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How important is it to have your monitor calibrated? It depends on what you're using it for. Most PC monitors are not designed for professional level photo adjustments. They are designed for much simpler and ordinary tasks. Whether it's gaming, browsing the internet or working with spreadsheets, colour or brightness of what we see is almost irrelevant - as long as it serves the purpose. After rapid extinction of old CRT monitors LCD's prices went down - we can now buy brand new LCD 17" monitor for under £50. And as said before - they would serve many uses with great effect. But how good are they with our photos?

As with many things in life - good monitors come at a price.  Let's focus on commonly used, standard LCD screen, typically used at homes and offices There is a chance that's the type you are looking ast now. Even worst monitor's performance in the field of photography can be improved by following few simple steps. I will take you through those in a moment. We'll also look into operating system specific ways to calibrate your screens. System embedded colour calibration is probably well known to Apple Mac users but it actually also Windows had this function embedded into it since Windows XP. We'll cover this simple setup here but now let's concentrate on the basics. Before any monitor calibration make sure it has been on for at least 30mins.

1. Make sure that your computer is using the highest possible resolution for monitor/graphic card combination.

2. Set the color bit to 32. (While on a clear area of your desktop - Right Click/Screen Resolution/Advanced Settings/Monitor/Colours - make sure 32-bit is selected)

Now, once the above are checked we can start working with determining optimal brightness. The image below shows a series of rectangles - in the middle the value is 255 - pure white. The top sections shows large rectangles with 254/253/252/251 values. Many monitors will shows all of them as white, without any difference between them. Most likely this is caused by too high brigthness. Try to lower the brighntess so the difference shows up - depending on the quality of the monitor it can be at a different point- 251 or 252 or even 254 on better quality screens. Too high brightness which is very common will also have adverse effect on your eyes - which will get tired quicker. Another negative effect is also on our energy bills - the brighter the screen the more power is used. In our studio monitors are set from as low as 30-40% of the maximum brightness. This changes with time as monitor age, and roughly every 6 months they require a slight increase in brigthtness. The difference between what you see on your screen and final print is also caused by the difference in monitor's white point vs media white point. If you will struggle to find a paper which is as bright as your screen you can imagine that our canvas is also going to be a lot darker in comparison. Our studio will look at the images uploaded and always check them on 'uncalibrated' screen - a standard pc screen - in most cases we will increase brightness - using variety of techniques - either globally or selectively to areas of an image. 

While adjusting the brighntess it is also a good idea to keep an eye on shadows - if the screen is set to dark we will also be loosing some darker areas - image below shows dark tones with 100% in the middle and 1/2/3/4 at the top.


Monitor Calibration - shadows


An important factor when adjusting brighntess by looking at the above images is also correct angle of the monitor. Please make sure your monitor's centre is at your eye level - if that's not the case it may help if it is slighlty tilted - look at your screen from different angles - this is also a mark of professional monitors - their viewing angle is much wider than the cheaper ones. You will usually see more differentiantion in dark tones if monitor is tilted down. Titling it up will help if highlights don't show correctly. Please note this is not remedy to monitor's limitations - just a simple test to see if monitor is positioned correctly.

Once this simple adjustment is done we can look a bit deeper into gamma settings. What is monitor gamma? Gamma defines the relationship between a pixel's values and its actual brighntess (luminance). For more precise information about gamma please see this gamma correction article on Wikipedia. The image below is designed to check correct settings for PC screens as it is designed for gamma 2.2 which is widely used by PC users. When setup is correct the difference between the grey background and black stripes should be minimal. For now step back at least 1m away from your monitor. Keep your eyes on the same level as you normally use it. And now note which square blends best into the background. This is your current gamma value.

Monitor gamma checker

If you find your monitor to be off the desired 2.2 there is an easy way to solve this issue. There is a brilliant piece of software which allows to change gamma settings, called Powerstrip http://entechtaiwan.com/util/ps.shtm

After installation and machine restart it will start automatically with Windows and changes to gamma can be applied by using combination of Ctrl+Alt + Num - and Ctrl+Alt + Num +

Powerstrip also has a lot of useful information and detailed settings for your graphic card - higlhy recommended.

The 2.2 gamma asumption above is made for pc screens as this is what historically was always used for pc's. Apple Mac OX up to the latest OX 10.6 Snow Leopard version was using 1.8 gamma value. Now it is also using 2.2 - the main reason being Apple's care to 'To better serve the needs of consumers and digital content producers'. Within graphic design and photo retouch community 1.8 was always the favourite choice, even for pc's. Apple is assuring that most images will look exactly the same on new 2.2. settings as they are rendered via ColorSync profiles.


Basic calibration is easily available on an Apple Mac computers - simple 'by eye' calibration will still be much better than no calibration at all. On a PC's to surprise of many users actually there also is a similar application embedded within Windows operating system - I believe it started with Widnows XP,  and have been developed - in Windows 7 the easiest way is just to type 'Calibrate' in search window - and 'Calibrate display color' will appear. The process is fairly simple and after visual assesment of a few patterns and colour bars colours displayed on our screens will be much more accurate than before. This type of calibration is quite basic but availability of it at least provides some starting point. And there is no excuse  to not use it.

Another potential isse which can cause differencies between what we see on our monitors and print is colour management within applications we use. It may come as a surprise but even when using same computer, same image may look different in widnows pricture viewer and internet browser. Picture viewer is fully colour managed and will read tag attached to the image (normally this come from the image source, i.e digital camera) while Internet Explorer does not use colour management at all. The latest version 9 is trying to tackle the problem by asuming all files are in sRGB colour space and all monitors are sRGB (which simple isn't true). The only internet browser which is fully colour managed and allows user to configure this settings is Mozilla Firefox.  Since the scope of this small guide will not hold such a large subject as browser colour management to include all browsers and their versions - please see Gear Oracle website which has also got very interesting browser test to check your browser's response to tagged images.


to be continued ....

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