It really is that simple. People often ask me about why their prints don’t come out as expected. The first thing I ask is whether or not their monitor is calibrated. If it isn’t, I tell them to calibrate their monitors and if they still have a problem, then we can discuss the problem further. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons why a print may not match one's expectations; however, you have to start ruling some things out. A good place to start would be to ensure that you actually know what your images look like. Read our article on Soft Proofing and discover why monitor calibration is so important.
In order to make it easier for people to determine which monitor calibration system to purchase, American Frame hired me to test a number of the current offerings on the market and see how they work in the real world. My first selection criteria was the ability to support the latest versions of Windows 7 and Mac OSX Lion as well as Windows Vista and Mac OSX Snow Leopard. There are some older devices out that don’t work with the latest operating systems, so I didn’t include them. Ultimately, I decided upon both an entry level and an advanced outfit from each of the big players in the field: Datacolor and X-Rite. Thus the lineup consisted of the Datacolor Spyder 4 Express, the Datacolor Spyder 4 Elite, the X-Rite ColorMunki Display, and the X-Rite I1 Display Pro.
If you just want to know which one I recommend for all but the most advanced users, allow me to cut to the chase: I recommend the X-Rite ColorMunki Display. It is a great combination of simplicity and power. The fun name speaks to the light hearted nature of the package. The software is by far the most well refined and easiest to use of the bunch. The software walks you through each step of the process and offers a very well made video tutorials, should you need them, for nearly each step. The results are also right on. From install to complete calibration can be achieved in less than 15 minutes. At this writing, the X-Rite ColorMunki Display retails for $199, but can be found for around $175.
Let’s begin with a basic understanding of what a monitor calibration outfit is and what it does. There are a just a few companies that make packages to calibrate monitors. The packages always consist of software and hardware in the form of an electronic device called a colorimeter or spectrophotometer that measures how color and tone are displayed on your monitor. All the packages here come with a colorimeter. A colorimeter differs from a spectrophotometer in that it can only measure transmitted light whereas a spectrophotometer can also measure reflected materials. This means that a spectrophotometer can be used to calibrate and create printer profiles, whereas a colorimeter can only calibrate and produce monitor profiles. That being said, this allows colorimeters to be tailored to the task. I wouldn’t dwell on the details of it other than to say that all the kits I am reviewing only allow you to calibrate your monitor.
Here you can see the ColorMunki positioned on a laptop for taking measurements.
All these packages have the same goal: to remove subjective human judgment from the process in an attempt to make monitor calibration truly objective. Essentially, the software displays color swatches on the screen and the device records the value of the color that is displayed on your monitor. Thus, it discovers the limits of the monitor. They also measure the brightness and tone response of the display. The software can then direct you to make changes in the brightness and contrast of the monitor as needed. Depending on the monitor used, the software can actually adjust the brightness of the monitor for you. This is a really nice feature as it makes everything truly automatic (and fast!).
The software then uses this data to create what is known as a monitor profile. This profile is placed into the appropriate folder of the operating system where it is utilized to ensure accurate color and tone.
What does it actually calibrate?
There are three main characteristics that need to be set when calibrating a monitor.
White point is the color of white. That may seem like a silly statement. Of course white is white, right? Not really though. Look around you. Look at all the many different items that we call white. Notice the slight differences in color? Which one is truly white? Well, that depends on what white you want! While there is no industry standard, there is industry consensus that a white point of 6500 Kelvin (or 65k which is its close cousin) is a nice target value. It is an ever so slightly blue white. All these packages shoot for this by default. Since all colors relate to how white looks, it has a major impact on how all the colors are displayed. Many monitors come from the factory set to overly bright and too blue. Often after calibration, people find their monitors to appear dark and yellow.
Another key setting is gamma. Gamma is the setting that determines how the monitor will display the contrast of the image. It is a function of input to output. The human eye doesn’t see light in a linear fashion. A gamma function is used to map linear input data to a non-linear output that looks natural to us. If you have a background in black and white photography, it helps to think of the gamma as being similar to contrast graded printing papers. Depending on the grade of paper selected, an image printed from the same negative will have more or less contrast than when printed on a different grade of paper. Similarly, when a digital image is viewed with a Gamma of 1.8, it appears to have more contrast than when viewed on a monitor with the Gamma set to 2.2.The industry consensus is 2.2. All these packages shoot for this by default. If you are an advanced user and need to select a different gamma, then go with the Spyder4 Elite of the X-Rite I1 Display Pro.
Brightness, also referred to as Luminance, is the last criteria. The default target value of the X-Rite software is 120 cd/m². Unless you have a reason to change it, I suggest you stick with this. By default, X-Rite’s ColorMunki Display and X-Rite’s I1 Display Pro will use this as a target value. By default, the Datacolor units will not change the brightness of the display. I don’t like this. The number one complaint about prints is that they appear too dark in relation to the image on the monitor. This is largely due to the default brightness of monitors being much too bright. It has been my experience that most monitors are set at upwards of 250 cd/m² by default. Setting the brightness in the range of 120 or so will generally result in a darker monitor. A brightness of 120 cd/m² is bright enough to comfortably edit images and for general use without being too bright. It will also go a great ways towards achieving a screen to print match. I generally set my brightness to 120 cd/m² on all my monitors. On a side note, many students have told me how much nicer it is to work on a calibrated monitor as it isn’t so hard on the eyes. This may seem trivial, but if you work on the computer all day, you will appreciate the ‘kinder’ on your eyes look of a calibrated monitor with reduced brightness.
In general, these packages begin by asking what target values you want to use. Once selected, the software will prompt you to set the measurement device on your monitor. To keep it there, there is a counterweight on the wire that can be adjusted. You have to pull on the counterweight of the Spyder units to move it. I don’t like having to pull on any wire; ever. On the X-Rite products, there is a little tab that you hold down which allows you to freely slide the counterweight.
Be sure to have your monitor on for at least one half hour before trying to calibrate it to ensure that it has warmed up and reached stable color. Also, be sure not to that you don’t have any bright light hitting the monitor. Move any lamps that may be beaming onto the display. I suggest that you work in an area with reduced brightness if possible (if nothing else, don’t turn all the lights on and open up all the blinds).
I began this review with some biases based on experience. I have owned and/or used a large number of monitor calibration packages over the years. During most of this time, my go-to device has been an X-Rite i1 Pro that I used with Gretag Macbeth’s i1 Match for nearly a decade. Recently, i1Match was replaced by i1 Publish/Profiler. The X-Rite i1 Pro device is actually a spectrophotometer as opposed to all the devices in this review which are colorimeters. This means that it can measure both reflective and trans missive light. Functionally, that means it can be used to create both monitor and printer profiles. It was around $1,500 when purchased new (it has just recently been replaced by the i1 Pro 2). I like the system and I am comfortable with its use.
I have also used an X-Rite Display as well as the X-Rite Display 2 a number of times.
I also had an X-Rite PrintMunki for awhile. It is an entry level spectrophotometer system that allows for the creation of printer and monitor profiles. I never really warmed up to it. I thought the device itself was very fussy. Let’s just say; neoprene and a zipper were needlessly involved. It never sat well against the monitor. I thought the results were good, but I just never liked using it.
I have read much about the new Datacolor Spyder 4 line up and was excited to try it. For years, I used Datacolor’s/Colorvision’s OptiCal, with an early Spyder, in a school where I taught. It worked fine. I was interested in seeing the latest and greatest version.
Let’s get to it
All the colorimeters are surprisingly small. They all appear well constructed. The Spyder 4 devices appear identical to one another aside from color. Their specs imply that they are the same exact hardware, but I don’t know this with certainty. The X-Rite devices also look to be the same, but my understanding is that the hardware housed within their identical shells that vary a good deal. The I1 Display Pro is supposed to be much faster.
1. ColorMunki Display