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Buying Guide to Monitor Calibrators
Article Details

Last Updated
23rd of January, 2013

A monitor calibration device is the single most important part of achieving a colour accurate workflow.

It is absolutely an essential part of achieving high quality results with digital imaging - it is in no way optional. If you have a monitor - no matter how modest or fantastic, you need a monitor calibrator!

While there are a million wrong ways to try and achieve consistent and accurate colour in the digital imaging process, a hardware calibration device is the simple, affordable, and accurate way of skipping all the mistakes, mucking around, and expense associated with ad-hoc 'twiddle this to make that match' type solutions.

If you're not working on a calibrated monitor, you simply can not expect consistent and accurate results, either from your own printing or from a lab. There is simply no way you can conclude, for example, that a print is 'too magenta', if it is very much possible your monitor is not displaying colour accurately.

There are now options ranging from $125 through to about $350. Any one of them is significantly better than no calibration or 'eye based calibration'.

Jump To:

  1. If you want to, you can read more generally about Colour Control on Monitors
    (which discusses the various calibration methods from least effective to most effective
    I.e. no calibration, eye calibration, software calibration, through to the best option, direct hardware calibration)
  2. What will a monitor calibrator do for me?
  3. How often will I use it?
  4. This only does monitors - what about my prints?
  5. Professional level monitor calibrators
  6. An excellent budget option for beginners

What will a monitor calibrator do for me?

A monitor calibrator actually works in two stages.

The first stage is calibration - using the physical controls on your monitor, you set your monitor into the best possible state for digital imaging. This means setting it as close as possible to a known standard (usually, a white point of 6500 Kelvin and gamma of 2.2, with a brightness (luminosity) appropriate for your working conditions).

Once calibrated, the system profiles the calibrated state of your monitor. A series of colours are displayed on your screen and read in by the monitor calibration device. A table is created that lists the colours your monitor should have displayed versus the colours your monitor did display. This table is then installed into your computer's video card, and used to modify the video cards signal from that point on - so the results is colour that compensates for the inaccuracies of your display.

The final results is a screen in its best possible state for digital imaging work.

The profile is also used by Photoshop (and other ICC colour management savvy applications), to display images with clinical accuracy on your system. Having images displayed with accuracy on your screen is the first step in developing a system you can trust and use to get professional quality results. If your monitor is properly calibrated and you deliver a digital file to a lab, and the print comes back poorly done, you can definitively tell the lab that the fault was theirs. You will be able to make fine adjustments to files, with changes of as little as 1% in colour tone easily visible and accurately reflected. You will be able to work with a new found level of precision and confidence.

(More about calibration versus profiling)

How often will I use it?

Professional Photographers calibrate at least once a month and before any major cash generating job. The average home use will find that every 4 to 8 weeks is sufficient (varies depending on the age and quality of the monitor). The process takes less than 10 minutes.

Basically, monitors (both LCDs and CRTs) drift over time. You should let the monitor warm up for half an hour before calibration, as there are usually big colour changes in the first few minutes of using a monitor. If your monitor is older or brand new, then calibration will need to be done more frequently.

Ok the monitor is sorted, what about prints?

If you are doing your own printing:

The final stage in achieving a colour accurate workflow is to have high quality custom printer profiles made for your printer and your favourite papers. You can add two custom printer profiles to the purchase of any monitor calibrator for just $110. Just tick the Colour Solution Package box when you add the monitor calibrator to your cart.

Alternatively, you can consider a complete workflow calibration option based around a spectrophotometer. This gives you complete control but brings with it a much higher price tag and greater complexity.

If you have your prints done by a lab:

You should find you get back excellent, accurate prints from your lab at this stage, if your lab is good.

If not, we recommend you change to a lab that has colour management at the heart of its processes. Unfortunately, a lot of labs talk the talk but do not walk the walk. A good sign is if they offer ICC profiles available for easy download off their website (just like this!).

We'll get in trouble if we recommend/don't recommend any particular lab here but you're welcome to send us an email and ask us for advice. Between our own experience, and that related to us by over 7000 clients, we have a pretty good idea of which labs offer high quality results and which don't.

You might also like to consider our own fine art printing service, which of course uses high quality colour management.

Professional Monitor Calibrators - which one should you buy?

i1DisplayProFirst, consider the new ColorMunki (available in separate versions for Photographers or Designers) - at around $500 it can calibrate both monitors and printers, and does so very easily and quite well. Obviously this is a greater investment than just a monitor calibrator, though, so if you don't do your own printing, then you will just need a monitor calibrator. But if you do do your own printing, having the ability to fully colour manage the image production loop will significantly increase both the quality and ease of your image making processes.

In terms of monitor only calibrators, as of August 2011 there is a pretty clear cut choice in this area. The new i1Display Pro represents a major leap forward in monitor calibrator accuracy and is the first really interesting development in this area in years. We strongly recommend this calibrator to ALL image makers. The accuracy of this device has been independently tested and found to be an order of magnitude ahead of older calibrators (such as the Eye One Display 1 & 2 and Spyders 1, 2 & 3). It has been specifically designed to cope with modern monitors - such as those with LED backlighting (like iMacs/Cinema Displays) and Wide Gamut screens (these days, most monitors). Data from NEC's magnificent PA monitors was used in the development of these calibrators so this combination should offer superb accuracy.

All signs indicate it will shortly be compatible with the two major direct hardware calibration systems (SpectraView 2 and ColorNavigator - see here for more information).

If you are using classic Software Calibration with your screen - say you own an iMac or a Cinema Display or standard desktop monitor like a Dell Ultrasharp - indeed this is true of rally ANY screen at the moment - the i1Display Pro is still the obvious choice.

The Best budget option - Spyder4Express

Spyder4ExpressThe DataColor Spyder 4 Express offers a very affordable colour management system - at about $160 it's hard to beat! Like most cheaper calibrators it does most of its work in profiling rather than calibration, but it absolutely trounces the other budget options in terms of accuracy and reliability - it is slightly slower to use, but the quality is well worth the extra time.

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