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.
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?
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 (and more recent versions) come 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 (or more recent), 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.