How To Calibrate Your Monitor For Photography

Inside: Simple step by step instructions on how to calibrate your monitor for photography and get your monitor color right so you can create images with beautiful, accurate color.  Specific instructions for xrite monitor calibration are included. 

Note: this post may contain affiliate links.

Calibrate Your Monitor For Photography

Have you ever walked into the electronic section of a store and looked at the wall of TV’s lined up, all tuned to the same channel?

Though they’re playing the same program, each TV looks a little different.

One looks a bit darker,

Another screen is more yellow,

And you can spot which TV NOT to buy because the people on the screen look green!

calibrate monitor for photography

All screens aren’t created equal.  This fact becomes important in photography and photo editing.

You wouldn’t notice that your monitor color is off – that it’s a bit dark, or too bright, or too green – unless you saw it against a wall of other computer monitors.

Good news!

You won’t need to buy a wall of computer monitors to find out if your monitor color is accurate.  You’ll only need a simple tool to calibrate your monitor and some prints to get your monitor color right.

Do You Need To Calibrate Your Monitor?

Monitor calibration is the process of adjusting your monitor color and brightness so that what you see on your screen is accurate and your photos will have beautiful, like-like color.

I remember taking some photos for a friend many years ago when I new to photography.  I told her, “If the photos looked dark on your computer, just turn up the brightness on your screen and they will look better.” 

Wrong!

Here’s what I didn’t know as a beginner: if she printed those photos they would come out very dark because the brightness of my monitor affected how they would appear on other monitors and in print.

I needed to calibrate my computer screen for brightness and color.  Once I did it made a huge difference in my photos.

For beginners, learning how to calibrate your monitor can feel techy and intimidating.

But it’s simple: the proof is in your prints.

If you print your photos and they match your monitor reasonably well, the color of your monitor is likely accurate.  

But if what you see on your computer monitor looks like this

how to calibrate monitor for photography

but your printed photo looks like this

monitor color

or looks too dark, too orange, too pink, or otherwise different from what you see on your computer screen, it’s time to calibrate your monitor.

When you calibrate your monitor you’ll ensure your screen is trustworthy, and the edits you make to your photos will produce the effect you’re going for.

How To Calibrate Your Monitor For Photography

Step 1 – Order Test Prints

Order at least 10 prints of your favorite photos.

You need to compare your monitor with your prints in order to know if your monitor color is accurate.  A few important considerations before you print:

Use Color-Managed Software

For this to work these need to be photos you have edited or at least uploaded into a “color managed” photo editing software program.

Lightroom Classic and Photoshop are color-managed photo editing programs.

This won’t work well if you view your photos on the internet because not all browsers are color-managed, and this won’t work if you try to compare your prints to what you see on your phone or in the native photo-viewing software on your computer.

Use A High Quality Print Lab

You must order your prints from a high-quality print lab that has good color-management practices.  You won’t get good results using your standard drug store lab.  I recommend trying WHCC. WHCC is a pro printing lab but will allow you to register as a “photo enthusiast.”

Once you’re registered, WHCC will require you to submit some test prints.  They will provide up to 5 free 8×10 test prints.  You could start with those, but if you’d like to have more prints (see my suggestions below) I recommend ordering their 5×7 proof prints on matte paper for comparison with your computer monitor.

In my ebook Organize Your Photos Step By Step I teach a fast and simple method of printing your photos in albums through a company called Blurb.  If you’re using the method I teach then I recommend ordering a small Blurb Photo Book (7×7 soft cover with standard paper) to use for your test prints.

Turn Off Auto Brightness Adjustment

If your computer is set to automatically adjust your screen brightness based on the ambient light you’re in, make sure you turn off that feature.  I recommend adjusting the brightness to the halfway point and leaving it there until you get your test prints.

If you decide you need to calibrate your monitor, the calibration device will help you choose the most accurate brightness setting.  But in general, most computer screens are much too bright for photo editing by default.

That means your prints will come out too dark.  Your overly bright screen will trick you into editing your photos darker because they’ll look too bright when, in reality, they aren’t. 

Order A Variety Of Prints

Order a variety of prints that represent your photography style and usual subjects. Make sure there are some photos that contain skin tones, some with skies and greenery if you shoot outdoors, and some that are black and white and/or have muted color tones. 

Exclude any photos with vivid colors because these can’t always be printed accurately and may confuse the process of comparing your prints with your screen.

Uncheck Auto Correct

Don’t let the print lab auto correct your prints.  This will throw off the process because you need the prints to be an exact replica of what you see on your screen.

Save Your Test Print Files

Save the digital files that you print together in one folder on your computer or one collection in Lightroom so it will be easy for you to pull them up for comparison to your prints.

Save Photos Using The sRGB Color Space

A color space is the range of colors in an image that can be viewed or printed.  sRGB stands for “Standard Red Green Blue.”

sRGB is a smaller color space than some others that are available (such as Adobe RGB).  That means it won’t encompass the full range of colors the human eye can see or even the full range of colors that can be viewed on a screen or printed. 

But it’s a safer color space because it will keep your colors within the range that are viewable by the widest range of devices and printable on the widest range of printers.

sRGB makes it even more likely that what you see on your screen is what you’ll get when you print.

If you print your photos using the fast and easy method I recommend in Organize Your Photos Step By Step, Blurb will automatically export your photos in sRGB.

In Lightroom, change these settings to ensure your photos are exported in the sRGB color space:

1.  Go to the menu and click on Lightroom Classic – Preferences – External Editing, and choose sRGB for the Color Space.

This ensures that when you send an image to Photoshop or another program, it will send it in sRGB format:

calibrate your monitor

2.  If you export an image from Lightroom Classic using the export menu in the Library module, be sure to choose sRGB for the color space under File Settings. 

sRGB

In Photoshop do the following:

With your photo open go to the menu and choose Edit- Convert To Profile:

Then choose sRGB for your Destination Space:

Order Test Prints Once

The Good news? Once you have one set of test prints you won’t need to print any more, even if you find out your prints look very different than your computer screen right now.

Once you calibrate and fix your monitor color the prints will match your screen, even if they look nothing like you intended.

As long as your test prints match the digital files you’ll know that what you see on your screen is what you’ll get when you print going forward.

Step 2 – Compare Your Test Prints With Your Computer Screen

Once you get your test prints back the next step is to compare them to your computer screen.  A few important tips for best results:

The Light Around Your Computer

The light around your computer can have an impact on the appearance of your photos on the screen as well as the appearance of your prints.

You need to edit and compare your prints in light that’s neutral and consistent.

This can be a challenge if you like the convenience of taking your laptop anywhere.  Here’s the problem with that: the quality of the light in different locations is going to vary.  

Some light, such as the light from a lamp, is warmer (more yellow).

The natural light coming in from a window is usually more neutral.

The light in an office is usually cooler (more blue or green).

Your computer screen and your prints would look a bit different under each of these sets of lighting conditions.

If you have the space or ability, an ideal solution is to do your editing and print comparison in a room with light blocking curtains (or even a dark blanket) and a neutral light bulb overhead and/or in a lamp.  Look for a bright lightbulb with a Kelvin temperature around 4000K.

If this isn’t an option I recommend turning off your overhead lights and opening your curtains.  Turn your screen so you aren’t getting a glare from the light and edit in the natural light coming in from the windows. 

This option is less ideal than a consistent light source from a neutral light bulb because the light from the windows may change throughout the day, but it’s better than editing in the yellow light of an incandescent light bulb.

The darkened room with neutral lightbulbs gives you more flexibility to edit at any time regardless of whether the sun is up.  

The light you edit your photos in is the light you want to use to compare your prints.

Hold Your Prints To The Side

Open the digital files of the photos you used as test prints in a color-managed software program (I recommend Lightroom or Photoshop).

When you compare your prints to your screen hold the print out to the side so you have to turn your head to look at the print.  This gives your eyes a second to adjust from looking at the light on the screen to looking at the print.

Remember, compare your prints in the same light you used to edit your photos.

Do They Match?

Your prints and your screen aren’t going to look exactly the same because your screen is a light source and the print isn’t.  But overall you should be able to see whether your screen and your prints match reasonably well.

If your prints look too dark or too bright, or there’s a difference in color – your print looks more yellow or blue or green than your screen – it’s time to calibrate your monitor.

If you’re satisfied your prints match your screen reasonably well, in my opinion, you won’t need to calibrate your monitor, at least not yet.

But you will need to revisit your print and monitor comparison regularly because monitors can change over time. This is known as “monitor drift.”

Pull out your test prints every month or two and check that you’ve still got a good match.  Create a reminder on your calendar so you don’t forget.

Step 3 – Calibrate Your Monitor With A Monitor Calibration Tool

If you’re not satisfied with the match between your prints and your screen, your next step is to calibrate your monitor. To accomplish this you’ll need to purchase a monitor calibration tool. 

I know, every time you turn around you find out there’s something new to buy for your photography.

It’s annoying, I agree. 

But what’s more annoying is printing an album of photos and finding out they look totally different than what you saw on your screen.  That can be an expensive mistake.

In the long run, it will save you money and frustration.

This tutorial will cover instructions for the X-Rite iDisplay Pro. It’s a great monitor calibration tool.

There are many monitor calibration tools out there, some more expensive than others.

The more features your calibration device has the more precise tweaks you’ll be able to make to your display, and likely the more expensive it will be.

I’ve attempted to simplify this process for beginners, but I learned most of what I know about monitor calibration from this site.  I recommend checking out his extensive list of tutorials on various computer models and calibration tools if you’d like to go into more depth. 

Related: Basic Photo Editing Tips

Xrite Monitor Calibration Instructions

Step 1

Warm up your screen.  Turn on your computer and leave it on for 30 minutes before you start calibrating.

Step 2

Download the X-Rite Calibration software.  Make sure you have the most current version.

Step 3

After you’ve installed the software and restarted the computer if required, attach the device to your computer (usually via USB port).  Make sure “check for update” is checked, change the user mode from basic to advanced, and on the left side, click on “Profiling”:

xrite calibration

Step 4

Choose your monitor type.  The software should auto-detect this, but I recommend double checking with your computer manual.

This website can help you find your display type based on brand and model (for non-Apple computers): https://www.displayspecifications.com/en

And X-Rite has some information here for Mac users: https://www.xrite.com/service-support/imac_technology_type

Change the white point to “native.”

Change the luminance to 100.  You may need to tweak this further after you calibrate and look at your prints but start at 100.

No need to adjust any other options on this page.  Click Next.

xrite calibration instructions

Step 5

On the next screen make sure the ICC Profile is set to “Version 2.” Click next.

xrite calibration

Step 6

On the next screen choose your color patch set size.  If you have time I recommend choosing the largest size.  The device will flash each these colors on your screen during the calibration process.  The larger patch set will take a few minutes more. Click next.

calibrate monitor for photography

Step 7

On the next screen you’ll see your calibration device listed under “measurement instrument.”  It should say “device ready.” 

Make sure “adjust brightness, contrast and RGB gains manually” is checked.

Note that at the bottom you can save all these settings.  I recommend doing that at this point.  Next time you’ll be able to load them up with one click! 

I recommend saving it with the name of the computer or screen you’re calibrating, the date and the luminance target.  For example: Macbook 5/1/20 100

Finally click “Start Measurement.”

calibrate monitor for photography

Step 8

Turn off your overhead lights and make sure your room is as dark as possible.  Some people prefer to do this at night.

Follow the instructions to place your calibration device on your screen.  Rotate the ambient light diffuser to the other side of the device. You may need to tilt your screen back a bit.  Make sure the device is centered on your screen, then click next.

xrite monitor calibration tool

The first measurement the device will take is of your screen’s luminance.  It will then ask you to adjust your screen brightness to get it as close as possible to the target luminance we chose earlier (100).

Some screens allow for more minute brightness adjustments than others.  If you can’t get it exactly on the target its better to go below the target.

Mine started at 54.  I bumped it up to 75 which was still below the target.  I bumped it up again and it hit 103.  This is closer to 100 than 75, but I went with 75 because it’s better to err on the darker side.

Get as close to the target as you can without going over. 

xrite monitor calibration

Once you’ve adjusted your brightness, click next.  The program will then run through all the colors in the color patch set.

Be sure your screen doesn’t dim or go to sleep during this process.  At the bottom you can watch the progress.

When it’s finished, you’ll be instructed to remove the calibrator and turn the ambient light cover around.  Click next again and it will take you back to this screen.  Click next again. 

xrite monitor calibration tool

The next screen is where you’ll need to save the calibration.  If it doesn’t automatically add the date, be sure to add it. 

If desired you could also change the name of the screen (for example, I could change “color LCD” to “Macbook” if I wanted to for easier reference). 

Choose “4 weeks” under profile reminder.

Make sure ambient light monitoring is off.  Then click Save Profile.

xrite monitor calibration tool

Take a moment to write down the white point and the luminance values you achieved with the calibration.

In my case that was:

white point: 7063K

luminance: 75

If you find that you don’t have a good match with your prints after this calibration we’ll use these numbers to recalibrate for a closer match.

xrite monitor calibration tool

Click on the little line graph.  This screen can give you an idea of how accurate your calibration is:

xrite monitor calibration tool

The closer together the three lines are the better your calibration likely is.

But, as I said in the beginning, the proof is in the prints.  So it’s time to compare your prints to your screen.

Please return to step 2 above for instructions on comparing your prints to your screen.

How Do I Know If My Monitor Is Calibrated Correctly?

Step 4 – If Your Prints Don’t Match, Recalibrate

Brightness

If your screen is brighter than your prints recalibrate with a lower luminance target.  If you used 100 the first time, try 90 or 80.

Likewise if your screen looks darker than your prints, try a higher target luminance, like 110 or 120.

Color Temperature (Warm v. Cool)

Take a look at the white point you achieved with your first calibration.  If that white point rendered your screen warmer (more yellow) than your prints, then choose a higher white point.  This will make your screen cooler.

In my case, the only white point higher than 7063K is 75K (that’s shorthand for 7500K).

If the white point you achieved rendered your screen cooler (more blue) than your prints, then choose a lower white point like D55 or D50 to make the screen warmer.

You’ll need to recalibrate after each change you make and compare your prints against your screen.

how do I calibrate my monitor

If you still aren’t satisfied that the color temperate match between your screen and your prints is good, try selecting the Daylight Temperature slider.  It gives you a broader and more precise range of color temperatures to select from:

how to I use i1profiler?

It could take you several tries to get it right.

Color Tint (Pink v. Green)

There are two aspects to the color of your screen – the temperature (warm v cool) and the tint (pink v green).

If something still seems to be off after you adjust the temperature, it could be the tint.  The adjustments we’ve made so far don’t allow you to tweak that.

Go back to your display settings menu and write down the x and y coordinates that are listed under the BEST color temperature match you’ve achieved so far:

how do I know if my monitor is calibrated correctly?

Then select “xy…” from the white point dropdown menu:

how do I know if my monitor is calibrated correctly?

There you’ll see sliders where you can adjust pink and green:

how do I know if my monitor is calibrated correctly?

If your screen needs MORE PINK, increase X, and decrease Y.

If your screen needs MORE GREEN, decrease X, and increase Y.

Warning: Don’t be heavy-handed.  Start with very small adjustments and be sure to write down your new X and Y coordinates. 

Recalibrate and check your results against your prints.

Congrats! You’ve Done The Hardest Part of Monitor Calibration!

Chances are you’ve got a good result by this point.  The next time you calibrate your monitor it will be much easier because you’ve done the hard work of tweaking to get the best match with your prints.

In the future, it will be a matter of recalibrating to these same settings.

If you’re not totally satisfied with the match between your prints and your screen:

• Keep in mind that you may not be able to achieve perfection.  Be ok with close enough.  If you print your photos after you calibrate and overall you feel they look as you intended, you’re in good shape.

•Reach out to your calibrator’s manufacturer to see if they have any further suggestions for you.  X-Rite has excellent customer support.

Now that you’ve done the hard work of getting your monitor color right, you can enjoy the fruit of your labor.  The proof will be in your beautiful prints!

Need help getting your photos organized and printed?

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