If you want to learn how to calibrate your monitor properly, this is the guide for you. Having a monitor that displays colour and contrast totally accurately is crucial for a designer or photographer because your work will be viewed by others exactly as you intended it. It also comes in handy when you need to match the colours in a digital design to a printed version.
Monitor calibration: Quick links
It's easy to get used to an uncalibrated monitor that displays everything with a slight colour cast. This will trick you by presenting an inaccurate view of your digital creations. You might even be shocked to see the before/after colour difference once you've gone through the calibration process. (Also see our guide to screen resolution.)
You'd be forgiven for thinking any monitor should be pre-calibrated to display at its best, but this is only the case for monitors that boast 'factory colour calibration'. This is a feature built into high-end, premium-priced panels like the stunning Eizo ColorEdge CG319X, which we reckon is up there with the best monitors you can buy right now.
What is monitor calibration?
Monitor calibration ensures the colour output from your monitor matches a predefined standard, such as the sRGB or Adobe RGB colour space, rather than whatever colour balance the screen happens to display after it rolls off the production line. The calibration process doesn't actually alter anything about the monitor itself, apart from settings like brightness or contrast. Rather, a hardware monitor calibrator detects the colours emitted by your screen and creates a bespoke software profile – or look-up table – that tells your computer’s graphics card to distort its colour output to compensate for the inaccuracies of your monitor.
If you don't fancy splashing out on a hardware calibrator, there are also apps built into your computer’s operating system, as well as free online tools, that will help assist you to manually adjust your monitor's colour output by eye. They're useful for rectifying glaring colour and contrast issues, but the human eye is simply too subjective for precise colour calibration. We strongly recommend investing in even an entry-level hardware calibrator if you’re at all serious about accurate colour – it's the only way to get the job done properly.
Here are all your options for calibrating your monitor correctly.
How to calibrate your monitor (Windows)
01. Adjust Gamma
The first stage is to adjust gamma, which, as Windows eloquently puts it, is "the mathematical relationship between the red, green and blue colour values that are sent to the display and the amount of light that’s ultimately emitted from it". Thankfully visual representations of good vs. bad gamma are also provided – all you need to do is match your monitor's gamma to the 'good' example.
02. Balance brightness
With the aid of a helpful high-contrast sample image, Windows helps ensure your monitor is displaying enough shadow detail in images without being so bright as to overexpose highlights. This is a fairly useful tool, especially if you're using a cheaper monitor with restrictive viewing angles that make it prone to varying contrast depending on the up/down tilt of the screen.
03. Set contrast
Adjusting contrast with the Windows calibration tool is almost exactly the same as with brightness, requiring you to manually set your monitor's contrast level with the assistance of another mostly monochrome sample image.
04. Tweak colour
Finally, it's time to adjust colour accuracy. Windows give you several greyscale charts, each with an obvious colour cast applied. The next screen gives you individual RGB sliders so you can tweak the Windows colour output. However, while this is useful for correcting a strong colour cast, it's difficult – if not impossible – to accurately judge colour in this way. The human eye’s definition of 'grey' is far too vague, and your idea of 'correct' grey could well be slightly different to mine. This stage of the Windows calibration utility is really only useful for correcting an obvious colour cast – creative professionals need better.
How to calibrate your monitor (Mac)
The Display Calibrator Assistant built into OS X is accessed via the Displays icon in the System Preferences menu. From there, click the 'Color' tab, then hold down the Option key and click the 'Calibrate…' button. On the Introduction screen of the Display Calibrator Assistant wizard, make sure you check the Expert Mode tickbox to ensure you get all available calibration options.
01. Set display's native response
The first stage of the process is to set your display's native response. This is done by adjusting two sliders to fine-tune brightness and colour, and the process is repeated several times to enhance the accuracy.
02. Adjust contrast
Next up is adjusting your display's contrast by selecting a target gamma setting. The available gamma scale runs from 1.0 to 2.6, but you should almost always select a value of 2.2, as this is what apps like Photoshop will expect.
03. Set target white point
Finally, it's time to set a target white point. This determines how your monitor displays white, as white can be set to appear 'cooler' or 'warmer' depending on personal preference (think daylight vs. warm white LED light bulbs). Checking the 'Use native white point' tickbox is usually the safest option here, or move the slider to the D65 point. Now you can save your new colour profile to become the default that loads each time you use your Mac.
Online calibration tools
Calibrize is a simple downloadable app that contains similar calibration tools to the built-in Windows and Mac OS X calibration utilities. Black and white boxes help you set brightness and contrast using your monitor's controls, and there are RGB gamma sliders for tuning colour. Save your new profile and you're good to go.
02. Photo Friday
The Photo Friday Monitor Calibration Tool is nothing more than a webpage that displays a greyscale image. You then adjust your monitor's brightness and contrast so the black and white shapes display as instructed by the walkthrough guide.
03. The Lagom LCD Monitor Test Pages
This selection of calibration web pages is very comprehensive and includes various images and charts to help you calibrate everything from black level to sharpness, along with the usual brightness, contrast and gamma options. It's one of the best online calibration tools out there, though some of the available options aren't of much use for creatives.
Buying a monitor calibrator: Things to consider
No matter how closely you follow an online or operating system calibration process, there's always going to be a weak link in the process: the human eye. Even if you have perfect vision, the eye just isn't an objective judge of colour balance or consistency. There are plenty of optical illusions that highlight the eye's fallibility, so to get around the problem and calibrate your screen properly, there really is no alternative but to splash out on an electronic eye: a dedicated monitor calibrator, also known as a colorimeter. See our guide to the best monitor calibrators around or read on for our top two picks.
These nifty gadgets are usually about the size of a computer mouse and only require a USB connection. Simply hang it over the top of the screen so it rests in the middle, then corresponding software flashes various different colours over a period of several minutes for the all-seeing eye to detect. The calibrator then feeds the colour data back to the software so it can create a custom colour profile to apply to Windows or OS X.
Colorimeters aren't the only hardware you can use for monitor calibration. Spectrophotometers look identical and do the same job, but will also calibrate your printer, as they're capable of analysing both emitted light from monitors and also light reflected off printed colour swatches. The only downside is price, as spectrophotometers usually cost considerably more than a monitor-only calibrator.
Once the calibration is done, you're still not quite home and dry. The brightness and colour reproduction of any monitor will fluctuate over time, so to keep everything consistent you should repeat the calibration process once every few months.
Top monitor calibrators
When it comes to choosing a monitor calibrator, two brands dominate: X-Rite Pantone, and Datacolor. Both produce excellent products to suit a variety of price points and feature requirements. And the best bit is you don't need to drop big bucks on a range-topping calibrator to get accurate calibration.
Even an entry-level tool like Datacolor's Spyder5EXPRESS will calibrate your monitor super-accurately. Spending more money will get you extra features like multi-monitor calibration, as well as ambient light monitoring that'll tell you the optimal screen brightness to suit your studio environment
Higher-end calibrators also tend to be quicker – a calibrator like Datacolor’s SpyderX Pro is able to calibrate a monitor in well under two minutes. That's useful when you need to calibrate regularly to ensure your monitor is consistently displaying colour-critical designs.