This subject is featured in Issue #4 of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal.
Profiling & Calibration is a Must
One of the most frequent question that I’m asked is, “My prints don’t look like what I see on my monitor. What should I do?”
The answer, put simply, is profile your monitor. Unless your monitor shows you accurate colours with proper brightness and contrast you can never hope to achieve simple and straightforward colour printing. This is not optional in my opinion.
Anyone who does photographic image processing on their desktop must calibrate and profile their system. Without doing so (unless you're very lucky and all the variables cancel each other out) you'll be sentenced to years of frustration trying to get your prints to look like your screen.
There are several things that affect what you see on your monitor's screen;
Your monitor — the set-up from the factory isn't necessarily what you want or need
Your video card — the configurable LUT (Look Up Table) needs to be set
The operating system — is it capable of supporting ICC/ICM profiles (Macs and Win 98 or later can)
The software application that you’re running — Photoshop 5 or later is ICC/ICM aware, some programs aren't
Assuming that you’re using Photoshop this process can be done with Adobe Gamma — provided with Photoshop since V.5. But frankly, this isn’t a very good solution. It’s too subjective as well as subject to user error. Don't waste your time.
The proper way to do this is through the use of a monitor-profiling package and spyder — a small device that temporarily attaches to your screen and which, together with the software, calibrates and profiles your monitor. This combination produces objective settings for black point, white point and gamma as well as colour balance.
Frankly, if you don't use one of these you are largely wasting your time and money trying to make prints. There are decent packages available for around U.S. $300 — not more than a basic light meter, and just as vital to your being able to produce accurate, reliably consistent prints.
Spyders — Oh My!
ColorVision is the most heavily advertised in 2001, with their offering of a spyder combined with their Photocal software. I have no personal experience with this product but have read and heard positive reviews from a number of sources. Note that this product will not work with an LCD screen.
An updated version that will profile LCD screens became available in late 2001. If that's what you need, make sure that the version that you buy has this capability.
Somewhat more expensive is Colorblind's Prove It! along with a Sequel Chroma 4 spyder from Inkjetmall.com. I have been using this combination for about 2 years and hold it in high regard. This product does work with LCD monitors. I've used it with both an Eizo Nanao L66 on a PC and an Apple Cinemadisplay on a Mac G4 Power PC with excellent results.
If you have more than one machine on a LAN Prove It! will also allow you to automatically match all of the screens so that consistency between them is maintained. Thought this is a high-end product in its capabilities, it isn't much more expensive than other programs, and is extremely easy to use.
(Please note that one of the urban myths of the digital darkroom is that desktop LCD monitors can't be profiled. Rubbish. Almost every one can. The problem is that some of the less expensive calibration packages aren't able to work with LCDs. The better ones can. Note though that some laptop LCDs can't be profiled, so check with your manufacturer beforehand.)
What Do They Do?
Both of these packages, and most others, are simple to use. You plug the spyder into a USB port and install and run the software. You're asked to attach the spyder to the screen (or hold it in place) and the program then proceeds to flash a series of colours for several minutes. The spyder reads these colours and informs the software of what it's seeing. The program then calibrates your monitor and creates a Profile based on this information. This profile is simply a text file which describes how your monitor displays various colours.
The program then saves this profile into the appropriate directory on your computer. If you're using a Mac things are straightforward. Macs have system-level colour management and every application including the Operating System knows about and understands ICC profiles. On the PC, since Windows 98, ICM profiles are supported but only within certain programs, such as Photoshop. Consequently, the profiling program will run a small application every time you boot your system loading the Profile so that your monitor/card combination are adjusted each time without your having to do anything about it. Photoshop on all platforms is ICC / ICM aware.
Monitor Calibration and Profiling is done when you first get your package, but should also be re-done from time-to-time, as monitors characteristics do drift as they age. For most people once every month or two is likely sufficient. This takes no more than 10 minutes.
Note that profiling your monitor is only part of the battle, though in my opinion the most critical one. Scanners and digital cameras should be profiled as well. Most ship with profiles from the manufacturer. Printer profiling is a whole other issue and there are a number of tools available at different price points and with varying capabilities. I'll be covering this in future articles.
If you use an Epson Photo printer you'll find that it usually comes with decent supplied profiles. But, there are several suppliers who will be happy to sell you custom profiles for various ink / paper combinations, among them Inkjetmall.com. Some of these are better than others. Caveat emptor.
Working in Photoshop
Now that your monitor is calibrated and profiled you need to set up Photoshop so that it works properly. Ian Lyons has written extensive tutorials on doing this with both Photoshop 5 and 6. These can be found at Computer Darkroom — Photoshop Essays. Like monitor profiling and calibration, these essay are a must read. Do your homework. There'll be a test!
At the risk of repeating myself, do yourself a favour and buy a calibration and profiling system. Otherwise you'll spend the next several years asking, "Why don't my prints look like my screen?"