About a month and a half ago, I got an email that can only be described as serendipitous. I had just flown back into Singapore the day before. Because I needed something to kill time with on the flight, I had bought a digital photography magazine at the airport (something I honestly rarely do — I usually get my news and reviews from www.dpreview.com). One article that I found really interesting was on color management and monitor calibration. Mid-last year, I had made the switch from Mac to PC (I still have the Mac, I just use the PC as my primary machine). And while I was very happy to make the change, one thing I noticed and that really disturbed me was that my photographs looked completely different on my two computers. No amount of tweaking of the PC’s Adobe Gamma settings satisfied me and I found myself, for months, checking to see how pictures looked on both computers before posting them. What I found was that on many occasions, pictures that I thought looked fine on my PC — and, I should say, this is after editing them in Photoshop — looked screwed up when I loaded them onto my Mac… and vice-versa. Sometimes the pictures would be fine on one machine and then look over-saturated on the other. Or green or too yellow or something. Basically, I found myself unable to decide which one was more accurate and instead of really trying to fix the problem, opened both laptops side by side one day and manually tweaked their screen settings until the colors on both were as close as possible (which meant they could have both been entirely off-base). Of course, while I was satisfied with the screen results, when I tried printing images, they weren’t what I expected. They were good, but they just weren’t what I had seen on screen.
I should add that I spent 10 years in the magazine world, so I should have known better. After all, in that industry, our designers’ monitors were regularly callibrated by our printers in order to ensure that what we saw on screen was really what was printed. In fact, as I think about it, I suspect that I considered monitor and color calibration something you needed to bring an expert in to do for you; I never really thought about doing it myself. Until I read that article. The article recommended two products, the Spyder2 system made by Colorvision and the Huey made by Pantone. I had decided that when I had some time I would do some research and try one of the two systems.
That’s when Cathay Photo emailed me. Cathay Photo, as any Singapore-resident knows, is one of the oldest, best and most reliable camera and camera equipment retailers in town. My grandfather — who collected Nikons and Leicas — shopped with them for most of his adult life and it is one of the two stores in town I trust. One of their staff had seen my blog and in a rather out of the box move had decided to contact me. She wanted to know if I might be interested in testing the Spyder2 color management system and if I thought it was something useful, would I mind blogging about it? (Like I said, serendipitous.) Of course, despite wanting to type, “yes yes yes!” right there and then, I told them I’d think about it and suggested a meeting (can’t seem too eager, right?). To make a long story short, I made what I think is a reasonable deal with Cathay. I would try out the Spyder 2 system. If (and only if) I found it useful and it worked, we’d sit down again and hammer out some ways for me to help them publicize the system.
Getting the system set up is a breeze. Install the software off of the included CD, plug the patented Datacolor Colorimeter (which I’ll call “the device” in the rest of this post; “patented Datacolor Colorimeter” is just too much of a mouthful) into your computer’s USB port. Launch the software and follow the instructions, which in a nutshell tell you to rest the device on your monitor. Once the device is in place, the software flashes a series of colors on your screen, which when exposed to the device, helps your computer create the most accurate color profile possible. What I discovered is that the callibration seems to work best in total darkness. I ran the software three times (in different lighting conditions) before I was completely satisfied with the color profile proposed. I also tried calibrating my wife’s laptop in different lighting conditions, with the same results.
The differences between what I had been working with previous to calibration and what the Spyder2 system created for me were astounding. To show you just how different the colors were, I have taken photographs that I had edited to what I thought were pretty good results pre-calibration and then edited them post-calibration. On my laptop, the “after” photos are perfect. The colors are, well, very real. They also reproduce beautifully and accurately in print. The “before” shots, however, are kind of wonky. In the first photo series (cashew chicken), the “before” shot has too much green and yellow. The “before” shot below of my gorgeous friend J drinking soup is too yellow. The “before” shot of the Moroccan chicken is also too green and the “before” shot of the chicken curry is slightly green and way too yellow. Now, the strange thing is that some of you are going to be saying, “Wait, on my screen, the ‘before’ shots look better.” (I know this because I just checked the pictures out on a friend’s laptop and some of the “befores” do look better on hers.) BUT… and this is a big “but” … they only look good because your monitors may be a tad inaccurate. If you were to try printing the images, you’d be shocked to discover that what you see on screen is not what you’ll see on paper (you may already have this problem). Proper color management and monitor calibration is extremely important for anyone who works with photos (and/or any other colored media) on their computers and intends to share those pictures with others.
I’ve been totally thrilled with the results of the Spyder2 system. (I was so happy in fact that I convinced Cathay that they simply HAD to advertise on my site; amazingly, they agreed!) The system reminds you to recalibrate your monitor every few weeks, which is useful and recommended.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it out for yourself. Honestly, not only will you be looking at your own photos and prints in a new light, so will everyone else.