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The creative pro’s guide to colorimeters

Confused by colour management? Get your hues in order with this easy-to-understand guide

Although we’d like to pretend that colour control is simple, it isn’t – at least not completely. It’s tempting to buy a cheap colorimeter, slap it on a monitor, run the software and hope for the best. Up to a point this might work, but sometimes the results are disappointing. To understand why, it helps to go through the calibration process step-by-step.

The aim of calibration is to standardise colour. When you look at the same file on two uncalibrated devices, you can often see some big and very obvious variations in colour, contrast and tone. If you haven’t experienced this yet, give it a try – you might be surprised by how wide the disparities can be.

Three colorimeters worth a look
There's a range of colorimeters out there; here are three models tailored to different demands and levels of experience

ColorMunki Display
ColorMunki Display
Affordable but effective entry-level monitor calibration. The software comes with a simplified mode for beginners, as well as an advanced mode for those with more experience who need more advanced control of the profiling process. However, it lacks highend features, such as simple profile sharing. It does support projector profiling to ensure consistent presentations.

i1 Display Pro
i1 Display Pro
The display pro is the entry-level unit for the professional i1 range. It includes a simplified profile management for workgroups, ambient light measurement and control, and pantone spot optimisation – in addition to basic profiling for monitors and projectors. The software produces a full gamut chart, enabling instant monitor comparisons to be performed.

ColorMunki Photo
ColorMunki Photo
Although it has the same Colormunki brand as the display, this is a different hardware unit. It also includes printer profiling in addition to monitor and projector profiling, and you can use it to measure colours from any reflective surface. It’s not quite as accurate as a high-end spectrophotometer, but it does deliver a good balance between performance and price.

Calibration can help eliminate these variations by moving colour output towards a standard reference that’s the same for all devices. after calibration, the same file should appear as similar as possible on all your hardware. In theory, you should recalibrate regularly and often – before every print run for printer, stock and ink combinations, and at least monthly for monitors. In practice, monitor colour doesn’t usually drift much, so a three-monthly recalibration cycle is fine unless you’re a full-time colour professional.

Calibration can be used to standardise colour for other devices, including projectors, scanners, printers – or more accurately, printer, ink and stock combinations – and even cameras. many of the colorimeters you can buy include monitor calibration, but don’t support these extra options. If you need them, or think you might need them in the future, check the small print before you buy. It’s sometimes possible to buy an upgrade, but it’s more likely you’ll have to waste money buying a whole new colorimeter kit.

Basic monitor calibration is a must-have in professional design. When it works correctly you can be reasonably sure that the colours you see on your lCd are standardised and not random. But it’s important to understand that calibration is only as good as your output device. If you have a cheap monitor with a limited gamut – colour range – calibration will get it more or less into the ballpark, but the output might still be imperfect. If you a/B it with a different calibrated monitor, it’s common to see clear differences, although they’ll be smaller than they were before calibration.

Taking care over where you place the calibration device is a smart move, too. Cheaper monitors have uneven output, so you will get different calibration results depending on location. Unfortunately calibration software rarely has an averaging option, so it’s best to calibrate close to the centre of the screen and then try again with a minor shift in position if you don’t like the results.

It can also be a very good idea to leave your monitor set to a standard default setting that’s as accurate as possible before getting started. For technical reasons, some manufacturers include colour presets that may be shifted towards red or blue. It’s not unusual for a monitor to default to one of these presets when powering up.

Pick the most neutral preset before calibration, and then remember to reselect it by hand if you need to. The calibration is only valid for that one preset. If you change any of the monitor settings, including basic brightness and contrast, the calibration will no longer be valid.

For professional colour control, a high-end IPS panel monitor with a wider gamut gives the calibration more space to work, and the final colours will be closer to the ideal. This can cause problems with inexperienced clients, because if they don’t also calibrate their displays they won’t see what you’re seeing. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, because clients aren’t always as colour-aware as designers. But if it’s obvious that colour is an issue for technical rather than creative reasons, it might be necessary to give a brief explanation as to why calibration matters. It can even be helpful to calibrate a laptop or two for them on-site or at your studio, so that you can be sure that everyone is seeing more or less the same thing. Most colorimeters are small and light enough to be readily portable, so this is usually a practical option.

A critical point to remember is that colorimeters aren’t perfect themselves. The more you spend, the more accurate the process. Some of the budget colorimeters (under £100) are perhaps less than ideal, and it’s better to spend a little more to get a semi-pro unit than to deal with the inaccuracies introduced by a bargain unit.

Calibration information is stored in a file called a ‘profile’, which defines how a device differs from ideal colour. Profiles only work when active, and making sure they’re active isn’t as easy it should be. On a Mac, monitor profiles are available under System Preferences>Display>Color. When your calibrator creates a profile, give it a memorable name and select it from the list here. OS X is fairly good about keeping profiles active, but it can be useful to check every so often that it hasn’t decided to select a different one without telling you.

PC colour is more complex. Every Microsoft operating system since Windows 95 has included support for colour profiles in the Color Management tab found in the Advanced Box in Display Properties. But some graphics drivers also have their own independent support for profiles. There isn’t a single recipe for getting colour management working on a PC, so you’ll need to take some time to experiment to find out what works. And be sure to keep copies of profile files generated by your calibrator. Various versions of Windows lose them regularly.

For printer calibration, profiles are usually selected in the printer driver before printing, or sometimes in Photoshop before the printer driver is loaded. On both PCs and Macs you’ll have to experiment to create a colour workflow that works reliably for you.

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