Trick Question: What’s up with these two photographs?
The truth is, these photographs represent a journey that I’ve been on to calibrate my monitor. I’ve been at it for about two years and have (finally) figured it out for my system. Why did I care so much? Well, look at those photographs. The first one is what I would see on my monitor, while the second one is what I would get back from the printer’s. Though the differences may seem subtle, the differences laid out across an entire library of photographs produced some not-so-subtle results.
My First Step on this Journey: Calibration
My journey began with a set of engagement photographs. I wanted to be sure that these came out great, because they were for my brother and his fiancée. So, I invested a little money in a Spyder 2 Express – a tool designed for a budget and calibrating monitors. Ideally, once the the monitor was calibrated, monitor colors would match with my printed colors.
Needless to say, I was eager to get my photographs back from the printer (I always send out my photos). But, when I saw the prints and my brother and his fiancée looked…well…like zombies, I was horrified. The skin tones were all wrong and the photos looked creepy. This was not at all what I expected.
Next Came the Color Profile Discovery
Clearly, I wasn’t going to give them these photographs. Instead, I investigated the issue and learned that many print facilities use the sRGB profile. This was a mismatch to the color profile I was using in-camera and via my software. I was using Adobe RGB because I preferred the color range and how the images looked on screen. In addition, I learned that many printers (including mine) automatically color-corrected images — so it wouldn’t matter how I calibrated, I still might not get what I saw on the screen.
After learning all of this, I adjusted my approach in two ways:
- I switched the profiles in my camera and in my software (at the time Photoshop CS) to sRGB. Then, when I started using Photoshop Elements, I was happy to learn that the default profile is sRGB. (TIP: For more information about color profiles and Photoshop Elements, please see, Color Management 101, by Dave Huss.)
- Likewise, I searched for printers that didn’t color correct automatically. Luckily for me, two local stores do not color correct unless the service is requested. In addition, the vendor (Mpix) for my online boutique doesn’t either. So, there are services out there that will print your photographs as is – you just have to find them.
And, this was the end of my story for a long while. However, when I got a new computer and monitor, it became obvious that a calibrated profile and sRGB weren’t enough. Suddenly, I had an issue with gamma, too (i.e., how dark/light the colors appear).
Gamma, the Last Step?
While the Spyder worked all right with the new OS, it wasn’t supported any more. And, the Express version didn’t include adjustments for gamma. Therefore, I had a decision to make: Upgrade or play with the knobs myself? The idea of spending money on a new calibration tool irritated me. The one I had was just a little over a year old. So, I decided to make do with what I had. However, I’d read that some folks had such an issue with gamma that they had to make Levels Adjustments of +.5 within Photoshop Elements! That’s pretty substantial and I was reluctant to do that without being able to see what it looked like on screen. So, I went another route.
My monitor and Windows (my operating system) each had a way to make calibration adjustments. For the OS, this included an option to select a profile (e.g., my calibrated profile) and adjust from there. So first, I adjusted the gamma for the monitor (via the front panel), tuning it down to the darkest setting. Then, after selecting my color calibrated profile for the OS, I adjusted the gamma (and only the gamma) there, too. To be sure these adjustments were what I’d want, I used a large printed photograph and compared the adjustments to the output, making changes as appropriate.
Was it worth it? Oh, yes! I’m getting the prints I expect and feel much better sharing them with others. Now, I just hope that this is the end of my calibration journey.
For more on printing, slideshows, and images for the web, please check out our Printing, Slideshows and Web topic.