Common online advice is that it is important to color calibrate your monitors. But if you are like me, you probably have struggled to get through this.
In this post, I’m going to talk about my attempts to get my monitors calibrated, with some items specific to the model of monitor I’m using, the BenQ SW2700.
The first item you’ll want is a high quality monitor. I realize this is a little bit of a vague statement. There are many different reasons to buy a monitor, and many different considerations. For a photographer, refresh rate is not as important as color gamut and ease of calibration. When I purchased my 2 monitors last year, I opted for a 2K monitor because #1 – even at 27in, you really can’t see the difference, #2 – the SW2700 had Adobe RGB and was highly recommended, especially at the price point, and #3 – it was several hundred dollars cheaper. Since I was buying an entirely new computer with 2 new monitors, saving $400 was nice.
The next item you’ll need is a calibration tool. These are usually in the shape of a hockey puck. While there are others, there are 2 main product lines, the Spyder by Datacolor and the Color Munki by X-Rite. I personally have a Spyder 5 but have also used an old X-Rite. While I like the Spyder a lot better, the X-Rite is over 10 years old and hasn’t been supported since around 2015, so it isn’t a fair comparison.
Spyder and X-Rite produce their own software. This software will create an ICC profile. Your operating system will take the information in the ICC profile to show more accurate colors on your screen. ICC profiles are also used for printers, different printer paper, etc.
Some monitor manufacturers will create their own software. BenQ has their own software called ‘Palette Master Element’. This software can use calibration hardware by other manufacturers, like Datacolor, to perform calibrate the monitor. This software writes a LUT to the monitor itself.
ICC vs LUT
What is the difference between an ICC and a LUT? At the core, they send a signal of a known color – let’s say, Red at 125 intensity – and see what they get back. If the software sends a 125, but measures a 130, it tries to lower the value until it gets close to 125. The same happens if the value is too low. The process then looks like this – 1 – Software sends a color value (Red 125), 2 – Color value is intercepted and altered (Red 121) so that, 3 – Correct color is displayed on the monitor (Red 125).
The main difference is where the value is intercepted and altered. In the case of an ICC, the alteration happens at the Operating System level. In the case of a LUT, the monitor is performing this task itself. This does mean that for an ICC, the profile is stored on the computer and moving the monitor to a new computer will require recalibration. For the LUT method, the monitor should be able to get moved to a new computer and still be close – the monitor knows that when it receives a signal, how to make the changes to display the image best.
A LUT is more accurate, but the ICC profile method of calibration works on every monitor.
So … Why Would Someone Care?
The goal is to be able to ensure consistent image quality when displaying on screen, printing, and sharing with others who have calibrated environments.
In the past, when I first started to print my images, I found things were not right. Most monitors are set too bright. For some reason, we like this, and there are probably situations where this is best. But when you have a monitor that is too bright and you try to print an image, it will be too dark. Many years ago when I was printing, I would need to make the image 1-1.5 stops brighter before the print looked right. Yikes.
Another issue when sharing is the color accuracy. Humans tend to prefer cooler color temperatures in images. That is to say, an image with too much blue may be the ‘better’ one to most people. With that in mind, most Apple computers come factory calibrated far too blue. When you first correct the image, it will look too red and you won’t like it. Give it a few hours and see if you feel the same.
What are the calibration targets?
When calibrating your screen, there are a handful of ‘targets’ you want to hit.
The general rule is 120 Nits (or candelas, a measure of brightness), D65 white point, and a gamma of 2.2.
The brightness is a starting point and will depend on the room you are in. For me personally, I target 140, as I find 120 uncomfortably dark in my room.
Why Did I Write This?
I have really struggled getting both monitors to calibrate correctly. There were some issues, and it was somewhat difficult to sync 2 identical BenQ monitors. Here is what I learned.
1 – You need to connect the USB cable on the monitor in order to be able to calibrate them.
2 – You need to unplug the monitor you are not calibrating. This was the key item that took me a while to figure out. When you have 2 identical monitors connected, the software seems to be unable to calibrate monitor 2 correctly. Having only one monitor would be a lot simpler and would have eliminated this issue.
3 – You should plug the calibration device into the USB hub on the monitor you are calibrating.
4 – 120 Nits is too dark for the ambient light in my room. 140-150 is much more comfortable for me. This is probably the biggest variable for anyone who is calibrating their monitors.
5 – Lists need 5 items.
What would be the next Step?
Calibrating my prints. If I chose to go this way and end up making a lot of prints, I may wish to calibrate the prints themselves.
This would start with several ICC profiles, one for the printer itself and one for the paper.
You then print out a test sheet and run a calibration tool over the paper. This created a new custom ICC profile for Printer X with Paper Y. For someone who makes a dozen printer per year, this likely isn’t worth the effort. If you are printing a lot, or have a print about to appear in the Louvre for the next 150 years, then this effort makes sense.
If you are using a commercial printer, they likely have profiles for their printers already created. You can download these and then soft proof the print to see what it should look like.
At the end of this effort, you should have prints that match your monitor as close as possible.