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Color Calibration: A Long Journey

By Liz Ness  ·  February 1st, 2011

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

19 Replies to Color Calibration: A Long Journey:

  1. Susanna

    February 1, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Thank you for this! I think this is a journey I’ll need to venture on as well, I’m finding with my new laptop and printer the images I see are not what prints out…haven’t tried a commercial printer yet with the laptop but will have to soon to see what adjustments need to be made.

    • Liz

      February 1, 2011 at 11:37 am

      I feel for you, Susanna! When things don’t match (and if you put any effort into post-processing at all) it is so frustrating! Best wishes on your own calibration journey! =)

  2. Lori

    February 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Does gamma go by any other name? I am trying to find this setting on my monitor. Also, could you please go into more detail about you selected a profile for your operating system? I use Windows 7. Thanks!

    • Liz

      February 1, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      You know, Lori, I’m not sure — mine is under Color\Gamma. It may be worth looking online for your model of monitor to find out.

  3. Lori

    February 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm


    I also wanted to add that your journey mirrors my own! I have played with an external calibrator and have changed many of the same settings you have (in camera and in PSE).

    • Liz

      February 1, 2011 at 5:36 pm

      I hope you’re able to find the Gamma so you can adjust for your own system. Also, I sympathize — this is a tough journey in some ways.

      Just as a side note, I have a Samsung LCD monitor — the external settings for gamma are on the front panel for the monitor.

      Then, I had to set the profile for Windows via the Control Panel (e.g., Start\Control Panel) — from there, I typed color in for the search and then selected Color Management. Inside that dialog, I selected my calibrated profile.

      Once that was done, I right-clicked on the desktop and selected Personalize\Display\Calibrate Color and had to dial the Gamma way down (all the way, in my case).

      Hope this helps.

      =) Liz

  4. Steve

    February 1, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Gosh, this is awesome information. I just checked my camera, camera was set to sRGB, I checked Elements, also sRGB. I need to check my Mac Monitor. Thank you again for the information.

    • Liz

      February 1, 2011 at 5:36 pm

      You bet, Steve! =)

  5. Joe

    February 2, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Liz, When you refer to your “calibrated Profile” I assume you’re talking about the one generated by Spyder Express?

    • Liz

      February 2, 2011 at 3:41 pm

      Yes, that’s right, Joe — sorry for the confusion. =)

  6. Scott

    February 3, 2011 at 10:18 am

    What model Samsung do you use? Do others have recommendations for monitors that are reasonably priced and are dependable for color calib? Thanks.

    • Liz

      February 3, 2011 at 11:22 am

      Mine is older (~ 4 years old, I think) and is a SyncMaster 2443BWX. I’m curious about what others recommend, too — because I know this one won’t last forever…

      • Henry

        February 19, 2012 at 5:08 pm

        What would be considered a good monitor, actually a great monitor? It’s time for a new one and I want to do it right.

  7. Fred

    February 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Liz, good information, but I wonder about printer profiles to. I also out source my printing, and my lab has provided me the profiles for each of their printers, but I really have no clue on what to do with that information (profile), Have you gotten that stage of the journey or are you planning on staying away from it?

    • Liz

      February 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm

      Hi Fred! That’s a great question.

      I’m not a professional photographer — just a wild enthusiast. So, my volume (in terms of how many photographs I’m printing at any given time) is low. Therefore, I don’t need to outsource my post-production-to-printing process. Though, I do have my photos printed locally and by Mpix. These two companies do not color correct (unless I say to) and they use the sRGB profile. So, I make sure that my camera and Photoshop Elements profiles are set to sRGB.

      As for my printer, I use an HP (I used to work for HP’s DeskJet Printer Division before I had my son). So, I’m pretty comfortable using the advance feature set provided by the printer driver. When I do print at home (which, honestly, isn’t often when it comes to photographs), I allow the printer to manage the color (based upon an sRGB profile). HP printers, in my opinion, do a great job when it comes to color management. However, I should note that I am biased because of my own experience with HP and because my husband is currently employed with them.

      Hope that answers some of your questions. And, thanks so much for your comment/question, Fred!

      =) Liz

  8. Fred

    February 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks Liz…

    I too have an HP printer, but I don’t often print photos on it. It does a good job mind you, I just like using the lab…it is close and easy to use. To be honest the lab does a wonderful job…they don’t fool with the color and while the printer profile is another ‘tool’, I don’t know that it would do much, all things considered. This is, after all, a hobby for me to. But the profile is there and so it bugs me I can’t use it like I think it is intended to be used. That does not mean I would use it…I just like having the option. My biggest issue is one that should be easy to fix, but I haven’t gotten it down pat either…photo sizing. I always need to crop, but that’s another journey in and of itself. One for another time.

    I really appreciate you sharing various tips, tricks and ideas. I have learned so much from so many…it has made photography a very enjoyable endeavor. Thank You…and all who share your experience, knowledge and wonderful photos.

    • Liz

      February 9, 2011 at 8:27 pm

      Oops — I just corrected my comment — I meant to say that it isn’t often that I print photos at home either. I like the lab’s work, too. I like the HP printer, but I print other things with it. =)

      Thanks so much for your thoughts on this, too, Fred — great insight for everyone!

      Take care,


  9. Carl

    February 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Thank you for the information. I was thinking that I would go the calibration route, however, after reading the article I decided it is more trouble then it is worth in my situation. What ever comes out of the printer is fine with me and I can spend more time shooting and less time thinking. Carl

    • Liz

      February 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Carl.

      You know, I think your approach makes such a great point: Good enough is good enough! =)

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