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Desktop or notebook screen calibration with a colorimeter


How to calibrate your monitor?

Published on April 11, 2011   |  Updated on January 16, 2020


Now that you are convinced about the importance of calibrating your monitor with a colorimeter, I am going to help you do it through this page, and especially to help you choose the right target values ​​(gamma, color temperature, brightness...) according to whether you have purchased a medium or high-end screen.

In the first part dedicated to monitor calibration, in the previous page, we defined important notions and vocabulary, such as calibration/gauging and characterization. We saw that these two steps are part of calibration in a general way.
In this second part, I will now try to show you why you should calibrate your monitor with a colorimeter and not to the naked eye from a random print for instance, and then explain the settings and ideal values to use to calibrate your screen according to your use of it.





Monitor calibration : with or without colorimeter?

Let's get rid of this problem immediatly! It is impossible without a colorimeter, because the human eye has two major drawbacks: 

  • It is unable to determine the level of brightness of a monitor, but we know it should be around 80/140 cd/m² depending on its main use,
  • And it is unable to "read" an L*a*b* color without having any comparison support.

Considering these two reasons, it is impossible to perform a good calibration to the naked eye. You could possibly approach something not too bad, especially on a very good screen but not more. And to close this old debate forever: defects are never linear. Your monitor is never too magenta on the whole spectrum but only between one brightness value and another. So no chance to correct a grayscale with such a local area of color predominance.


The correction curves of the RGB signals of a display after calibration: the three curves are not linear and vary according to the brightness level of each RGB channel. So you MUST CALIBRATE with a colorimeter!

The very affordable price of calibration colorimeters, even the best ones, doesn't give any decisive argument to their detractors anymore! Let's thus happily step to calibration with a colorimeter...  




Calibrate your monitor with a colorimeter

Gone are the days when good calibration equipment was expensive. Nowadays, several generations of colorimeters succeeded the products are technically accomplished, except perhaps in their so-called economic versions (I did not say amateur), although Datacolor updated its Express version in 2015 (Spyder5Express) and it is now a very good and reliable colorimeter to recommend to beginners (even if it still has a strong constraint). Two major brands have released monitor calibration kits, which qualities are no longer questioned: X-Rite and Datacolor. The differences between colorimeters and programs stand in their ability to set precisely:

  • Brightness - 80/140 Cd/M2 -,
  • Black point,
  • Gamma,
  • White point color temperature,
  • Ambient light,
  • Possibility to match several screens in order to align them in a colorimetric way,
  • Possibility to calibrate laptops well,
  • Possibility to calibrate Apple's iPad,
  • Possibility to calibrate a video projector.

Each equipment will be distinguished by its number of settings, its number of calibration modes - basic and advanced - and by its reports at the end of calibration, rather than by the quality of its colorimeter - difficult to assess at home, by the way.

If you consider that we are using the fourth generation of screen calibration colorimeters of very good value for money nowadays, you can certainly assume that the overall quality of colorimeters - 4 recent models today - is completely satisfying, except for two models: the Spyder4Express and Colormunki Smile that I would not recommend to photographers. However, depending on the price, we still see large differences in adjustment possibilities. 


Colorimeters with glass or gelatin filters?

Old colorimeters with gelatin filters don't age well. After two or three years, if you're not satisfied with your calibration anymore, consider the possibility that the problem is coming from the colorimeter. It must be renewed, even if it has not been used extensively! It is not the number of calibrations performed that is at stack, but the fact that time passes by and gelatin passes away...
And think that X-Rite is releasing its Eye One Display II again, disguised into Colormunki Smile, while precisely, it has gelatin filters???

The current Datacolor and X-Rite colorimeters have organic glass (plastic!) mass tinted filters. They are, in essence, less accurate than gelatin filters but significantly more resistant to the passage of time (and of better quality in the latest Spyder5 version from Datacolor).


1 - Install the software then the colorimeter

After installing the profile creation software and the colorimeter on your computer, quite simply as you'll see, you will thus have to calibrate your screen using the said colorimeter, also used for gauging. Your monitor should be turned on for at least 15 minutes before performing any calibration. If not functionning at the right temperature, colors may change slightly even when if it seems imperceptible to the eye. The colorimeter, as for itself, will see the difference!

2 - Choose the right backlight technology... or let it happen!

Sometimes, the screen calibration software asks you to indicate the backlight technology of the screen (CCFL, Diode, etc...) if it cannot detect it automatically. Depending on this technology, the color matrix (the short calculation basis) used by the software will be different and will influence the calibration. However, this is all the more true since the 1.6 version of i1 Profiler from X-Rite and the recent high-end displays. As I explain on my blog during the BenQ PG2401PT review, the famous Delta E can go from 2.73 to 0.84 !!!! 

Note at the beginning of 2018! The latest software updates do the job very well automatically.

3 - Monitor brightness and contrast adjustment

The first important point is to set the black and white points of your monitor. Your colorimeter will then be used as a calibration tool. If the monitor is set too dark, the details in the shadows will be lost and if the monitor is too bright the colors will look washed out and it won't be possible to correct them properly. In addition, there will be no correspondence between the image displayed and the one printed.
It is thus important that you can distinguish a difference between a pixel at 0 and a pixel at 2 or 3 on your calibrated monitor, and this is also true for high values​​. Why?

Reminder!  Don't look for a setting that would show a difference between a pixel at 254 level and one at 255, because it would mean that you're able to see a difference of 1/255 which is impossible because the most sensitive eyes see a difference of 1/200. If it is technically possible for the monitor to display such a difference, it means that other values are not properly set.

The ideal brightness for a monitor lies between 80 and 140 Cd/m², depending on the luminosity of your work environment or on the destination of your photos: rather 80/100 Cd/m² if you print and 120/140 cd/m² if you only display them on the web. To properly set black point AND white point at the same time, you must adjust your monitor's brightness AND contrast. The brightness setting is used to adjust the white point and the joint contrast setting is used to adjust the black point and the dynamics between the two. Choose "native contrast" if you work without printing and prefer "287-1" if you print very regularly in a "controlled" light environment. This contrast ratio is that of the eye when looking at a print.

Tip!  On laptop monitors - see this page for recommendations more specific to their calibration -, you can not perform manual contrast adjustment. So it has to be performed automatically. Hopefully the new generation of calibration colorimeters SpyderX Pro, SpyderX Elite, Colormunki Display and i1Display Pro all have this functionality. If you have an older colorimeter, it will be a huge improvement for you to replace it.


Be careful if you calibrate a laptop or an iMac!

Indeed, these computers always activate by default in their monitor preferences the "Automatic brightness" option, which must absolutely be deactivated BEFORE starting the calibration.

IMac brightness settings options

UNCHECK "Automatically adjust brightness"


4 - Gamma and ICC standard setting: V2 or V4

A - Gamma : Depending on the colorimeter you will use, it is possible to choose the targeted gamma. In absolute terms, you should now target 2.2, but if your calibration software allows it, you can also try the L Star curve, especially if you regularly print your photos. Finally, if you calibrate with a high-end calibrator and software, you will have the option of choosing between 1.6 and 2.4 in 0.1 increments. I advise you to try on two or three values around 2.2 and see with which gradient of your monitor is the most beautiful. With the so-called Art-graphic screens, try the L* curve, the most natural on paper although there is not a very large difference with the gamma 2.2. Personally, on my Eizo CS240 I preferred 2.2.

Note!  The war between Mac (1.8 gamma) and PC (2.2 gamma) is now over and Apple is now using the most "natural" gamma for the eye: 2.2. (For the most common in "amateur" software. Professionals on high-end displays will choose the L* (L star) which is for the moment the curve closest to the response of the eye of the "average observer" in the CIE sense of the term.)

B - ICC V2 or V4 standard - Even today (early 2018), it is very important for an amateur who discovers color management or even more (!) to choose the V2 standard, especially in a Windows environment, when your calibration software offers you to choose this standard, either during the calibration process (X-Rite) or in the software preferences (Datacolor). Indeed, when you leave or choose the V4 standard, the photos will be too dark in the Windows viewer for example. Obviously, an informed user will be able to choose the V4 with full knowledge of the facts because he will not be surprised by this darkening in some software... that he will not use a priori!

5 - Color temperature adjustment

The last important point is the color temperature of the monitor, or more precisely of its white point. When you display a white in Photoshop (255, 255, 255) does it really look white or is it displayed as a warm white that is to say a little yellow or is it displayed as a cold white that is to say slightly blue? At 9,300 K, default factory setting for most monitors that are not graphic art ones, the monitor is too bright and cold (too blue). For many monitors around $400/$1,000, the factory setting is around 6,500 K.

Photos avec une température de couleur différentes, plus ou moins chaude

The ideal target value is therefore between 5,000 K and 6,500 K, 6,500 K being the traditional color temperature of the light on a sunny day.

Important!  5,000 K is the default setting for the pre-press world as quality print controls are made at 5,000 K. This value has to be chosen with graphic art monitors most of the time, and even a bit more if you have multiple monitors and they are not all of the same quality, as you will never reach 5,000 K with these more conventional monitors. The Pre-Press world has to work with high-end displays for this reason.
However, if your screen is not set at 5000 K by design, you will never be able to reach this value - without weird defects - with a screen manufactured to work at 6500 K or worse at 9300 K. At 5000 K, your screen will look frankly yellow and strange! So with all other displays, I recommend targeting between 5500 and 6500 K with a preference for 6000 and 6500 K. I think it is also more natural when you look at your prints under a natural light or spotlights. No exhibition is lit with 5,000K cabins and let us not forget that this standard is used to standardize the production of books, not photo exhibitions!

It is important to know that ultimately, the choice is of no real importance as long as color temperature is selected priorily to the characterization of the monitor. 5,000 K indeed corresponds to the D50 illuminant for pre-press, but D65 (6,500 K) is more natural since it corresponds to the daylight we are used to for the 4,000 years. The final choice is yours, depending on your work habits and tastes. Note that the monitor will still get worn out a little bit slower when used at 6,500 K because the gap with the factory default settings is less important. Personally, I like adjusting my color temperature between 6,000 K and 6,500 K

6 - Ambient light control 

Some models of calibration colorimeters enable to measure the ambient light in order to perfect brightness level adjustment. Why not, if this one does not change too much and remains in a stable lightened environment, otherwise why bother? You will find really few color management specialists to tell you that it is essential, at least with old colorimeters, since new generation ones as Colormunki Display make this measurement process mandatory. Also note that it is possible, in those circumstances, to ask the software to measure ambient light regularly and automatically. Real progress or gadget, we will see... Personally, I do not like it because in some cases the solution is worse than the initial problem, especially if your room is lit with fluocompact lamps at night.

My recommendation! Don't activate this function of ambient light measurement.

7 - Characterization

The next calibration step, called characterization, will happen without your intervention. The colorimeter is required again. Depending on the calibration software you use, a parameter that does not depend on you but on the colorimeter's manufacturer, you will see on your monitor many colored patches, more or less numerous, that the colorimeter will now measure in order to reveal the gamut of your monitor and its color characteristics - else said, its defects! -. This phase highly depends on the quality of your calibration and the quality of the filters inside the colorimeter. Spyder3Express and Pro or Elite version don't have the same, although they're all made by Datacolor. In addition to that, with the colorimeter control program, they determine the quality of the process.

Finally, you just have to check visually if everything seems to have gone well and above all, give a name to the ICC profile of your monitor that day. Your monitor is now calibrated!

8 - Last remark: what happens if you use a secondary screen on a laptop?

You can of course calibrate two displays even from a laptop computer - that of your computer and a secondary display - but it is in use that the difference will be felt compared to a desktop computer (and again, even in this case there may be strange surprises depending on the graphics card).

Desktop screen and laptop screen

In short, laptop graphics cards cannot handle two ICC profiles at the same time! You will therefore have to work either on the screen of your calibrated laptop or on the secondary screen. You can choose from your computer's color preferences. It goes without saying that the other screen, which will actually use an ICC profile that does not belong to it, will be in trouble!

To be read - My advices to calibrate a secondary screen installed on a laptop computer  



Check your calibration with three tests

I invite you to perform the following tests in order to check the quality of your calibration:

  • Grey gradient
  • White point
  • Black point.

Check black and white points

There is a simple way to check that your screen is not too dark or too bright with Photoshop. Here is the procedure:

1 - Create a new document of the size of your monitor definition. CMD+N (CRTL+N) and fill it, using the paint bucket (shortcut G), with black (0, 0, 0) or white (255, 255, 255) ...
2 - Create a rectangular selection (shortcut M) in the middle of your window, about 150 to 200 pixels wide.
3 - Hide this selection with CMD+H (CTRL+H).
4 - Créez un calque de réglages Courbes.
a) For black point (on a black background): click on the bottom left part of the curve to display the input and output fields. Set 3 as output value and have a look at the zone of your selection at the center of your screen. If you can see a slight difference appearing, it is OK, otherwise, your monitor is too contrasted. You need to try to calibrate your monitor with a lower contrast value.

Control of the black point of a screen after calibration

b) For white point control (on a white background): click on the top right part of the curve to display the input and output fields..
Put 252/253 instead of 255 as output value and do the same check on the central part of your monitor, in the selection area. You must see a slightly greyish rectangle appear. The selection rectangle is brighter by two or three luminosity levels if you check black point and very light grey, distinct from white, if you check white point.
Type twice the F key and then Tab. This will display your document in fullmonitor without the tool bars and menus, therefore without any window that could mislead your observation of black or very light grey.

Control of the white point of a screen after calibration

In your work environment, if your monitor is set properly, you should see the rectangle slightly lighter if you perform the control for blacks and slightly grey if you perform the control for whites.
This checking process is valid with all the calibration procedures and works very well.

Choose your gamma and check its calibration...

There is a simple way to check that the monitor works with the best gamma in Photoshop and that the colorimeter chosen is the best one (in case you want to compare); here is the procedure:

1 - Create a new document the size of your monitor definition. CMD+N (CRTL+N) with an sRGB ICC profile...
2 - Choose the gradient tool, from black to white (G),
3 - Pull the gradient from the top left to bottom right. The monitor should fill with a nice gradient... it should!

Gradient gray made in Photoshop to check the calibration

Then just observe. You will be able to see two things:

 Possible tone breakings, sometimes colored ones, indicating a bad calibration or the limits of your monitor.
 A nice progressive gradient from black to white. Often, the black or white proportion is too high, indicating you a wrong choice of brightness, contrast or GAMMA values.

Gradient gray with color breaks made in Photoshop to check the calibration

Tone breakings are highly visible and characterize a low-quality panel.

Finally, I recommend to perform calibration three or four times a year, the first three years, when the monitor is doing well and maybe a little more often then. I stopped calibrating every week long ago!
One exception: professional editors will do it every week or before each important session of edits, but they have a contractual obligation to work on the best monitors and a regular calibration is compulsory, to "make sure".

On the next page, we will study the particular case of Apple's iMac, iMac Retina and iMac Pro: How to calibrate an iMac - 3 / 5  Suivre


To be remembered!

Calibrate your monitor visually is delirious nowadays! Buy a good colorimeter from $170 on.

  The eye, as a tool, is excellent for a comparison job, but terrible without a reference!

 The choice of the luminance of your screen is made according to two very important criteria:
1 - You work mainly for printing or rather for the Internet,
2 - The brightness of your room.
When trying to obtain a good match between your screen and your print run, it is common to recommend working between 80-100 Cd/m². This is the case in a rather weak, muffled lighting environment. However, if you work in a bright environment, you will have to increase the luminance of your screen, sometimes clearly. In fact, what matters is only the search for a good match between the two.
It is true that with the same lighting environment, if you work mainly for the Internet then you can choose a higher luminance, 120-140 Cd/m² being often quoted.

 Choose a gamma of 2,2. (The L* can be recommended for those who like to have a lot of detail in the shadows but there will then be a big difference between your monitor and a print.)

 Choose the ICC V2 standard (and not the V4 often checked by default in recent screen calibration software) if you use, for example, the Windows viewer, otherwise your photos will be too dark. Those who know why and how to use the V4 standard will obviously not follow this advice!

 Choose a colour temperature of 6250/6500 K: on the vast majority of displays, this often represents a very nice compromise, very slightly "hot" at 6000/6500K.

 Choose "Native contrast" if you work a lot on the Internet and "287:1" if you print a lot; the correspondence between the blacks in your images and those in the print run will then be very close.

 Do not always check ambient light:because if your room has low consumption lamps, the light spectrum is not uniform and the automatic correction of the ICC profile will be a disaster!

 If you're an amateur photographer, or even a professional but you're not a professional editor, you can calibrate your monitor only 3/4 times a year. However, if you're demanding hence on a top-range monitor, a very regular calibration will always be recommended (just in case!).

Through these 6 pages I will share with you all my advice to properly calibrate your desktop or laptop screens, your iMac or your tablets....
- Why calibrate your monitor?
- How to calibrate your monitor? - 2/6
  - Monitor calibration : with or without colorimeter?
- Calibration with a colorimeter : key points
- Tests and checks
- To be remembered...

- Special case : iMac / iMac Pro calibration
- Special case : calibrating laptops
- Special case : calibrating tablets and smartphones
- Special case : Eizo ColorEdge + ColorNavigator


- Best colorimeters buying guide
- 2020 monitors buying guide
- Basics of color


Calibrate your monitor with the best
colorimeter: X-Rite i1Display Pro !

Read my full review...


Calibrate your monitor with your favorite colorimeter : Datacolor SpyderX PRO !

Read my full review...










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