If you’ve gone through the effort of setting up Photoshop CS(X) preferences correctly, you can be comfortable knowing that Photoshop is handling all image file information accurately on your computer system. And, you won’t accidentally ruin the image files you want to view or approve. But there’s an important next link in the chain of color management if you want to view your image files accurately:  your monitor.

Whether your monitor is brand new or of any recent vintage, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be running too bright and too contrasty. And it’s definitely not showing color accurately. Right out of the box, most new monitors are running at 160 or 180 candelas or more, when a proper target range is 90 candelas (in a dark environment) to 120 candelas (in a very bright environment).

Hardware and software to profile your monitor is affordable and easy to use.

Furthermore, Photoshop uses your computer system’s “default profile” for your monitor. Remember profiles from the previous color management article? Without a custom profile, the default profile is typically a generic monitor name and is certainly a non-standard RGB color space. Monitors are especially, wildly inaccurate. Go shopping for a monitor or a TV at a big box store where they’re all tuned to the same channel and you can see huge differences from model to model.

Your monitor needs a custom icc profile generated by a hardware and software package. Attempts to visually color match a monitor with the brightness, contrast and color temperature controls, or a program like the old Adobe Gamma, will always fail. They fail because they are global adjustments only; they affect all colors at the same time, so all color errors are transposed together equally. Think of this as a two-dimensional approach.

You need both the hardware and the software.

You need both the hardware and the software. I can tell you from personal experience, there is no way to muck up your monitor settings to get it to show anything accurately. Ten or twelve years ago (a lifetime in computer technology), the hardware/software packages to profile monitors were very expensive and exotic. I remember spending a couple months (!) making wildly inaccurate inkjet prints on my unmanaged color system, then monkeying around with the monitor controls to try to “match” the print. The hope was to duplicate the errors onscreen and then be able to use Photoshop color corrections to “fix” the color. All you can get is a deeper mess. I finally sprang the money for the hardware and software, and it was astounding, night and day, the improvement in accuracy of both my monitor and my prints.

Hardware and software packages to calibrate and profile your monitor are now easily affordable and easy to use. There’s really no excuse for any visual professional with even the slightest interest in seeing digital files accurately to not invest in a hardware and software package. You can buy a really good professional quality package for $230 – $300. There’s a highly capable mid-level package at just $170 msrp. You install the software and connect a colorimeter “hockey puck,” typically via USB. The software sends a calibrated signal of different colors and gray tones to the monitor and the puck reads the actual output from the screen. The software compares the results read by the puck to what the the signal should be. For each color and gray, it builds a three-dimensional look-up table (LUT) in an icc profile.

What the profiling does.

It’s “three dimensional” because, for each color tested, the LUT will adjust the signal to your monitor for hue, value and chroma so that it will display correctly. Colors that lie between those points are interpolated from their nearest neighbors in the LUT. Color-savvy applications like Photoshop then send the display signal through this LUT in real time, which adjusts the display signal so that what you see is what you’re supposed to see from your color-managed file.

This process does not change the underlying image file! All this “digital massaging” is to the monitor display. The underlying image file and the display are independent. Theoretically, and in most reasonable practice, different monitors with custom profiles will display the same (independent) image file to look exactly the same. This is the color-managed work flow, also called device-independent color.

Once you have profiled your monitor, you’re done. Photoshop does all the rest. In your color-managed work flow, you are now seeing your image files accurately. You need to re-profile at regular intervals, but that can be as infrequently as three months for the casual user. And by running at a much lower brightness setting than out-of-the-box, your monitor will last much longer and can be replaced at a much greater interval. Yes, you will save money on hardware.

Recommended hardware and software.

OK, what should you use? You need both the right software and a device called a colorimeter. I have no financial interest in my recommendations. My personal experience lets me recommend these packages:

Spyder3 Elite hardware and software package from Datacolor

(I suggest the Elite package because it lets the user set the monitor brightness precisely; Datacolor’s lower level “Pro” software is effective but less exact at setting brightness.)

ColorEyes Display Pro Spyder3 Bundle hardware and software from Integrated Color

BasICColor Display from Basiccolor

You can buy these packages directly from the manufacturers, through pro camera stores or a good online company like Chromix. Basiccolor Display may or may not be bundled with an instrument. Like all the software in these three programs it will work with a large variety of different colorimeters, so it’s possible to buy an instrument from one company (Spyder3, Squid or DTP94) and the software from another. These packages are easy to install and come with a wizard interface to guide you through the process. I’m using BasICColor Display 4 with a DTP94, but the Spyder3 is gaining recognition as an excellent and reasonably-priced colorimeter for today’s large-gamut LCD and LED displays.

When it’s time to replace your monitor, you should do some research about types appropriate to your needs, set your shopping price point, etc. Generally, IPS panels have been the choice for those who demand the best color accuracy, but acceptable color can be obtained at fairly modest price points from other panel technologies. You can read more about panel technology here:

overview selection article

technology in-depth

I’d be very interested in your feedback and whether this article has been helpful. I also offer color management consulting services and can assist you in setting up and getting through the process. Let me know if I can help. Thanks for reading!

-Jeff Stevensen