Dear Lifehacker, I never feel like the colours look quite right on my monitor. I’ve seen your guide to calibrating an HDTV, but what about my computer’s monitor? How can I make sure I’m getting the best picture?Signed, Confused by Calibration
Dear Confused by Calibration,
There are a couple of ways you can go about this, depending on how serious you are about colour calibration. If you’re an average computer user and just want your colours to match up approximately, there’s an easy way to go about this. If you do any photo or video editing, you may need to drop some cash into this process, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s start with the basics.
Familiarise Yourself with Your Display’s Controls
Before you begin, make sure your display has been on for at least a half hour (so it’s properly warmed up) and is set to its native screen resolution. Even if you use it at a different resolution (and we can’t imagine why), set it back to its native resolution while you calibrate it. Then, make sure you know your way around the controls for your display. This shouldn’t be difficult to do — just take a look at the front of the panel. You’ll likely see buttons near the power button to do things like switch inputs and open and navigate the on-screen options menu. These menus vary across display manufacturers, so there’s no one way to open these menus and navigate them, but you want to find your colour, contrast and brightness controls. Once you find them, you’re ready to get started.
The Quick and Dirty Method: Use The Built-In Calibration Tool
First, reset your display to its default values. Even if you’re played with the on-screen controls in the past, you don’t want any old errors to change how you use your monitor today. Use the on-screen menus to reset the display to the manufacturer’s defaults. Then you can use your computer’s built-in calibration tool to tweak the display to your liking.
Mac OS and Windows both have built-in display calibration utilities that walk you through a series of steps to build and save a calibration profile. In Windows, the display calibration tool is in the Display Control Panel, and in Mac OS, if you open the Display System Preferences and click the colour tab, you’ll see the button to calibrate. The calibration tool will walk you through configuring your computer’s contrast and brightness, colour temperature and gamma correction, and will adjust the image from your computer’s graphics card on the fly as you make changes.
The Pricier, More Accurate Method: Buy a Calibration Tool
Going by sight should be enough for people who just want to be able to watch a YouTube video or browse their photo library without everything looking weird, but professionals need a level of accuracy that by-sight calibration may not offer. If you do any kind of photo editing, video editing or rely on the colour accuracy of your displays for your work, you may want to take calibrating your monitors a step further and spend a few bucks on calibration software and a colorimeter. A colorimeter is a device that attaches to the front of your display and “sees” the colour levels generated by your display and adjusts your OS to compensate. Some of them even support multiple displays, and can walk you through adjusting the settings for each display to get the best possible colour values.
The Spyder4Pro from Datacolor will set you back about $US170 retail, connects to your computer via USB, and mounts on the face of your monitor to automatically calibrate it for you. The Spyder4Pro is designed primarily for people who need to calibrate their display against colour prints, so if you’re more concerned with the way images look on-screen, you can get by with the Spyder4Express for $US119 retail, which still offers instant and automatic calibration, even though it’s missing a few features from the Pro model (most notably the ability to adapt to ambient light levels.)
You may also consider the SprectraCal CalPC, another tool specifically designed for computer displays, even though it’s a bit pricier ($US299 RRP) CalPC even has the ability to control your monitor’s display settings directly, so you don’t have to fiddle with the display’s on-screen menu at all. Just adjust the settings in the app, and your display will adjust itself to match.
For Multi-Monitor Setups: Test Patterns on Both Displays
If you have more than one display connected to your computer, you’ll need to use a combination of your OS’s tools and the on-screen settings. Start by using your computer’s calibration utility, the way we described above. When you’ve finished building a colour profile, it’s time to take the OS out of the equation and make adjustments using the panel’s display settings.
- First, you’ll need some test patterns. You can find some great ones at the Lagom LCD monitor test pages, or you can walk through the steps at DisplayCalibration.com to get started.
- Open the test patterns on both displays. Open two browser windows to the same patterns, or open two image viewers with the same pattens in both. maximise them on both displays and take a look at the differences.
- Make subtle changes on the second display to try and match the first. The steps you’ll follow here are very similar to how you calibrate your HDTV. You’ll need to adjust the contrast and brightness against black and white gradient patterns, and you’ll need to adjust the colour levels (red-green-blue) against some colour test patterns. Since you calibrated your OS against the first display, that monitor should look the way you like. The goal now is to make the second one look just like the first one. You may need to make some subtle changes to the primary display, but don’t go overboard — the first display is supposed to be your control, and if you adjust it too much you won’t have a point of reference.
- When you finish, bring up a photo on both displays. Make sure your test photo looks the same on both displays. If you can, set both displays to the same wallpaper and examine them that way. You’re just using your eyes, but it’s a good way to make sure that your colours and contrast look the same. If you see something off, open up the on-panel display controls and tweak them.
You can try to just set both displays to the same colour settings and walk away, but even though colour temperatures are supposed to be the same across all devices, manufacturing and design differences in different manufacturer’s panels can mean that 6500k on a Sony display can look significantly different than 6500k on a Dell display. Using test patterns first, and then validating using images or photos that you’d actually spend time viewing is a much better option.
Photo by Fabio.
Whatever You Do, Do Something
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on colour calibration for your LCD display unless you need colour fidelity between printed materials and your image and video editing tools, or you’re just a video and graphics fanatic and need to make sure that everything is just right. As we mentioned, for most people, the on-board calibration tool or spending a little time with some test patterns will be enough to make sure your friends don’t look like aliens when you open their Facebook photos.
Still, even if you haven’t noticed any issues with your LCD display, it’s worth calibrating it at least once. The process is especially useful if you have multiple displays that are different sizes or from different manufacturers, or if you’re upgrading to a new one. The only thing you have to lose is a few minutes, and you’ll get a much better picture from your monitors as a result. Good luck!
P.S. Do you have any other suggestions for Confused by Calibration? How do you make sure your monitor (or multi-monitor setup) displays an accurate, consistent image? Share your tips in the comments below.