William Burnett Photography | The One Thing

The One Thing

March 28, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The One Thing

In a prior essay I posited that, to create photographic art, the camera, lens, computer, software, and printer were in essence irrelevant.  I did so not to imply that decisions about these five things would not effect your final product but to establish that the majority of modern cameras, lenses, computers, and software are of a sufficient quality to make very nice art.  I also wanted to establish that printing your art at home is not the most economical solution or highest quality solution for the majority of photographers.  However, at the conclusion of the essay I stipulated that, in my opinion, there was one piece of hardware that every serious digital photographer should purchase. 

As photographers we worry about the lighting, the focus, the aperture, etc.  Then we worry about post processing our images.  We want the eyes to be sharp and the backgrounds to be blurry.  We want the sky to be blue, the grass green and the snow to be  white.  Every photographer knows the disappointment that comes back in the mail and that vibrant, spectacular, “National Geographic” quality photograph looks dull and lifeless as a print.  Why does it happen everyday to millions of photographers around the world?  It happens because what we see on our screens is not being communicated to the printer and the most common reason for this happening is that our screens are lying to us.

Screen Shot 2012-01-24 at 10.23.22 PM
A CCD camera sensor: The sensor is the heart of a digital camera. It has been called “digital film” but it is far more complex than film. The Sensor is made of of millions of little squares called pixels and these are used to translate what you see, through the lens, into a digital photo. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Beauchamp)

Let’s imagine a simplified version of the data contained in a digital image.  Each image is made up of millions of little squares called pixels and each one of these squares contains two important pieces of information. They contain a number that represents the luminance, that is how bright or dark that little square is supposed to be and a number that represents a color that the square is supposed to be.  In theory, if we have a bright red pixel recorded on the camera sensor then that same color red pixel will be displayed on the computer screen and that same color red will be printed on the printer or by the printing lab.  Everyone that has ever printed a photo at home or at a one hour photo can tell you that this rarely if ever happens.  More than once I have heard people complain about the quality of the print that was produced on their printer or from the one hour photo.  The vast majority of the time the printer or photo lab is not to blame.  The blame almost always can be placed directly on an uncalibrated monitor.

My monitor is brand new, how can it be uncalibrated?  Do you know how much I paid for it?

It does not matter if you monitor is new, old, or somewhere in between, it still needs to be calibrated.  In fact most monitors are shipped calibrated but the calibration used is not one that is designed for color accuracy.  Instead it is designed for high contrast and saturated images.  In the early days of computing the monitors were pretty bad.  They were dim, lacked resolution, and the ability to produce really rich colors.  These monitors were essentially television sets without a tuner.  In an effort to make programs like word processors, computer aided design programs and spreadsheets easier to read, the computer and monitor manufactures started adjusting their monitors to show brighter whites, darker blacks and more saturated colors.  Then the age of video games hit full force and there was even more desire to have a super saturated, super bright screen.  This super saturated/bright screen was a very good thing for most uses of the computer.  In fact, that desire to have brighter, saturated and eventually bigger, high resolution, monitors led to the development of the modern flat screen displays that we all now take for granted.  However, in 1987 a little program named Photoshop appeared.  With the advent of Photoshop, a new age of photography was born and a need to reproduce the on-screen images in an accurate fashion was needed.  

This really was not a new problem.  In the 1950s the post war world transformed from an age of black and white printing to color printing and a system needed to be developed that could standardize colors. This problem was solved by the Pantone company.  They began standardizing colors and eventually their color system was being used by every magazine publisher, auto body shop, fine art reproduction service, and just about anyone else in the world that needed to reproduce anything in color.  Pantone used swatch booklets, called formula guides, to distribute the standardized color pallets to printing houses.

A Solid Matte Formula Guide from Pantone, 2005 edition. (Photo Credit: Reid Parham)

By 1993 the need to have a standardized method of representing color was at an all time high.  Roughly compatible systems emerged as the industry standards.  Apple introduced a system called Colorsync at the system level on every Macintosh Computer and a consortium of several different companies united to establish the International Color Consortium or ICC standard of color.  Unfortunately, it would take until 1997 for Microsoft to incorporate this standard into their operating systems at a system level.  Early on it was not fun calibrating a monitor.  It involved some very tedious and time consuming matching of colors to a printed standard.  Luckily for today’s digital photographers the entire process has been automated.  Nevertheless there is no free lunch and to get a nicely calibrated monitor you are going to have to purchase a colorimeter.  A colorimeter is a device that measures the colors produced by your computer and monitor and then compares them to a known color standard for cameras and printers in order to calibrate your monitor.   

Just pick the brand you like and that fits your needs and budget, plug it in and in about ten minutes you will be a lot closer to being a better photographer.  Well, at least your prints will look a lot more like what you saw on the camera.

All of the major brands of colorimeters work basically the same.  The less expensive models work well for machines with only one monitor.  The  more expensive models can color match two or more monitors on a single computer.  A colorimeter usually looks like a stick or a puck and either affixes to your monitor screen with a suction cup or hangs over the top of your monitor by its cords in such a way that a photoreceptor, on the colorimeter comes into contact with a designated section of your monitor screen.  Then when you run the included software, a number of color swatches will appear on your screen.  The colorimeter then measures how bright these colors are and what color they are displayed as on the monitor screen.  At the completion of the measurements, which usually takes several minutes, the program will save a customized color profile for your monitor.  The new color profile will be used by your computer and you can rest assured that your colors are being displayed accurately.

Having a calibrated monitor is a wonderful thing.  It allows you make your monitor tell the truth but it goes a bit farther than just making your monitor tell the truth, it can also help you see if your printer is telling the truth.  In many of the best photo editing programs you can do what is known as a soft proof of your images.  A soft proof is only really capable with a calibrated monitor.  Every major printer company provides color tables or profiles for their printers.  These files can usually be downloaded from the printer company’s web site or may be included in the installation package for the printer.  Most professional labs will provide, at your request, a copy of the printer profiles they use and you can then add those to your color settings on your computer.  Then a program like Apple’s Aperture 3 will allow you to “soft proof” your image on-screen.  In other words, you can preview a very good approximation of what your finished print will look like on any given printer for which you have a current printer profile.  This is a very important tool for a photographer.  Not all printers are created equal and they can vary widely in their ability to produce certain colors.  So the calibrated monitor with a printer profile is important to at least have a heads up on what you can expect when you hit the print button.  

Two on screen soft proofs of a recent cell phone photo.  The image on the left is a soft proof based on the printer characteristics of a local print shop and the image on the right is the soft proof of the printer currently being used by Bay Photo.  As you can tell the image on the left represents the blacks as more of a dirty dark grey.  If I were planning on having the local printing house reproduce this image I would need to increase my saturation and contrast a bit to achieve the desired look. 


I know this essay was long.  However, I wanted to do more than just say buy a colorimeter.  I think it is important to know why you should buy something.  I know that money does not grow on trees and that photography is an expensive hobby.  I believe enough in the importance of a colorimeter that I use one myself.  Below you will find some links to the colorimeters that I recommend.  Now, Get out there and get shooting. -- Enjoy


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