Don't Get Fooled Again (why monitors matter)

Posted by Mark Wood on Wed, Sep 21, 2016

Don't get fooled again. (why monitors matter) by Mark Wood

There cannot be many photographers who want to prioritize buying a monitor over getting a new camera or lens. Buying a color-critical monitor involves research into the esoteric world of color management, and after trawling through pages of information the pros and cons of a purchase may not seem any clearer. This is where I want to help, forget about budgets, brands, and the minutiae of technical specifications. This short tutorial will provide the theory to underpin why monitors matter, so that you won’t get fooled again by rogue colors, and disappointing prints.

Topics to be covered, which at this point may read as gobbledegook:

• Why hardware calibration makes monitor setup reliable, quick, and accurate
• Mapping tone to set black and white points
• Why Adobe RGB is the color standard for print
• Soft-proofing
• Environmental colors (shading hoods and non-reflective surfaces)

First point: please note that managing digital color is both an art and a science. Artistic decisions can only be made after your systems are calibrated, which requires the science. In color management calibration is the equivalent of tuning a musical instrument; references are needed, a tuning fork will do, but a digital tuner that shows when an instrument is in the correct pitch removes all doubt. Let us apply the reference idea to color. The black shape, in Figure 02, contains two circles, one is gray, but is the other circle white?

Screen_Shot_2016-09-21_at_10.59.51_AM.png

Using a monitor that can be hardware calibrated means that white and black can be set reliably, not only that but all the greys in-between can be mapped properly. Hardware calibration is where a measurement device, referred to as a calibrator, is used to tune-up monitor without the need for any guesswork by the user. In the space provided, in Figure 02, could I add a brighter circle?

Setting tone comes before color, as changing tone effects color. Tonal range is important: A monitor can be as bright as a flashlight, but a paper print cannot reflect the same intensity of light as that transmitted from a monitor. Deciding on luminance of a monitor is a personal choice, I chose 120 cd/m2, which is my preference for the white point of my monitor. Once set and calibrated my monitor will show the tones in my photographs properly, with a few caveats I’ll cover later.

Screen_Shot_2016-09-21_at_11.00.22_AM.png  Figure 03: The photograph of the guitar player contains many subtle tones. The guitar is white, pearl and maple. The player is wearing black, differentiating the tones of the t-shirt, shirt and jacket is important. As is allowing the the eyes to be seen through the sunglasses. I have taken time to ensure the tones are set properly, which can only be done on a properly hardware calibrated monitor.

The Figure 04 shows a series of tone curves. The ideal scenario is a linear response; input values are identical to the output values. Sadly we don’t live in an ideal world, we rarely get what we ask for; sometimes when the input value is set to 70% gray the output could be 80% or higher. Calibration helps to even things out. In color-critical monitors the calibration happens at the hardware level, which tunes monitors to precise values.

 

Screen_Shot_2016-09-21_at_11.00.45_AM.png

 Figure 04: Grayscale Tone Curves from Adobe Photoshop. On the left the input and output values are identical, there is no curve the response is a straight line. If a print from this file caused 70% gray to become 80% the tone curve in Photoshop can be altered as illustrated in the image on the far-right. In the beginnings of digital printing tone curves where used to compensate for output problems, thankfully we now have hardware calibration and profiling to ease the strain.

Calibration also resolves color rendering, and monitors designed for color-critical work do this accurately. In addition color-critical monitors will be capable of displaying a full gamut of colors. For print applications monitors that display 99% of Adobe RGB are available, for video work Rec.709 is appropriate. To illustrate this point take a look at the following. Figure 05 shows a sRGB color space placed inside an Adobe RGB space. Lots of devices from smart phones, tablets, TVs and computer monitors display a range of colors equivalent to sRGB. Video and online work doesn’t require the same color gamut as print.

Screen_Shot_2016-09-21_at_11.01.02_AM.png

Figure 05: A sRGB color space placed inside an Adobe RGB space.

Figure 06: The color profile of an inkjet printer using rag paper placed inside the sRGB space.

Figure 07: Shows the same inkjet paper profile used in Figure 06 but this time it is placed inside Adobe RGB.

Figure 06 shows the color profile of an inkjet printer using rag paper placed inside the sRGB space. The inkjet colors exceed the gamut of sRGB, therefore you could be editing colors that can be printed that cannot be displayed on a sRGB only monitor. Figure 07 shows the same inkjet paper profile but this time it is placed inside Adobe RGB. A monitor that displays Adobe RGB will display more if not all of the available print colors; 99% is currently the maximum achievable.

Industry Standards: To return to the music analogy, imagine a band that doesn’t tune up. Nice? No! Okay I’ve been to a few gigs like that, so move that idea to a band where all the instruments are tuned-up but not to the same concert pitch. Each instrument will sound fine when played solo but once the ensemble strike up together the sound will be dissonant at best.

Screen_Shot_2016-09-21_at_12.08.15_PM.pngFigure 08: A band playing in tune! Volume set to eleven.

Now think about digital color and your monitor, are ever going to hand off your work to be printed at a lab, or displayed online? That is likely, so even if your system is tuned well for in-house, you will need to achieve industry standard color references before passing your work on. It is not so hard to do, and getting your color management right will save oodles of money and lowers stress. Following guidance on software preferences is essential, but your efforts will be negated if your monitor is not accurate.

Figure 09: Software proofing lets you preview the potential effect paper and output choices will have on a print.

Figure 09: Software proofing lets you preview the potential effect paper and output choices will have on a print.

If you have read this far, you are likely to have the patience to calibrate your systems. The reward for having a calibrated system is that soft-proofing will become reliable. When calibrated, a good monitor will show a generic rendition on your work. A high quality hardware calibrated monitor, is the first step in matching monitors to prints. The next step is to use soft proofing. This function can be found in several photo applications, including Photoshop and Lightroom. I use soft proofing every time I output work, though I make special use of it in inkjet printing to evaluate my photographs before making fine-art prints so that I can modify the tones and colours to suit the papers I use. See Figure 09.

Figure 10: The image of the left shows the ideal colour. The image on the right emulates the best tone and colour that can be achieved on a fine-art rag paper.

Figure 10: The image of the left shows the ideal colour. The image on the right emulates the best tone and colour that can be achieved on a fine-art rag paper

Setting a soft proof condition causes your photographs to display as an emulation of print. I often use photo-rag papers, and though soft proofing will not render the texture of the paper, it will map the white and black points of the print simulation. You even have the option to display the color of the paper too.

Soft proofing emulates output conditions, and is similar to hard-proofing. However, hard-proofing requires a print to be made. In Figure 10 the image of the left shows the ideal colour. The image on the right emulates the best tone and colour that can be achieved on a fine-art rag paper.

Figure 11: My digital darkroom. I work in low light conditions and illuminant my prints using a full spectrum light.

Figure 11: My digital darkroom. I work in low light conditions and illuminant my prints using a full spectrum light.

Digital darkrooms and environmental colors: Earlier I wrote about caveats to a calibrated monitor showing the tones in photographs properly. Environmental color and ambient light effect our perception of tone. It is no accident that we watch movies in the dark. The low light of movie theatres let us perceive tone and color more vividly. If the lights go on, the film looks washed out.

That change is not caused by a change in the projected light, but the ambient light. The higher the levels of ambient light the harder it is to create the impression of contrast on a computer monitor. I choose to work in a low-light digital darkroom, as shown in Figure 11. This environment allows me to set my monitor to a luminance 120 cd/ m2. The artificial light in Figure 11 is a full spectrum light that allows me to assess my prints in the same light levels as my monitor. It is possible to work in typical office lit conditions, or very low light. Color-critical monitors let you choose a luminance value to compliment the ambient light you work in.

Figure 12: My work in exhibition. Preparing photographs for print takes care and understanding no matter what your ambitions are.

Figure 12: My work in exhibition. Preparing photographs for print takes care and understanding no matter what your ambitions are.

In order for the science, and color settings to work, a high-quality monitor is required, anything less will leaving you guessing. Though there is one final caveat, working on images takes time and during a processing session we experience a shift in color perception; typically we add more contrast and saturation to photographs at the end of a session. We can become the weak link in the color management workflow, so regular breaks are necessary to refresh your vision.

Your monitor is the window on your digital images. As such it is vital that it can be set to display the colors and tones of your photographs properly. When sourcing a color critical monitor look for ones that can be hardware calibrated, and for print work ones that cover 99% of Adobe RGB. In comparing the technical specifications of different monitors look for a low DeltaE value. Inclusion of a shading hood to cut down unwanted reflections is desirable too. The size of the monitor will be determined by your budget.

Your monitor is the window on your digital images. As such it is vital that it can be set to display the colors and tones of your photographs properly. When sourcing a color critical monitor look for ones that can be hardware calibrated, and for print work ones that cover 99% of Adobe RGB. In comparing the technical specifications of different monitors look for a low DeltaE value. Inclusion of a shading hood to cut down unwanted reflections is desirable too. The size of the monitor will be determined by your budget.

I hope my article helps explain why monitors matters, and what qualities to look for when buying one.

To close I want to say that as a fine-art printmaker my knowledge of color management is liberating. With my digital darkroom in good order I am free to be creative without worrying about poor quality output.


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Topics: Creative Class Monitors

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