How to Calibrate Your Monitor

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Monitor calibration
If you're an avid photographer, you've probably shot tons of photos, investing a large chunk of your time and disposable income in a digital SLR camera. And you’ve spent even more time learning the ins and outs of photography, including lighting, composition, and image editing. So why don’t your photos look better than they do?

Maybe it’s your monitor.

Why Should You Calibrate?

Calibrating your PC display is an important step, for one simple reason: You want the colors and black levels to look as accurate as possible. The most obvious benefit of proper calibration is that it ensures the best results when you're editing or viewing photographs. But accurate colors and black levels also make videos and games look better on your monitor--you’ll be viewing content in the way the content's creators intended.

In this article, I'll talk about how you can use Windows 7’s built-in tools to perform a quick calibration. Then I’ll mention a website or two that can aid in calibrating your display. Finally I’ll discuss a low-cost hardware tool, to give you a feel for how you might use something similar to calibrate your monitor.

Consider the Monitor's Capabilities

Before diving into the minutiae of monitor calibration, I'll talk a bit about displays themselves. At first blush, it’s a great time to be a computer user: Big, bright displays with very fast response times cost a couple hundred dollars. What’s not to like?

Well, they may not be very good. Most low-cost LCD screens use TN (twisted nematic) technology. The response time of TN displays can be fast, but most of these monitors are limited to a color depth of 6 bits per pixel. With three pixels representing the red, green, and blue primary colors, this means the number of simultaneous colors on screen is limited to 262,144. Such displays simulate higher color depths via dithering--a process that digitally simulates greater color depths than are really available. That’s why, if you’re looking at an image with finely shaded color gradations, you may see color banding.

A dramatic example of color banding illustrates how important it is to own a monitor with better color depth.
You really want a monitor with a color resolution of 8 bits per pixel, since such a display is capable of showing over 16 million simultaneous colors. A few monitors capable of 10 bits per pixel are shipping now, too.

Most of the higher-end displays that support 8 bits per pixel use either a version of IPS (in-plane switching) or some flavor of PVA (patterned vertical alignment). Both technologies are more costly to manufacture, but you can find relatively good, 24-inch IPS-based displays for around $400. The point isn’t to focus on the LCD tech as much as it is to pay attention to better color depth.

Set the Color Gamut

You often see higher-end monitors touted as having wide color gamuts. Although many models let you set your color gamut of choice in their on-screen menus (aka on-screen displays), some high-end 30-inch monitors have no built-in video-processing chip. If that's the case with your monitor, you need to use Windows' display controls to adjust the color gamut. I’ll give you a closer look at the advanced Windows display control panels shortly.

A good rule of thumb is to set your monitor's color gamut to match your target output device. If you’re mostly editing photos that go up on websites, good old sRGB works just fine, even though it’s “only” 78 percent of the NTSC color gamut. If your printer is the target device, you may want to set a higher color gamut, depending on the printer model. But then you have to worry about the color settings on the printer. Calibrating for printer output is a whole other topic that requires its own article.

I want to focus on monitor calibration for everyday use and for uploading photos to the Web. I’ll mention calibrating for video in passing, but the assumption is that you'll view the video on your monitor, rather than burning it to a Blu-ray Disc for playback on an HDTV.

Next page: Understanding monitor settings, and starting Windows 7 color calibration

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