In my previous post “Color Management Part 2: Your Monitor” I wrote, “whether your monitor is brand new or of any recent vintage, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be running too bright and too contrasty.” This is absolutely true in the context of color management for print, and by “print” I mean the large universe of offset press printing, fine art inkjet, office color laser printers, and more.
But what if you don’t intend to “print” your work, but only intend to publish it on the web? What do you do if your customers, audience, users and target market are mainly on the web?
There is no web standard for monitor brightness.
I’ve pointed out previously that the sRGB color space is the defacto standard for color on the web; there is no fully agreed standard, just a preponderance of choices that have been made for you by the major hardware and software manufacturers. At this point, choosing the sRGB color space for your photography and art on the web is the best choice you can make for the largest number of viewers to see your photos “accurately.”
But what about monitor brightness? There is no web standard for brightness, and monitor manufacturers compete aggressively to produce brighter and more contrasty monitors. For sRGB, our “standard” color space for the web, the monitor brightness specification is 80 candelas per square meter. But your uncalibrated monitor or laptop is probably more than double this amount. I’ve measured friend’s and client’s monitors over 190 candelas!
Photographs prepared for print look too bright on the web.
In film days, there was a simple standard for evaluating the quality of any photo transparencies: put them on a standard light box and look for yourself. Are the photos exposed correctly and is the color accurate? Standard light boxes were everywhere, inexpensive and easy to use.
There is no simple light box to evaluate digital photographs. If you’re using a professional photographer who is shooting digitally, the ICC calibrated workflow is the only independent standard to evaluate photographs for exposure and color accuracy. A professional has to master and deliver his/her photos this way so that clients and color professionals downstream can also view, evaluate and use the photos properly.
Digital photographs are prepared for print using ICC standards on calibrated monitors running between 90 and 110 (rarely, up to 120) candelas; this depends on the brightness of the office environment.
The dilemma is that clients who are not color managed will then take those photos and view them on computer systems vastly indifferent to ICC standards. Photos prepared for print correctly look too bright and washed-out when viewed on a typical user’s over-bright and uncalibrated monitor.
And millions of monitors driven by millions of computers are older, newer, brighter, darker, more or less contrasty, and all unique.
It seems you’re faced with a choice: do I want my photos to be seen accurately by a very small number of people who are using color-managed computer systems? Or do I want to get my pictures “sort of right” for the overwhelming number of web users who are not calibrated?
What if you need both print and web? Can you have it both ways? Yes, with certain limitations.
You can make separate monitor profiles for print and web use, and switch when needed.
The strategy I suggest is to master your photographs or art for your most important distribution medium. Then, evaluate your photographs for other uses by switching between different monitor profiles built at higher and lower brightness settings. You then “save as” versions of those photos for use in the different media. Please, test and evaluate my suggested settings below for yourself before using them to prepare important or professional work!
I’m going to assume you have followed my advice in my post Color Management Part 2: Your Monitor and purchased a professional-level monitor calibration package (software and hardware). Scroll to the end of that post for links to suggested packages. The capability of these packages lets you build profiles for your monitor at different brightness levels. You can specify monitor brightness in candelas (or lux, the number will be the same).
You can make one monitor profile for print and one monitor profile for web, and switch between them as you need depending on the medium you’re targeting. My best guess for “uncalibrated web brightness” is 165 candelas. However, if you make dual profiles for web and print as I suggest later in this article, 165 candelas may be too much of a stretch for the typical monitor. And, the brighter you run your monitor, the sooner it will burn out!
Calibrating software is easy to use.
With good profiling hardware/software packages, monitors are ideally (and easily) set as follows: (1) you attach your colorimeter to your computer, (2) you launch your calibration and profiling software, and (3) as part of the process, your colorimeter measures your monitor brightness. You’re advised to adjust the monitor’s hardware brightness control until you get close, just a little bit above, the target brightness you want. The software then finishes the calibrating job by adjusting the video card for final brightness and color.
The software only adjusts brightness down.
On the typical monitor, the software can only adjust the brightness down from the hardware control level you set; it can’t raise it. So if you want two profiles for your monitor you have to set the monitor hardware brightness control for the higher level you want, then build both profiles while leaving the hardware brightness setting alone.
You will let the software achieve the final brightness setting for the print-use monitor profile. First, build a web-use profile (I suggest 150 candelas), using the monitor’s hardware controls as directed by your software. After building this brighter monitor profile for web, build another monitor profile for print use by changing only the brightness level you need in the software. I suggest 100 candelas.
How it works.
By design, the software compresses certain parts of the signal and stretches other parts. This reduces the number of different levels (tonal separations you can see) sent to the monitor. The more the brightness is lowered by software only, the more levels you lose and the harsher the transition from one tone to another. Large software adjustments can become visible as banding of broad, smooth areas of tone or color. The more you use software only to adjust brightness downward, without using the hardware controls, the more levels (tonal separations) you lose.
The monitor profile you build for print using the hardware brightness setting for the web will be less accurate than the one you might otherwise optimally build for print use. This is a compromise inherent in this approach.
But it may not matter to you at all. If you primarily want to evaluate your photos for the web, and only need occasionally to check print accuracy, you can use this strategy with a typical off-the-shelf monitor.
Print users should stick to one hardware and software profile.
If you primarily need print accuracy, this strategy will not work for you. If you’re an artist making fine art inkjet prints, you will definitely be happier building your monitor profile at optimal hardware and software controls. You will not be able to adjust your monitor to a higher brightness level without ruining the profile you made for print. You can only make an informed guess about adjusting your photos for the web. I suggest applying a curve or level adjustment in Photoshop and then “saving as” the adjusted photos for use on the web.
I’ve placed an action setting that makes a curve adjustment layer in luminosity mode here if you care to download and try it (option-click or control-click the links). On my calibrated system it works reasonably well to make photos mastered for print at 100 candelas look more acceptable at 150 candelas, the unmanaged web. Place the action in your actions folder. Remember to “save as” your photos because the adjustment is permanent, and use the adjusted versions only on the web.
If you absolutely, positively need the most accuracy at all brightness levels, you will need a monitor with internal electronics that support 10, 12 or 14 bit color and can communicate two ways with the computer via the monitor cable or USB. These specialized monitors set brightness levels both higher and lower precisely via software control of the internal monitor electronics. The accuracy is outstanding, as are the price tags ($1,250.00 to $2,500.00). With these monitors, you can easily build accurate profiles at different brightness levels and suffer no loss of quality. This is the strategy I have lately adopted, since I have a monitor of this type. I have profiles at 90, 110, 150 and 165 candelas. I use 90 for print mastering. 165 looks extremely bright to me, and and I have, for now, settled on 150 for a valid web preview.
I’d love to hear your experiences and whether or not this approach works for you.