Color Profiling your Monitor

Sunday evenings I look forward to reading Stickman Weekly and I’ve watched with interest as Stick puts his new Canon 5d Mark II to good use capturing some really great low light images.  I must admit there is a touch of jealousy involved when I see what that camera can do.  However, until the new 1ds Mark IV comes out I’ll stick with my five year old 1ds Mark II.

However, some of Stick’s images gave me pause.  Is Stick color blind?  Nah, some of his images look correct, but others looked out of whack in the color department.  I’ve seen this before.  I think I can help.  Composing an email I write “Stick, your colors suck, find some time to come visit and we’ll fix you up..”  Probably not the encouragement he was looking for.

A week or so later Stick shows up laptop in hand and admits he’s had several questions about the color in his photos for a while now.  He’s not alone.  Probably 99% of the people with digital cameras and who post them on the web have the same issues, most just don’t have the eye or experience yet to notice.  I’m going to take you through the basics of why and how we color profile using Stick’s case as an example.

This is a complicated subject but I’ll try to simplify as much as possible.  The web (internet) and your local photo stores that make your prints all use the Srgb color space/gamut.  A color gamut is like a box of crayons.  Some boxes have 256 colors, some 128, all sizes and shades.  In the crayon world sRGB is a pretty big box of crayons, but not the biggest.

A computer monitor is only capable of displaying a percentage of those crayons/colors at any one time.  The very expensive imaging monitors can display beyond sRGB and approach the gamuts of Adobe98 and ProPhoto RGB, the most common gamuts used by professionals who run their own prints.  Standard desktop monitors can display roughly 80-90% of Srgb, and laptops often are in the 30-40% realm.  So when I told Stick that his vintage laptop was probably only showing him 30% of the colors of his images he was surprised.  This doesn’t mean that his jpeg files only showed 30%, just his monitor.  Someone with a better monitor viewing the exact same files would see more of the gamut/colors (up to the limits of their monitor) and probably see them differently.

Further, if your monitor is not “profiled” to a set standard, what Stick was seeing on his monitor was probably not what everyone else was seeing on their monitors as they looked at his images while reading Stickman Weekly.  The differences can run from small to extreme, usually the difference is split.

The solution?  I’m afraid there isn’t a good one.  The best we can do as photographers is to profile our own monitors, and then when we post our images on the web/internet we know for sure the colors in our images are what we intended them to be, in reference to the Srgb web/print standard.  This means that if Stick’s monitor is profiled, and he posts an image in his weekly, that using my monitor which is also profiled to Srgb.. we’ll be seeing the same colors.  HOWEVER, because he has a vintage laptop screen capable AT MOST of only 30% of the Srgb color gamut.. and I have professional image monitors capable of 100% of the sRGB gamut.. that I’m seeing much more of the image than does he.  And the parts I’m seeing might or might not be as he as the photographer intended them to be.

I’ll be frank, laptop monitors for the most part really suck as image monitors.  I have a $4000 USD mobile graphics workstation with the very best graphics card and (until last month) best screen.  Yet, the monitor is not as capable when it comes to color and color accuracy as a $200 desktop LCD screen.  Laptop screens are great for traveling, business needs, etc, but they’re very limited for image processing.  At least if you’re at all interested in other people seeing the same image you see.

The easy solution is to purchase a reasonably priced desktop LCD and run it from your laptop (assuming you only have a laptop) and to use it when processing images.  A $200 USD desktop LCD is not a professional imaging monitor, but its light years ahead of a laptop monitor.

There is a problem with this.  When you profile a monitor, the profile contains a set of values that are loaded into your graphics card Look Up Table (LUT), and the values tell the graphics card which colors/contrast/brightness to output.  This is great until you realize that you have only one LUT and two monitors.  Each monitor profiles differently and will require different values, so technically each monitor needs its own graphics card/LUT.  Unfortunately laptops only come with a single graphics card.

Don’t let this be an issue.  Just use your laptop monitor for your tools and the such, and have the image on the second (profiled) monitor.  If you have a desktop, consider adding a second graphics card so you can have both monitors profiled. 

Okay, so we’ve determined that you want your images to be the same as our web reference sRGB.  You want to know that your monitor is profiled so that the image and colors you see on your monitor, is the same others will see IF their monitor is also profiled to the sRGB standard.  How do we get there?

This is the easy part.  The hard part is understanding why you need to profile.  This is what I use.  It’s simple, relatively inexpensive, and works with laptop and desktop LCDs.  You’ll need to check your profile every month, LCDs dim with age and when they dim the colors shift.

Here’s some additional hints to help you achieve the best color.

  • Always work in the same ambient light.  If viewing the same file, the colors your eyes see with daylight coming through the windows WILL NOT be what you see in the evening with the house lights turned on.  By working your images in the same ambient light you can be assured you’ll always see the same colors.
  • After profiling your screen may appear to have a slight yellow tint.  Don’t panic.  This is normal.  The ambient light is affecting how you see colors.  The yellow tint won’t be visible when you’re in ideal ambient light, and it will become more visible as you move into more inappropriate light.
  • A cheap desktop LCD is much better for imaging than the most expensive laptop monitor.


sRGB is the WWW standard.  It is also the standard all consumer print labs use.

The colors of Stick’s images are looking a lot better lately.  I’m still seeing “more” of his images than he can see using his vintage laptop monitor, but perhaps some day he’ll purchase a desktop LCD for his imaging work and we’ll be on the same page. 

I used Stick as an example because you all know him and perhaps you can relate.  In the last three weeks I’ve helped profile the monitors of nine individuals and every one of them couldn’t believe the resulting difference.  This really is important.  At least if you want others to see your image the way you intended.