Thursday, 27 July 2017

Quick and Dirty Monitor Calibration

Colour management and calibration is one of those mystic arts. As photographers it's something we know we should be doing, but most of us never do. And lets face it, most of the time we get away with it. Modern LCD monitors are very good right out of the box, and computer software programmes (like Photoshop) apply ICC profiles automatically that help us get the best out of our gear without even having to think about it. I bet most of you don't even know what ICC profiles are - do you?

As a graphic designer who supplied files to different clients and commercial printers, I used to own a very expensive set of colour calibration tools. Dirty little secret time - I hardly ever used them. There's just so many variables when you really get involved with colour management (time of day, workspace surroundings, type of paper if your printing etc), that it's just easier to put it in the 'too hard' basket and forget about it. And as I've already mentioned, today's technology does a lot of it for us anyway.

Having said all that, I am still skilled enough to be able to tell if my monitor calibration is a bit 'off'. And this was certainly the case with my Asus monitor for my home desktop system. I built my own computer last year, and the monitor was unfortunately one of the last items on my list. I was running out of money fast, so purchased a cheap, second-hand monitor. Not ideal, but the best I could do. It's certainly not a bad monitor, but it's probably something I should be upgrading sooner rather than later.

I suspected that the monitor itself was set a little 'hot', and that I was over-compensating with the blacks when I processed an image. Whenever I took an image file from my home system into work (where I have a set of very nice Dell monitors), the image was a bit too dark. Since I don't have any of my colour calibration tools anymore, I did what any red-blooded modern man would do - I Googled 'free monitor calibration software'.

There are, of course, several options out there. But the one I decided to try was Natural Color Pro (only for Windows). It's a free download, and is actually a monitor calibration programme for Samsung monitors, but it will work on any brand. It takes you through six easy steps; allowing you to fine tune brightness, contrast, gamma (red, blue & green) and lighting conditions, before spitting out an ICC profile it applies to your computer.

The six steps are very easy to follow, and while it might be a bit too basic for the hard-core colour management gurus among us, it actually did a really good job of fixing the problem that I was aware of already. My monitor was indeed far too bright, and I had to lower the brightness way down from my original setting.

Once the profile was loaded, I went into Lightroom and looked at some of the images that I had edited recently. It was instantly obvious that I had been too heavy-handed with the blacks and shadows. The histograms were a bit of a giveaway as well (all bunching up on the left), which is partly what eluded me to the problem in the first place. Now that my monitor has been 'calibrated' I'm seeing so much more detail in the shadows, and my histograms are making much more sense!
Colour management is one of those topics that can make grown men run screaming from a room in fear. It's not for the faint of heart - but it's also something that, as photographers, we do need to be aware of. If you have a feeling that your computer monitor isn't displaying colours accurately, then some type of monitor calibration routine might be worth a crack. It doesn't have to be onerous. Maybe a simple - free - programme like Natural Color Pro might just be the answer?  

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