorimeter. It must be renewed, even if it has not been used extensively! It is not the number of calibrations performed that is at stack, but the fact that time passes by and gelatin passes away...
And think that X-Rite is releasing its Eye One Display II again, disguised into Colormunki Smile, while precisely, it has gelatin filters???

Datacolor colorimeters have organic filters (though their quality improved since 4th version) and X-Rite Colormunki Display and i1Display Pro have organic glass filters.

1- Install the software then the colorimeter

After installing the profile creation software and the colorimeter on your computer, quite simply as you'll see, you will thus have to calibrate your screen using the said colorimeter, also used for gauging. Your monitor should be turned on for at least 15 minutes before performing any calibration. If not functionning at the right temperature, colors may change slightly even when if it seems imperceptible to the eye. The colorimeter, as for itself, will see the difference!

2 - Monitor brightness and contrast adjustment

The first important point is to set the black and white points of your monitor. Your colorimeter will then be used as a calibration tool. If the monitor is set too dark, the details in the shadows will be lost and if the monitor is too bright the colors will look washed out and it won't be possible to correct them properly. In addition, there will be no correspondence between the image displayed and the one printed.
It is thus important that you can distinguish a difference between a pixel at 0 and a pixel at 2 or 3 on your calibrated monitor, and this is also true for high values​​. Why?
Reminder! Don't look for a setting that would show a difference between a pixel at 254 level and one at 255, because it would mean that you're able to see a difference of 1/255 which is impossible because the most sensitive eyes see a difference of 1/200. If it is technically possible for the monitor to display such a difference, it means that other values are not properly set.

The ideal brightness for a monitor lies between 80 and 140 Cd/m², depending on the luminosity of your work environment or on the destination of your photos: rather 80/100 Cd/m² if you print and 120/140 cd/m² if you only display them on the web. To properly set black point AND white point at the same time, you must adjust your monitor's brightness AND contrast. Brightness setting is used to adjust white point and joint setting of contrast is used to adjust black point.

Tip! On laptop monitors - see this page for recommendations more specific to their calibration -, you can not perform manual contrast adjustment. So it has to be performed automatically. Hopefully the new generation of calibration colorimeters Spyder5Pro, Spyder5Elite, Colormunki Display and i1Display Pro all have this functionality. If you have an older colorimeter, it will be a huge improvement for you to replace it.

My recommendation!

I thus recommend you to set brightness value between 80 and 140 Cd/m2 by sections of 10 Cd/m² then control this adjustment by comparing it to one of your prints. However, if you never print and to the contrary, only share your work on the Internet, you'd better choose a value between 120 and 140 Cd/m2. Concerning contrast, the best is to let the software decide when it is possible. Doing it manually will not bring any improvement or precision.

3 - Gamma setting

Depending on the colorimeter you will use, it is possible to choose the targeted gamma. Theoretically, you should target 2.2 nowadays BUT depending on the monitor you will calibrate, it may be wise to stick to 1.8 if your monitor, often a Graphic Art, is set to 1.8 by default (often for pre-press world). In that case, trying to target 2.2 will not work and after trying it, I do not recommend it. Then choose the native gamma of the monitor.

Note! The war between Mac (1.8 gamma) and PC (2.2 gamma) is now over and Apple is now using the most "natural" gamma for the eye: 2.2.

My recommendation!

In the end, if you calibrate with high-end colorimeter and software, you will have the possibility to choose a gamma value between 1.6 and 2.4 (by sections of 0.1). I suggest you try two or three values ​​around 2.2 and see with which one your monitor's gray gradient is most beautiful. There is a big difference between theory and practice and I was pretty surprised after calibrating around 1.8 or even 2, monitors that were normally made for 2.2. Strange, so let's not be dogmatic! With Graphic Art monitors, choose the native gamma. It is where it will work at its best.

4 - Color temperature adjustment

The last important point is the color temperature of the monitor, or more precisely of its white point. When you display a white in Photoshop (255, 255, 255) does it really look white or is it displayed as a warm white that is to say a little yellow or is it displayed as a cold white that is to say slightly blue? At 9,300 K, default factory setting for most monitors that are not graphic art ones, the monitor is too bright and cold (too blue). For many monitors around 500€/1,000€, the factory setting is around 6,500 K.


Temperature de couleur


The ideal target value is therefore between 5,000 K and 6,500 K, 6,500 K being the traditional color temperature of the light on a sunny day.
Important! 5,000 K is the default setting for the pre-press world as quality print controls are made at 5,000 K. This value has to be chosen with graphic art monitors most of the time, and even a bit more if you have multiple monitors and they are not all of the same quality, as you will never reach 5,000 K with these more conventional monitors. As a compromise, I chose 5,500/5,800 K.
However, if your screen is not calibrated on 5,000 K by default, you will never reach this value - without getting weird defects - with a monitor made ​​to work at 6,500 K or 9,300 K. At 5,000 K, your monitor would look suspiciously yellow and strange! So with all other monitors, I recommend targeting 5,500 to 6,500 K with a preference for 6,000 K. I think it is also more natural when you look at your prints under a natural light or spotlights. No exhibition is lit with 5,000K cabins!

It is important to know that ultimately, the choice is of no real importance as long as color temperature is selected priorily to the characterization of the monitor. 5,000 K indeed corresponds to the D50 illuminant for pre-press, but D65 (6,500 K) is more natural since it corresponds to the daylight we are used to for the 4,000 years. The final choice is yours, depending on your work habits and tastes. Note that the monitor will still get worn out a little bit slower when used at 6,500 K because the gap with the factory default settings is less important. Personally, I like adjusting my color temperature between 5,500 K and 6,000 K.

My recommendation!

Except for Graphic Art monitors which white point temperature is set at 5,000 K, try to set color temperature between 5,500 and 6,000 K. At 5,500 K, low or even medium range monitor are often too yellow (as their default setting is around 9,300 K!). I like 5,800/6,000 K but not all colorimeters enable to choose this value. Now choose wisely!

5 - Ambient light control

Some models of calibration colorimeters enable to measure the ambient light in order to perfect brightness level adjustment. Why not, if this one does not change too much and remains in a stable lightened environment, otherwise why bother? You will find really few color management specialists to tell you that it is essential, at least with old colorimeters, since new generation ones as Colormunki Display make this measurement process mandatory. Also note that it is possible, in those circumstances, to ask the software to measure ambient light regularly and automatically. Real progress or gadget, we will see... Personally, I do not like it because in some cases the solution is worse than the initial problem, especially if your room is lit with fluocompact lamps at night.

My recommendation!
Don't activate this function of ambient light measurement.

6 - Characterization

The next calibration step, called characterization, will happen without your intervention. The colorimeter is required again. Depending on the calibration software you use, a parameter that does not depend on you but on the colorimeter's manufacturer, you will see on your monitor many colored patches, more or less numerous, that the colorimeter will now measure in order to reveal the gamut of your monitor and its color characteristics - else said, its defects! -. This phase highly depends on the quality of your calibration and the quality of the filters inside the colorimeter. Spyder3Express and Pro or Elite version don't have the same, although they're all made by Datacolor. In addition to that, with the colorimeter control program, they determine the quality of the process.

Finally, you just have to check visually if everything seems to have gone well and above all, give a name to the ICC profile of your monitor that day. Your monitor is now calibrated!



Check your calibration with three tests

I invite you to perform the following tests in order to check the quality of your calibration:

  • Black point
  • White point
  • Grey gradient.

Check black and white points...

There is a simple way to check that your screen is not too dark or too bright with Photoshop. Here is the procedure:

1 - Create a new document of the size of your monitor definition. CMD+N (CRTL+N) and fill it, using the paint bucket (shortcut G), with black (0, 0, 0) or white (255, 255, 255) ...
2 - Create a rectangular selection (shortcut M) in the middle of your window, about 150 to 200 pixels wide.
3 - Hide this selection with CMD+H (CTRL+H).
4 - Create a Curves adjustment layer.
Vérification du point noira) For black point (on a black background): click on the bottom left part of the curve to display the input and output fields. Set 3 as output value and have a look at the zone of your selection at the center of your screen. If you can see a slight difference appearing, it is OK, otherwise, your monitor is too contrasted. You need to try to calibrate your monitor with a lower contrast value.
Vérification du point blancb) For white point control (on a white background): click on the top right part of the curve to display the input and output fields..
Put 252/253 instead of 255 as output value and do the same check on the central part of your monitor, in the selection area. You must see a slightly greyish rectangle appear. The selection rectangle is brighter by two or three luminosity levels if you check black point and very light grey, distinct from white, if you check white point.
Type twice the F key and then Tab. This will display your document in fullmonitor without the tool bars and menus, therefore without any window that could mislead your observation of black or very light grey.

In your work environment, if your monitor is set properly, you should see the rectangle slightly lighter if you perform the control for blacks and slightly grey if you perform the control for whites.
This checking process is valid with all the calibration procedures and works very well.


Choose your gamma and check its calibration...

Dégradé de gris dans PhotoshopThere is a simple way to check that the monitor works with the best gamma in Photoshop and that the colorimeter chosen is the best one (in case you want to compare); here is the procedure:

1 - Create a new document the size of your monitor definition. CMD+N (CRTL+N) with an sRGB ICC profile...
2 - Choose the gradient tool, from black to white (G),
3 - Pull the gradient from the top left to bottom right. The monitor should fill with a nice gradient... it should!

Then just observe. You will be able to see two things:

Possible tone breakings, sometimes colored ones, indicating a bad calibration or the limits of your monitor.
A nice progressive gradient from black to white. Often, the black or white proportion is too high, indicating you a wrong choice of brightness, contrast or gamma values.

Écran après calibrage avec cassures de tons

Tone breakings are highly visible and characterize a low-quality panel.

Écean sans cassures de tons

And here is how it can look like when you calibrate a good monitor using a very good colorimeter! (here a MacBook Pro 15 inches monitor calibrated with the colorimeter i1Display Pro).


Finally, I recommend to perform calibration three or four times a year, the first three years, when the monitor is doing well and maybe a little more often then. I stopped calibrating every week long ago!
One exception: professional editors will do it every week or before each important session of edits, but they have a contractual obligation to work on the best monitors and a regular calibration is compulsory, to "make sure".

To be remembered!

Calibrate your monitor visually is delirious nowadays! Buy a good colorimeter from $170 on.

The eye, as a tool, is excellent for a comparison job, but terrible without a reference!

Calibrate at 80-100 Cd/m² if you want to print your pictures and use a value of 120-140 Cd/m² if you just want to display your images on internet.

Choose a gamma of 2.2 except if your monitor is a Graphic Art monitor which native gamma is almost always 1.8.

Choose a color temperature of 5,800/6,000 K: for the most part of monitors, it represents a good compromise, slightly "warm". If you have a Graphic Art monitor, choose a value between 5,000 and 5,500 K.
Note! Not all calibration devices enable to choose 5,500 K or 6,500 K.

Do not always check ambient light : because if your room has low consumption lamps, the light spectrum is not uniform and the automatic correction of the ICC profile will be a disaster!

If you're an amateur photographer, or even a professional but you're not a professional editor, you can calibrate your monitor only 3/4 times a year. However, if you're demanding hence on a top-range monitor, a very regular calibration will always be recommended (just in case!).

All calibration colorimeters on the market suivre

My recommendations to choose and buy a photo monitor suivre







  Buy the best colorimeter : the i1Display Pro !
Read my full review Suivre


From $120,00



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