Colorimeters – A Photographer’s Best Friend

If you’re late on doing your Christmas shopping for your family’s own aspiring photographer, step aside, I’ve got you covered.

Accurate color is something that is often assumed in a digital workflow. It’s easy to think that the colors you are seeing on your computer screen are true, because after all, it is a computer screen and it’s purpose is to display color. However, this is quite seldom the case with a factory default setup.

For example, if you’ve ever gone to purchase a new TV, there’s usually a whole lineup of the store’s televisions in a row for customer viewing. From here, the customer can look at each system and divine which one they think looks the best. Of course, most people will pick the one where the colors are vivid. Everything on the screen looks so real because it pops out at you from the rest of the televisions which seem to look flat or muted. In truth, all of these televisions can look just as good as their competitors but most fall short because they just don’t seem to have that “out of the box” pop that yours does.

This happens because most TV settings are eyeballed until the viewer deems them “good”. A factory preset can also get colors “in the ballpark” but since it is a preset it most likely is not perfect across all the TVs created. If you’ve ever ordered something that was “dead on arrival” or had dead pixels, you know that not all TVs are perfectly identical out of the box even if they are all made to be the same.

The same is true for computer screens. If you edit pictures, this is a big deal because the only information you have to base your adjustments on is what the screen is showing you. If the screen is not accurate, you could make adjustments that negatively affect the aesthetic of your photographs and result in something that will only look right on your monitor and “wrong” on any other monitor or in any other format such as a print.

The solution comes in the form of a colorimeter. A colorimeter measures color. Using a colorimeter  with its accompanying software can create a set of colors on a display that complies with an industry standard. The picture below shows how a colorimeter works, it hangs over the front of a computer’s display and measures the colors displayed by the software. The software then takes the data read by the colorimeter and makes a color profile for display based on the similarities and differences between the readings from the hardware and the industry standard values used for reference in the software.

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 10.22.15 PM

Sounds complicated but it’s not. It takes about ten minutes using the included software’s step by step instructions and the hard parts are completely automated by the computer. The resulting, now calibrated display, will be very very close to a “what you see is what you get” level of accuracy.

At the same time though it’s important to note that you cannot do this type of calibration by quote unquote “eyeballing it”. This is because the brain and the human eye work together to compensate for changing colors so that different types of ambient light can look very similar, like a continuous AUTOWB in a camera.

Next week’s post is going to be about color, flash and white balance so I will go into more detail on eyes and how they interpret color later. For now, we can just chalk it up to evolution and the importance of not get eaten as opposed to seeing accurate color all the time.

If you have the money and you edit your pictures in any way then I would highly recommend getting a monitor calibration system as soon as you can. There are so many available it may be difficult to choose which one to purchase. I am a personal advocate and user of Datacolor’s SpyderPro line of colorimeters, the newest of which is available here. It is best to own your own colorimeter as the colors on a monitor can change as it ages so a recalibration should be in order about every week or two.

I love colorimeters, the level of accuracy and professionalism they bring to a digital workflow is amazing and I only wish I had known about their existence sooner.

You know what the best part of all of this is? There are even colorimeters for TVs.

See you next week!

-Alex

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