How to Color Calibrate Your Monitor for Photo Editing

In Post-processing by Jim Harmer44 Comments

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.



About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.


  1. The right is so much more natural. Looks like she’s caked in foundation on the left. Viewing on my 2008 macbook pro.

  2. She’s hot before & after

    Seriously though, good post; helpful information, thanks.

  3. I put off calibrating my iMac for too long. Having done so, I am a true believer. There is nothing better when you send a photo out to get printed, than to bring it in and see the colors match exactly what you thought they should be, even if it’s canvas or metallic. And I agree that the Mac and Windows built-in software calibration tools are too subjective — I tried several times to fix my colors that way, and never got the results I wanted till I did it with hardware. I use the Eye One system.

  4. What about matching monitor to printer? A separate subject maybe, but should it be done?

  5. How do I do this in Windows Vista? There is no Display>calibrate color.

  6. I use the colormunki photo which has benefit of letting you calibrate screens and match screen and printer output – all for an affordable price. From x-rite that also produces the eye one mentioned before. Highly recommended.

  7. @ Sara, you can print an image from your printer. Then adjust the monitor to match what you see on the printed piece. It is the easiest way to do it without setting up monitor and printer profiles. Great for the home/amateur photographer without going into the expense of calibration tools. Use the monitor controls and then use Adobe Gamma that is in your control panel to tweak out the RGB settings, that is if you have Photoshop.

  8. Best tutorial video on this matter. I have one question, thou: is Spider doing also the calibration between the monitor’s colors and printer’s colors, as Color Munky does? Because the last mentioned is 5 times more expensive, so I would prefer the Spider. Still would like to use it on the monitor-printer matching…:)

  9. Oh man! not a tiny difference on my monitor, huge brightness difference haha. argh I miss film, I’m not tech savvy at all >___<

  10. 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.

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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…

  15. 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.

  16. 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…

  17. 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. @janko,

      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.

  18. ” Most people find that they like their screens pretty bright. The way that I avoid this is to simply brighten my photos”
    before editing photos I reduce my lap screen brightness in 3 points and edit photos normal way.Is it correct? Can I get same result above your solution? Both are same o?

  19. i bought the spider 5 pro today, but before i use it, i have a question that seems very important to me.
    i have spent hundreds of hours editing about 75 photos, getting them “just right” for prints that i am very pleased with. however, the cost in ink, paper, and my time has been high, as i have fought the editing game. now i have finally come to my senses and plan to calibrate my 2 screens in the next day or two.
    this is my question: with my newly calibrated screen, will my printer pick up incorrect messages from my already edited photos (before calibration), so they will not turn out the same as before in future printings? if so, is there ANYTHING i can do to prevent that, so i don’t loose my hundreds of hours of editing?? thank you so much for any help, linda

    1. If you calibrate your screen and then just print one of your already edited photos it will be printed in the very same way as before. You have only changed the settings of your screen not the settings of your edits. What might happen though is that the print might look more like the photo on screen.
      Say your screen would now show an unedited photo with a green color where it should be white – if you printed it the color would be white not green, because it is the screen that is off. If you though edit a photo on a screen that shows green as white so that the area is shown on screen as white too you would change the file and in print would get another color printed than the one you see on screen (unless you would change the settings of your printer to match the ones of your miscalibrated screen).

      So no danger for the edits that you’ve already made, except that they might look better on screen after calibration. 😉

      Good luck

      Lille Ulven

  20. “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. ”

    Shouldn’t it be the opposite effect? If the photo looks good on your dimmer screen, then the same photo on a brighter screen should look… brighter.

  21. While I didn’t understand a word of your advice they certainly were easy to understand. I’m not a photographer. I paint. The windows that contain pictures are very dark. I have a WOW computer which may not have the directions needed to lighten them, if there are some I’d like to know how to go about it. Thank you

  22. I list to the various podcast and you are doing a good job and concur with most if not all the advice given; I fall on the aperture priority side and practically never use a grey card (but perhaps should) of the disputed issues between the Jim and the co-hosts.

    There is a but, has anyone calibrated two screens side by side with the Spyder 4 express? Did they look the same?

  23. So is the left side of the picture before calibration and the right side after? On my monitor the left side has a green/yellow cast and the right side looks good.

  24. How effective is calibrating a laptop? Every time you tilt it forward or back the view changes. The trick is finding that right spot every time you open it up…

  25. As for me, I prefer to edit on my Dell. Great text and picture quality for a sub-4K monitor; excellent wide viewing angles; great anti-glare coating (semi-matte/semi-glossy); very good gaming performance; modern style; compact stand but still sturdy and stable; good physical adjustments; USB 3.0 hub/ports.

  26. Such useful information! I used this when just starting out, and frequently recommend it in Facebook groups when newer photographers have calibration questions.

  27. I have an external monitor hooked up to my laptop which I plan to use for photo editing. How would calibration work? Do I need to calibrate the laptop or just the monitor? I plan on using the laptop screen as a 2nd screen but not for photo editing. Wondering if the monitor has a calibration feature, but didn’t notice any in the menu. It has presets such as graphics which seemed to darken the screen. The color on the external monitor is more vivid. The laptop screen which hasnt beeb calibrated is washed out in comparison.

  28. I calibrated my monitor with high brightness (100 cd/m2) if I set it to low brightness say 40 cd/m2 … does this affect the image quality?

    Thank you very much

  29. Amazing tip and best information , you got very interesting thought here , it’s very useful and helpful ,
    really appreciate for your sharing !!!!!

  30. I believe that the way is to make few calibrations. One for web pictures edit, one for printing. Ya, and I forgot to add, day and night ambient calibrations….

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