The reason you pick up your camera is to capture a moment, when you’ve seen or created something worth recording. You could pull out your iPhone and capture the scene enough to spark your memory. But chances are the shot’s not great, your blacks aren't deep, your colours feel a little washed out, and there’s a lot of noise in your shadows.
So you use a higher quality camera, but something’s still not right. The focus is a little soft; your image is a little blue. You can fix it in Lightroom but then you post it to Facebook and suddenly it’s too orange. You print out a copy but your whites look green and your shadows are a mess.
You need calibration.
Image Credit: Datacolor
What is Calibration?
In photography, calibration (i.e. measuring and, if necessary, adjusting your equipment according to a defined standard) helps preserve the accuracy of your image from the moment you press your shutter, to your finished output. It’s important to getting a final result that lives up to your expectation.
When you’re dealing with precise technology like digital cameras, monitors and printers your equipment is always going to be susceptible to tiny variations during manufacturing and use. When your equipment is properly calibrated you get greater confidence that the image you see on your camera monitor or computer screen is a true representation of the image.
When most people think of calibration they think of their computer screens, which are often a big, and widely neglected, part of the problem. But there are a lot of other factors that can affect how you see your images. Let’s start with your camera.
Photo by Christian Artinger
The first point of calibration on your camera is the lens. Most lenses will focus accurately, within a margin of error, straight out of the box. However, if that margin of error swings too far in either direction you could be left with an image that’s not sharp where you want it to be. Incorrect out-of-focus areas can also cause increased chromatic aberration (a.k.a. colour fringing) and colour shifting in areas of high contrast.
Most modern cameras will have pretty accurate auto white balance in optimal shooting conditions. However, they can be easily fooled in scenes with low lighting conditions, multiple light sources, or large areas of a single colour. If you’re shooting in RAW or DNG format, corrections to your white balance can be made in post-production, but this is only useful as long as your computer monitor is showing the right colours.
Measuring and Refining Colour Temperature
Keeping an eye on your camera's rear screen can let you spot any obvious mistakes with your auto white balance, and switching from auto to one of the scene-specific white balance settings (sunny, cloudy, flash, etc) might get you closer to the real colours of the scene.
A better way of getting accurate white balance in-camera is to set the colour temperature of each scene manually. To do this you’ll need to either know the colour temperature of your lights, use a light meter to measure the colour temperature, or use the inbuilt meter of your camera to determine the colour temperature from a reliably colour-neutral source like a grey card.
Taking this a step further, colour checkers provide a plethora of colour samples to calibrate to (very important for product and fashion photography where correct colour is an imperative), while the Datacolor SpyderCUBE RAW Calibration Tool uses multiple surfaces to set not just your white balance but also your image’s black and white points to ensure correct contrast and specular highlights. These two products can work in combination to produce even more accurate results.
Photo by Domenico Loia
Once you’ve taken your images, it’s time to bring them up on your computer. Chances are you’re going to be editing your images. If your computer monitor’s colours isn’t accurate, how will you know that you’re editing correctly? How will you trust your highlight and shadow details, and how do you know your skin tones are correct? You can edit everything to look great on your computer screen, but when you go to print or post online it could look totally different.
Computer monitors aren’t calibrated at the point of manufacturing. They are given a default colour profile based on a calibrated prototype of the product, which should get it pretty close to correct. But every screen has tiny differences, which means colour profiles aren’t one-size-fits-all. The colours of your monitor can also shift over time and the way you see those colours can be affected by external factors like ambient light.
Photo by Jye B
The Importance of Accuracy
Imagine that your monitor is off by just a tiny bit. Its contrast is low and its tone a little warm, but the light in your room is a little warm as well so you don't notice. You import your latest shot and because your screen is slightly out, the image itself looks a little warm so you make your adjustments, making your white balance a little cooler to compensate. Now your shot looks perfect on your computer but in reality it’s a bit too blue.
You send the image on to your client and they open the files on a computer that’s also not calibrated – only it’s slightly too cool, so to that client your image looks way too blue. The client sends it back asking you to correct it, costing you time and your client's faith in your work is reduced. What if you’d posted it to Facebook for all potential clients to see? That could cost you future work. Now what if you’d sent it off to print and spent good money on excellent Art Rag paper only to have the print return with the colours all wrong and a messy black ink-spot where your delicate shadow detail had been? Imagine if this had been a whole wedding album. Reprinting can get expensive quickly, all for the want of proper calibration.
Image Credit: Joseph Pearson
Monitor Calibration Devices
Properly calibrating your computer screen is the only way to be sure that your colours, highlights, shadows and edits will be accurate. There are a lot of great products available that will calibrate your monitor easily and precisely, including the popular Datacolor Spyder series. These monitor calibrators are simple to use; just hang them over the front of your computer screen, run the software, and the device will run your monitor through a series of tests, measure with the ambient light in your workspace, and produce a colour profile specific for your monitor and lighting conditions. Additional profiles can be created for different lighting conditions (e.g. different times of the day, different weather and different light sources), and these can be selected if and when you need them. But these calibration devices aren’t just for computers; they can also correct your TV, your data projector, your phone/tablet and your printer, ensuring that your images are consistent across the board.
Photo by Joshua Fuller
Printing through a commercial print lab is the preferred option for most photographers. But what if you want to print your final images using your own printer? Getting accurate prints depends—on top of all the previous calibration steps—choosing a suitable ICC printer profle for yourchosen paper, ink, and file settings. The printer profiles supplied by printer manufacturers are a good starting point but for maximum accuracy, a custom profile is recommended. The easiest way to create one is using industry standard software from companies such as X-rite and Datacolor. This will help give you the most accurate colours, gradations and definition possible without the need to do repeated test prints.
Regularly calibrating your camera and computer equipment, and correctly managing colour from capture to output, will help ensure that your final images match your expectations.
It’s impossible to control the imperfections of other people’s monitors and, therefore, how everyone will perceive your photos. But if you put your images out into the world, at least you’ll be putting out the most accurate work that you can.
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