The Second Step to Digital Image Excellence
© Darrell Young  

So, you've bought that digital camera you've wanted for a while. The first step is complete. What is step no. 2? Get a printer? Nope! Step two is to buy a monitor calibration system.

Why is THAT the second step to digital excellence? Well, it all boils down to a capability that our human brain has that can hinder our ability to make accurate color images. "What is that," you might ask? Our brains are selective and adaptive. Our cameras are not nearly so powerful. What I am talking about is this...

When you walk into a room from outside, and see a family member reading a book under a tungsten lamp, what color are the book's pages to you? White, right? "Yes," you may say, "but, so what?" Well, if you took the same picture with no flash, your "white" pages would have a strong orange color from the very warm tungsten light. Your brain sees white, even though the light is truly not white. Your incredible brain has automatic white balancing! That's a real problem for photographers.

Here is a sample image that I took recently with about four types of lighting in the image. I was doing time exposures while waiting for a nice lightning strike. It was storming, as I stood on the front porch with my Nikon on a tripod. As I looked at the scene below, I saw nice white lights, and finally a small lightning strike in the background. But, when I pulled the image up on my computer later, I was amazed to find weird light sources and color casts. Look at what I mean:

Notice that the light on the left is yellow, the middle one is white, the right one is green, and the sky is bluish. But, my brain only saw white lights. Had I really taken the time to look, I'm sure I would have noticed the casts, but the point is, I would have to force myself to think about it carefully, and turn off my brain's automatic white balance before I would see the different colors. My brain, and yours, automatically balances light sources in a way that no camera ever will. That, my friend, is a problem!

As you sit down with your monitor, that you see everyday, you don't notice any color casts, do you? Your brain has grown accustomed to the colors of your screen. But, unless your monitor has been calibrated, it is NOT accurate, and viewing the images from your digital camera on it will not show them correctly. You might feel that an image you took is too warm, or has too much red, when in fact, it is balanced correctly. When you open an image, you are looking for color casts, and you've turned off your brains automatic system for a few minutes, without thinking about it. But, since you've grown accustomed to the standard colors your monitor displays, you may be seeing a color cast in your images that are not really there.

So, the question boils down to this. Can I trust my camera's white balance in all instances? No, you can't! So, then, one cannot say that "I'll just trust my camera to make good color. It can only do that if you are shooting in one light type that never varies, or constantly white balance the camera in the light in which you are shooting the image. If you are not doing that, you may be introducing color casts in your images, and your monitor will not tell you the truth when it shows them to you.

Are you REALLY sure that the green cast you just removed from that last image was really there? How do you know? What if it was actually accurate, and you removed green. Now your image will show a blue or red color cast, and on your unbalanced monitor it may look perfectly correct. I calibrate my monitor every two weeks. Some do it weekly or even daily. Why?

Unless you've been calibrating monitors regularly you would be surprised how far off the color balance can get in only a few days. Your monitor displays color in three channels called R G B for Red, Green, Blue. Each of these channels are individually balanced to input a certain set value of that color. The combination of different levels of RGB make up all the colors your monitor can produce. But, what if the red channel is too high, or the blue, or green? Your brain will adjust in a matter of minutes to the unbalance and see everything as juuuust right. Then when you open an image, and are looking for color casts, your brain is fooled into seeing something that is not really there. In only a few days after calibration your monitor's RGB color channels will drift slightly and introduce a slight color cast into your images. I would not have believed it until I started regularly calibrating. Now, I do it faithfully.

The solution is to buy a low-cost monitor calibration system. The most famous is the ColorVision Spyder2pro color meter and software. It runs about USD $250 for a complete hardware/software package that will keep your monitor in top calibration, with all the RGB channels in exact balance with each other for true display of your excellent images. ColorVision also has a lower cost system for basic use that runs less than USD $100. It is called the ColorVision Spyder2express. There are other manufacturers that offer reasonable prices too, such as the company Monaco with their OPTIX-XR system.

So, there is little excuse for not having a calibrated and profiled monitor to accurately show your images. When it comes time to print, you will find it much easier to get good output. When I first started trying to print digital images with my Epson 2200 printer, I was coming up with some very funny looking colors. I spent considerable time and money trying to understand why my images printed too green, or too red, when they looked fine on my monitor. I almost gave up and went back to the commercial labs, but, I started doing some research and read up on the problems that result from an unbalanced monitor. When I bought my Spyder2pro system, I was simply amazed at how far off my expensive 20 inch flat screen display was. After I calibrated the monitor, and created a profile, I found it was MUCH easier to print nice pictures.

This information applies to any type of monitor, especially CRT types. Even LCD (TFT) displays need to be balanced. Any time you are working with color spaces and converting between different devices like cameras, monitors, and printers, it is always best to have color profiles that help keep the colors close to what you expect. It isn't perfect, but it sure beats printing 12 prints to get one with good color balance!

For less than USD $100 you can own a monitor calibration and profiling system that complements your expensive digital camera. Why take chances with your monitor's color balance? Get yourself some color insurance. Go buy or borrow a monitor calibration system and profile that monitor. You'll then see what you've been missing all along. If you are like me, you won't believe it UNTIL you see it. But, once you do, you'll never go back to the old way.

Keep on capturing time...

Copyright © 2005 by Darrell Young, a.k.a. Digital Darrell, All Rights Reserved