Your photos might look great on your computer, but chances are that if you haven’t calibrated your display then you’re not getting an accurate version of the image. In the same way that TV manufacturers dial up the visual drama when their TVs are on display in the store, many computer displays come out of the box too bright, too cool, and too contrasty. The results can look dramatic, but it’s not especially helpful if you’re trying to use an accurate monitor when viewing or editing your photos.
Working with a monitor that has a color shift, or is too bright in the shadows, can adversely affect the images that come out of your workflow. If your monitor is off, it can make it much more difficult to get the output from your printer to match what you see on screen, and the photos you send to clients or editors might not look as good as they look on your screen. In short, color calibration in your workflow is important if you want your photos to look their best.
The simplest way to calibrate your monitor is to eyeball it. But that’s also the least effective because what we see through our eyes is so subjective. Look at a lightly tinted display for a little while and your brain will calibrate to what you expect to see. Through lots and trial and error you can get something that’s “accurate” in a rough kinda-sorta way, but the results will never be as good as when using a decent colorimeter sensor.
Using a colorimeter takes the subjectivity out of it by working by the numbers. It measures the light coming off your monitor to make sure that gray is pure gray, that red is pure red, and that the millions of other colors your display can output match up to the objective light readings. By measuring what it sees and comparing it with the raw numbers, calibration software can create a custom profile for your display that compensates for its quirks and deficiencies. The result is that what you see on your screen is objectively as close as possible to the actual data in your photo.
A colorimeter won’t fix color casts in your photos. It simply makes sure that the display you’re using to look at and edit those photos isn’t tinted and is as accurate as possible. And while calibrating your monitor is only one part of the workflow, it’s an important part and a useful place to start.
There are a few different display calibration kits on the market that work with most desktop and laptop displays. Some also work with projectors, and still others can profile the prints that come out of your printer as well.
The one I’m testing our here is the Spyder5PRO from Datacolor.
Datacolor put out four different models in the Spyder5 line, the Spyder5EXPRESS, Spyder5PRO, Spyder5ELITE, and Spyder5STUDIO. All use the same basic colorimeter, the device that looks a bit like a hockey puck and is responsible for the actual measurement. They all work with Windows and Mac; I’m using it on an iMac Retina display.
The differences mainly come down to the options available in the software. The Spyder5EXPRESS is the simplest version with the least features and options; it’s also the cheapest. The Spyder5ELITE is the most sophisticated, offering more options, features, and fine-tuning. It also offers projector calibration and is more expensive. The Spyder5STUDIO adds still more options and adds print profiling. The Spyder5PRO, which I’m using here, falls in between the Spyder5EXPRESS and Spyder5ELITE terms of both features and price. It works with both desktop and laptop displays (but doesn’t do projectors or hard-copy prints).
Ease of Use
There are two parts to the system. One is the sensor or colorimeter itself, which plugs into your computer’s USB port. When the process starts, it hangs over the top of your monitor and just rests in place in the center of your screen.
The second part of the system is the Spyder5Pro software. The package doesn’t include a CD with the software–you have to download it from the Datacolor site and then activate it online before you can use it (use the serial number that’s printed inside the box).
The basic workflow looks like this:
Once you activate the software you get a checklist that walks you through the steps to start.
Then you designate the type of display you’re using. Both the Desktop and Laptop options work with Retina displays.
You’ll next choose the make and model of your display.
Next it takes a reading for ambient light. It uses the small circle under the Spyder5 logo on the sensor, so make sure that’s sitting on the desk facing up and isn’t obscured.
Once the ambient light reading has been taken, it gives you the results. If your workspace is too bright, it recommend a darker environment to better control the display.
Next, you get to actually measuring the screen. You place the sensor on the monitor. Laying the cable over the top of the screen should be enough to hold it in place. If you have your display tilted down, you might want to tilt it back a bit to have gravity hold the sensor against the screen.
After some preliminary tests, it’ll ask you to set your display’s brightness controls until they’re in the sweetspot. Some displays offer more controls than others, like contrast, hue, etc. Basically, you want to reset all of those on the monitor itself so that you’re starting with blank slate and letting the profiling software handle the heavy lifting.
After each adjustment in the brightness, hit the Update button to take a new reading. It’s just a matter of trial and error until you’re in the green zone.
Tip: If you’re using a Mac, the increments of the keyboard’s brightness buttons can be too big to get it just so. The slider (System Preferences > Display) offers much more fine-tuned control.
It will then automatically cycle through a bunch of different colors and tones. The whole process takes about five minutes, but it’s important not to use the computer or change the lighting during the process.
Once it’s done, it asks you to save the color profile and then it applies it automatically to your display. You can see the results in the test images it shows, and you can use the switch button to toggle between the new profile and the previous one. If you have specific images of your own that you want to check it against, you can also load your own custom image set.
Finally, you get an overview of the results that shows you the gamut of your display compared with a few popular colorspaces. In the iMac’s case, the display’s gamut shows 100 percent of sRGB and 80 percent of AdobeRGB. Some high end displays designed for graphic design and visual work will be able to display 100 percent of the AdobeRGB colorspace.
And that’s about all there is to it. If you’re unhappy with the results and want to run the process again, you can. Otherwise, the new profile is already applied and is what you’re now seeing on screen. Because the colors of displays can drift over time, you’ll get a reminder to run the calibration again in a month or whatever schedule you designate for the reminder.
In theory, every colorimeter should result in a perfectly calibrated monitor. In practice, there can be subtle differences between systems. You’ll really only notice them if you switch the profiles back and forth, but the software allows you to do just that.
Overall, I found the results to be good, and I found that I preferred them to the results I was getting from my usual colorimeter, the X-Rite ColorMunki Display. The Spyder5PRO’s profile was noticeably cooler, and, to my eyes, the grays looked more neutral. And the midtones also looked cleaner to me than with the profiles generated by the X-Rite products. I then re-calibrated with an X-Rite i1 Display Pro and found that the profile it generated was also noticeably warmer and muddier than the one generated by the Spyder5PRO. Overall, I preferred the one generated by the Spyder5PRO.
After you’ve calibrated your monitor, you can leave the colorimeter attached. In the top of it is a small light sensor–the one that picked up the ambient light at the beginning of the calibration process. There’s also a small system app that can stay running. Together, they can monitor the ambient light levels and alert you if there’s been a change that might impact color accuracy.
What’s in the Box
It’s a small box, and there’s no much in it. It includes the colorimeter, with an integrated USB cable.
What’s Not in the Box
The package doesn’t come with a CD with the software. Instead, you’ll need to download the software from the Datacolor website. You’ll need the device’s serial number to register the software–it’s printed inside the box.
Support and Instruction Manual
There aren’t any printed instructions, but you can find a welcome page online with the information you need to get going, or there’s a more concise quick start guide.
You can find information for contacting Datacolor support here and the knowledgebase here. They also offer paid premium support where they can walk you through the process and, if necessary, training.
Back when I was using CRT monitors I routinely used one of the earlier-model Spyders to calibrate my monitors. When I switched to LCD displays, that particular model didn’t support those, and after researching I decided to switch to X-Rite’s ColorMunki. That’s what I’ve used since. Now, having had the opportunity to compare the current Spyder products directly side-by-side with the X-Rite ColorMunki and X-Rite i1 Display, I’ve decided to switch again to the Spyder5 system. The software is better thought-out, simpler to use, and I prefer the end results from the Spyder’s calibration.
The Spyder5 system is about as simple as can be. The colorimeter device easy to put in place and is solidly made. The software’s wizard walks you through the process, and there’s not much chance for things to go wrong if you follow the instructions.
Overall, I haven’t found much to quibble with. It’s quick, simple, and effective and is a no-fuss way to get a more accurate display. And the price is comparable with its main competitors like X-Rite ColorMunki Display.
And if you want more options and more ability to tweak the settings further (or are working with HD Video for broadcast and need support for the Rec. 709 colorspace), then the Spyder5ELITE has an MSRP of $279 [B&H Photo | Amazon].