How to Color Calibrate Your Monitor for Photo Editing

Computer monitors do their best to reproduce colors and brightnesses correctly, but each one is slightly different.  In fact, a screen even reproduces photos differently when it starts up compared to the way colors and brightnesses look after the monitor has been running for a while.

This is a serious problem for photographers.  We are careful to set the white balance properly in Photoshop or Lightroom, but what good does it do if your screen is not properly calibrated?  Answer–none!  The same is true for adjusting color saturation, brightness, and just about everything else.

calibrating monitor for photo editing

Here’s a photo I edited before and after color calibrating. See the difference? Which side do you think is the color calibrated one? If your screen isn’t calibrated, it can be hard to tell!

Does everyone need to calibrate their monitor?

Probably not.  If you’re just a hobbyist photographer who is learning the ropes, this probably isn’t the biggest fish you have to fry.  There are many more important things to learn in photography than color calibration; however, if you’re more serious of a photographer and want to know that your photos look their best… then it’s time to calibrate!

Is monitor calibration only for printing?  Will it mess up my photos on the web?

How to calibrate your monitor for photo editing.  Great photography tips!

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No way!  The purpose of calibration is to make sure that your eye sees the photo the same way on your screen as others will see it.  For printing, you can be sure that by calibrating your screen your photo will look very close to how it looked on your computer screen.

However, when you edit on a calibrated screen and then post your photo online, it does not mean that everyone else will see the photo properly.  Their screens are most likely uncalibrated, but it is still important to calibrate.  Why?  Because computer monitor manufacturers strive to make their products reproduce colors properly, so by color calibrating, you’ll be at neutral even if some screens are off one way and others are off another way.

There is a caveat, however.  Almost without exception, computer monitors are kept brighter than a calibrated screen.  So if I edit a photo on a calibrated device, it will likely show up a TINY BIT darker on uncalibrated monitors.  Most people find that they like their screens pretty bright.  The way that I avoid this is to simply brighten my photos a TINY bit in Photoshop or Lightroom before posting on the web since I know most people will be viewing the photo on a brighter screen.

What if my monitor can’t adjust enough?

It is possible that your monitor will be off enough and not have the necessary adjustments that it couldn’t be properly calibrated.  However, the way that the color calibration tool that I personally use works, is that it simply saves a new color profile on your machine, so there is no need at all to adjust settings on the screen.  It does everything for you.

What tool do you recommend for color calibration?

No doubt, what you’re looking for is the Spyder 4 Express from DataColor.  Color calibration tools often cost over $1,000, but this little piece of love does the job for around $110.  I personally use the Spyder color calibrator and it works VERY well.  The one I use is the “Elite” not the express, but most people probably can get away just fine with the Express.  I really like the free software that comes with the tool.  It walks you through the process step-by-step and makes it amazingly simple.  You can easily calibrate the screen in just 3 minutes.

Is there a free option for color calibration?

Yep!  Windows 7 comes with a monitor calibration tool built-in.  The trouble with this and many other tools is that it is quite subjective and inaccurate, but it might be a good option for photographers who don’t want to spend a load of money on a color calibration device.  This free screen calibrator is better than nothing, but it’s NOT a replacement for a dedicated color calibration device like the Spyder 4.

On Windows 7, go to  Start > Control Panel > Appearance and Personalization > Display > Calibrate Color.  Then open that program which will walk you through how to get a ROUGH approximation of a calibrated screen.

If you use a mac, check out Dustin’s instructions on the Pixels to Paper post.




  1. Michael

    Bought the Spyder Express – no adjustment possible, compared to the Elite. Hated the results: dark, dull, didn’t look my pix at all. Used test prints of my pix to compare the look of my screen to that of my local photo developer. Made sure that they had made NO adjustments of their own. Happy that my screen is calibrated to their system, which should be pretty good as they are professional printers.

  2. Cricket

    I edit on a calibrated (via Spyder 3 using the Spectraview software) NEC 24 inch monitor and I edit my RAW files in both LR3 & CS5 in the sRGB colorspace. I export in the sRGB colorspace and when I upload to the web all of my photos look dull, cool, & desaturated. I understand that most normal computer monitors won’t look as good as my calibrated NEC monitor because they are all mostly uncalibrated(just used by normal everyday people clueless about colorspace, etc)
    Will this always be the case when viewing on normal monitors, or am I missing something here? I have sent some images to a lab as well as a different company online that prints photobooks and they didn’t print even close to what my monitor shows. I’ll be honest here, I am VERY discouraged. Why go through all of the trouble to calibrate, stress over colorspaces, edit for hours to get your photos to look fantastic and rich in color, etc if no one on the web actually views them like you do? Not to mention the variables in print labs, etc. I would LOVE any feedback on this. Maybe I am missing something?

  3. simon

    great little vid thanks for taking the time. My spyder4express arrives tomorrow so im hoping to see the difference on my brand new Dell U2412M monitor.

  4. cheng

    i have the same problem as Cricket. Which laptop screen delivers most accurate colours? Mac is too warm, PC is too cool.

  5. Sue Rissel

    Excellent! I have Windows 7. I could not, at first, see a difference in the photo AT ALL. I followed the steps for the “free” calibration and BOOM, there it was. I only needed to make a small adjustment but it was enough. And this explains why the photos don’t look the same printing as they do on the computer. Now on to check out the paid service…

  6. Ken C.

    To do the calibration in Windows 8, you need to open the Control Panel, go to Color Management, Select the Advanced Tab, and Click the Calibration Button.

  7. JP

    You have the brightness backwards– Because most monitors are brighter than your calibrated one, you should be wary not to brighten your photos otherwise they’ll look too bright on everyone else’s screen. There’s an easier method though– Edit at a standard brightness around 300cdm2. Many photographers seem to edit at 120cdm2, which is just too dark and only makes sense if you’re trying to edit properly for prints. Heck, I edit for prints even at near-full brightness and the prints turn out fine when viewed in good light. It’s not my fault if someone views a print in candle light…

  8. Wiebke

    While the calibration works fine on my good old non-retina MacBook (Lion) … I have some trouble with my little retina Air (Yosemite). Because after calibration with the Spyder the Air ends up showing too little detail in the photos that I have worked on earlier. (Same file looks alright on the non-retina device.) Reducing the brightness of the screen did not make any difference…
    To give you an example: this photo on the little Mac will not show any details or shades in the upper petals of the blossom, while on my non-retina it does…
    Is there anybody out there with the same problem and possibly a fix to it too? For now I am running on the manual calibration and just not doing that kind of work on the little one…

    Thanks in advance.


    1. Jeff Harmon


      Unfortunately the answer is – it depends. Most displays on laptops are terrible. They are too small (I think even 15″ is too small to do a good job editing photos) and they usually don’t have high enough resolution. The resolution part of it is the key to me. Your camera takes pictures at a resolution so high it is probably going to be hard to get it to fit at 100% even with a 30″ display, but the more the better.

      It is certainly possible to edit photos on your laptop even if it is a small size and the resolution isn’t great, it just is harder and would take longer as you’ll have to zoom in and out. However, the one thing you really need to do on any display is calibration. It is tough to know how bright to make the display so that your photos will have the exposure you want when you either print them or share them electronically. It may also be setup by default to have the colors be overly vibrant so that the screen looks good in demo at a store, which could make your colors look really drab when you look at your photos on another computer.

      I recommend ColorMunki Display from X-Rite as a very reasonably priced calibration tool. I also recommend the 30″ IPS display from as being great quality and also reasonably priced – although if you are using a Mac this display may not work.

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