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Do I need to calibrate my monitor?

Updated: 08/25/2014

The words of death are, "It looked good on my calibrated monitor."
 

It seems obvious that the key to good prints is having monitor and printer match. The problem is, you cannot calibrate your eyes.

When you step from sun to shade, your T-shirt still looks white to your eyes, but to the camera it looks blue. When you go indoors and turn on the light, your eyes say the shirt is still white. But to the camera it became yellow.

That's because your eyes remove color casts but the camera captures the colors as they really are, just as printers print what's really in your file—not what your eyes thought they saw.

Your eyes are good at comparing shots side by side, but when you stare at a portrait on your screen, your eyes do what they're best at: remove color casts so you can't see them and don't know they're there.

Fortunately, there's a simple tool that allows even the color-blind and the poor of monitor to hit their colors every time with no fear of returns: the Photoshop Info window.

The lion's share of returned prints are from poor skin tones, but we've never seen a print returned when the colors fell within the range described in our pleasing skin tone help section. And the wonderful thing is you don't even need a color monitor to see that your skin tones are pleasing.

The other big reasons for returns are they're washed out and too dark, and both can largely be judged with Photoshop tools.

Get a Calibration Print!

There's nothing like comparing real prints to what you see on your screen to get a feel for how monitors and prints differ. Calibration prints to the rescue! Order one and compare it to screen versions.

We have different print labs, and you can order calibration prints from the EZ Prints gallery, WHCC galleryBay Photo gallery, or the Loxley Colour gallery (or all four!). For greater accuracy, we've turned off color correction in these galleries.

How closely the calibrated prints match what you see on your screen will also depend on the light falling on the print. Monitors generate their own light, and it's usually brighter than the subdued lighting in homes, where most of your prints will probably be viewed. Prints depend on reflected light, so they'll look yellow and dark under household tungsten light, green under industrial lights, and blue under sunlight.

How Experts Do It

To really make print and monitor match, you'd put the prints in a light box of known color and intensity. Here's a great reference on how to do it. The problem with this is your admirers will not be viewing your prints in a light box.

Soft Proofing

Wouldn't it be great if the printer faithfully produced your sRGB file exactly as you submitted it with no subtle changes? SmugMug offers the ability to turn off color correction for our print labs so they come close to this ideal. But there's still a shift in colors. How can you know what it is?

The answer is to download EZ Prints' ICC profile, Bay Photo's ICC profile, or Loxley's ICC profile (depending on which lab you ask us to print through) and use it to soft proof in an application like Photoshop.

Ping our Support Heroes if you'd like WHCC's ICC profiles, since they have several versions that depend on what you what to print.

To install ICC profiles in Windows:

  • Download the profile by right-clicking the link and selecting "Save Target As."

  • Then right-click on the downloaded profile, and a menu will appear. Choose Install Profile. If you're running Vista or Windows7, the file should go into your color folder: C:\Windows\system32\spool\drivers\color
  • If the Uninstall Profile menu item appears, it means you already have an ICC profile of the same name installed.

To install ICC profiles on a Mac with OS X:

  • Download the profile by right-clicking the link and selecting "Save Target As."

  • Drag the ICC profile to the Users\[your login user name]\Library\ColorSync\Profiles folder.

Quit Photoshop and re-open it. Then go to the View menu, select Proof Setup, and then the Custom submenu. The dialog below will appear:

Photoshop proof setup
By clicking the preview button on and off with one of your photos open, you'll see how your print will look.

I Still Want a Calibrated Monitor

Here's a great reference.

Even after calibration, you can get more "snap" from monitors than you can from prints. That's because the inks don't combine to produce as black a black as a monitor can produce, and white photographic paper is not the pure white some monitors can achieve.