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Knowledge Center: Graphic Design
InDesign Magazine

Color Management 101 - Monitor Calibration

Color management, even of the simplest sort, may not be a ball, but it's the only way to WYSIWYG color.

by: Chris Murphy
All of us who produce print documents want our onscreen color to be consistent and trustworthy. Yet most of us don't want to practice color management, which can seem like a dreaded homework assignment. However, the reward of that homework, better onscreen color, is more accurate color on press, which means happier clients and a happier you.
In this article, I'll demystify certain elements of color management and suggest helpful tools that don't require a PhD. I can't promise you'll end up feeling that color management is akin to recess, but at least you'll have a study buddy.

How Red Is Red?

Your computer, and the Creative Suite applications, can't provide the most accurate color without knowing which colors your monitor is displaying. That is, when you specify an object as 100% red (often called "255 red"), exactly what shade of red do you see on your monitor? Every monitor displays it a little differently. Defining that shade of red and all other colors your monitor displays is called characterizing or building a profile. You can also calibrate a monitor, which is forces a monitor to behave consistently over time with respect to its color of white, brightness, and tonality.
The tool for both of these tasks is a color measurement device called a colorimeter. I'll discuss three mid-range entry-level devices later in the section "Colorimeters in Action."

Why Can't All Monitors Display the Same Colors?

There are several technological reasons for the wide variation in monitor colors. Makers of displays don't always stick to standards, such as sRGB. Some affordable wide-gamut displays easily exceed the gamut of sRGB, while most laptop displays have smaller gamuts than sRGB.
There are also two categories of monitors, each of which handles color differently: CRTs and LCDs. CRTs aren't manufactured anymore, but they're still on many desks. If you have one, it's probably time to replace it.
Within the LCD market, there are two backlighting technologies that affect how colors display: CCFL and LED.

What's a Backlight?

A backlight is the light source for any LCD, and it's essentially what you're changing the intensity of when you adjust the brightness control. The brightness of the display affects how bright black and white are. The difference between black and white luminance is called dynamic range, or contrast ratio.
The point of any kind of calibration and profiling system is to approximate the dynamic range of print. There's no point in looking vastly better than a proof or press sheet. When your monitor's brightness is set too high, its contrast ratio is much greater than print. That makes layouts onscreen look much better (have more "pop") than prints and proofs.
When your monitor's brightness is set too low, shadow detail won't be visible onscreen but will be on prints and proofs. And there's a point at which it's really too low, and then the color science of all of this color management stuff doesn't work correctly. So it's necessary to get the backlight intensity in the ballpark of reasonable.
CCFL has been around for a while, so the colors it emits are fairly consistent among manufacturers. This is not the case with the newcomer, LED backlighting. It promises greater stability and more sensitive environmental qualities (no mercury). However, LED backlighting is so new that some measurement devices can't correctly calibrate LED-backlit displays.
For a few monitor recommendations, see "My Favorite Monitors" below.

My Favorite Monitors

High-end professional displays do cost more than the displays you'll find on the remainder shelves of your local electronics store. However, the prices have dropped in recent years, and the quality really is much higher. If a more accurate monitor means your jobs are more accurate when printed, you may find the price worth paying.
When you're looking for a complete end-to-end color management solution, something you know works, is worth the money, and is a prerequisite for serious softproofing and color-critical use, a closed-loop solution is the best way to go. Prices for high-end professional displays have dropped recently, and the quality really is much higher. I like the NEC SpectraView and Eizo ColorEdge monitors, which come with their own color-management software for calibrating and profiling the display. I'm particularly fond of NEC's recent offerings driven by the SpectraView II Color Calibration Solution, which includes colorimeter and software thoroughly tested to work very well with their displays. It's hard to beat the price/performance of the $560 Multisync P221W entry-level professional 22" wide-gamut display. And their high-end 2690 and 3090 series SpectraView II displays, which also closely approach the Adobe RGB (1998) color gamut, yet remain within the grasp of mortals to purchase, are personal favorites.
Designers often wonder why a monitor can't calibrate itself and provide its own custom profile. As it turns out, there is something that could help, called EDID, or Extended Display Identification Data. It's a standardized method for displays to announce their capabilities—such as their resolutions, and specific measured colors of their red, green, and blue primaries. If the color information in a display's EDID correlates reasonably well to actual display behavior (that is, if the monitor is telling the truth), we might not even need to calibrate and profile them. For example, the Mac OS automatically asks for EDID from any display when you plug it in and builds a display profile from that information on the fly. For example, the profile built by the Mac OS from EDID for my 23" Apple Cinema Display performed comparably to the profiles produced by third-party colorimeters I tried out (see "Colorimeters in Action" below).
For various practical manufacturing reasons, the EDID won't exactly correlate to your specific display, but if manufacturers could put a little more effort into this, it would likely make this process good enough for most designers.
Unfortunately, there are two problems with EDID: First, there's no way to know if a monitor's EDID information is correct. And second, Windows users must track down software to build an ICC profile based on EDID information, as it's not created automatically by the operating system.

Colorimeters in Action

Colorimeters, those measurement devices that define what colors your monitor displays, range in price from low to high. They're bundled with software that talks to the colorimeter and your display to calibrate and then build the ICC profile. This is why you'll find the same colorimeter at different prices—the price depends on the features in the software. I'll focus here on entrylevel packages that are low to mid-range in cost.
I tried out four products using a sample image that contained high key, low key, neutrals, saturated colors with fine detail, and multiple skin tones. I tested each product on two monitors: a 23" Apple Cinema Display and a fourth-generation MacBook Pro 15" LED laptop. On the CCFL-based Cinema Display, all of the colorimeters produced fairly similar and acceptable results. There were no immediately obvious visual differences in profile quality.
But when testing with the MacBook Pro laptop, which uses LED backlighting, I found noticeable visual discrepancies among all of the products. It may be that none of these colorimeters work well with LED displays. They may require an entirely different category of instrumentation: a spectroradiometer, such as the Eye One Pro or the device used in ColorMunki Design and ColorMunki Photo.
The $129 Huey Pro from Pantone is so inexpensive that I was suspicious of its sensor accuracy. However, while its resulting tone reproduction curve may not be 100% correct, it isn't objectionable visually.
The Huey Pro's ambient light compensation didn't work as I expected. I tested it with extremely low ambient light and with rather high ambient light, but there was no difference in the two calibrations and profile Huey created in those two different situations.
The $176 X-Rite i1Display LT is on the opposite end of the options spectrum. It includes the Eye One Display 2 colorimeter, which has been around for some time and is a pretty decent colorimeter for the price. Its default behavior doesn't help set the brightness correctly, or flag the user of unacceptably low brightness. Its advanced mode is more accommodating but assumes you know what settings to choose. The "Perform ambient light check" does check ambient light but doesn't use that information to suggest a more appropriate brightness setting. And Leopard lovers beware: X-Rite's web site states that its software is not officially tested or supported on Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard).
Pantone's $149 Colormunki Create includes a sensor based on the Eye One Display 2. It's a piece of cake to use because there are no options: not for color temperature, tone response, or brightness. The lack of assistance in setting brightness is an unfortunate miss. You may find Colormunki Create useful if you like its features that create, manage, search, and share color palettes.
As I mentioned earlier, we could use help getting the display brightness setting established at something other than improper, and ideally at something reasonable. Only one product I tested does this somewhat well: Datacolor's $249 Spyder3Elite. This includes a new 7-sensor colorimeter, the Spyder3, which the company says performs correctly with a wider range of display technologies. It makes a reasonable estimation of ambient brightness and corresponding suggestion for display white luminance (brightness setting).
With a particularly bright Apple Cinema Display, the Spyder3Elite software proceeded with calibration and at the end determined my display was too bright. It was the only software I tested to do so. But instead of suggesting the obvious—reducing the brightness of the display to achieve the recommended white luminance—the Spyder3Elite software suggested I increase the brightness of the room I was in.
The software is very thorough, involving quite a bit of interaction on the part of the user. Even the default path presents too much information, tries to educate the user too much, and yet doesn't perform ambient light compensation by default to make better recommendations off the bat. I'd like a shorter path. Those caveats aside, the Spyder3Elite comes closest to the feature and performance characteristics I expect in a professional tool.
Although I didn't test the $169 Spyder3Pro package, which also Left: The Huey Pro includes the same Spyder3 colorimeter and has the same features as I tested in the Spyder3Elite, I'd expect similar results. I recommend Spyder3Elite if you need its additional features, including support for calibrating and profiling projectors, and for arbitrary white point, which comes in handy if you want to match white points among multiple displays.

Why Don't They Just Call It White?

One of the biggest problems with color management in general, and monitor calibration in particular, is its obscure terminology: D50, D65, 5000K, gamma 2.2, gamma 1.8, 6500K, blah, blah, blah. Why in the world are we still using words developed by color scientists? One important part of making your monitor more accurate is defining what it should display for the color white. I wish color-management hardware and software developers would give us a slider with which to choose the color of white. Designers understand that there are cool whites and warm whites, and that the objective is to choose a white that roughly corresponds to paper white.
But since that simple slider doesn't exist, here's a little cheat sheet: D65 or 6500K are cool white. As that number goes down toward D50 or 5000K, we experience warm white.
The best white on which to standardize depends on your environment and the papers you use. If you work in a low ambient brightness on magazine-type printing, 5000K is grand. If you tend to be in a brighter environment, and/or you work with higher quality, brighter white paper stocks, 6500K may be more to your liking.

Liking?! This Is About Liking Something?!

Yes, absolutely. Color management is as much art as science and therefore doesn't always offer a technical answer. And when you're more at home in an art class than a science lab, that may actually be comforting.

Chris Murphy is the founder of Color Remedies, a color management training and consulting firm. He is a co-author of Real World Color Management, 2nd Edition.
From InDesign Magazine. Each issue gives you tips, techniques, and time-savers by an all-star cast of industry experts.