Ground Zero: Color Calibration

Color Calibration with the Photocal colorimeter.

Figure 1 Select monitor from the Photocal folder to begin the Calibration process.

Figure 2 Photocal’s Gamma selection window.

ou’re headed to the beach and bring along your laptop with the intention of doing some work colorcorrecting images for output to your large format printer. You figure — hey, it’s a beautiful, warm, sunny day, why not catch some rays while I’m working? You arrive at the beach and pull your Armani sunglasses out of your Gucci bag, pop ’em on your head and shuffle toward the dunes. You set up your beach chair and umbrella, smear on the sunscreen, pour out a cool piña colada from your thermos, launch Adobe Photoshop® and start hitting the keys. What’s wrong with this scene? Aside from the possibility of getting sand in your piña colada and sunscreen on your keyboard, there are some serious consequences with trying to do color adjustments in the beach workspace environment. First, intense sunshine provides way too much ambient light for good color correction. It reduces the brightness and contrast of what you see on-screen. You’ll barely be able to see the image. Furthermore, sunglasses filter the colors that your monitor displays. No, everyone knows that the beach is not the ideal location to perform color corrections. However, it’s almost as bad as performing color corrections on an uncalibrated monitor!


Photoshop comes with software that lets you analyze the hardware characteristics of your monitor. This software, Adobe Gamma, which is accessed though the Color Management assistant in the Help menu in Photoshop, will set the characteristics of your monitor with only limited accuracy because the adjustment is based on your ability to see color variations. The human eye is an excellent optical device; however, the possibility of different interpretations can effect the accuracy of the measurement. If you are interested in a more accurate system you might consider using a colorimeter, such as the PhotoCal mc7 made by Color Vision, priced at around $300. A colorimeter, is an instrument intended to measure radiant energy emitted, transmitted, absorbed, or reflected under controlled conditions. I found the system to be compact, accurate and user friendly. It is available for both Windows and Macintosh environments. It comes with a hardware device that attaches to your screen that measures the temperatures of its phosphors. The software component, called Photocal, presents an interface that walks you step by step through the calibration process and uses the hardware measurements to write a custom RGB profile for optimum display.

Calibration is the ground zero of color management. A monitor that has been stabilized and optimized will display a screen image that can be adjusted with confidence. Adobe

The first step is to turn your monitor on at least one half-hour prior to calibration to allow the colors of the monitor to stabilize. After you’ve installed the Photocal software, you can access the interface

Figure 3 Photocal’s color temperature selection window

Figure 4 The sensor measuring the monitor’s phosphors

Figure 5 The sensor analyzes the temperatures of the red, green and blue components of your monitor.

by choosing the Monitors file in the Photocal folder (see Figure 1). That will launch the Calibration Assistant you will use to create a custom monitor profile. The windows guide you through the process of selecting parameters for brightness and contrast (black and white point brightness), the gamma (midtone lightness) and the color temperature (the warmth and coolness of white). There are clear, succinct explanations for each step presented as you proceed. The calibration process begins by optimizing the brightness and contrast controls on your monitor. For contrast you simply set the control at its highest setting. For brightness you are presented with a box with four swatches of dark gray to black. You are instructed to adjust the brightness control on your monitor so that you can see the slight variation of shade between the swatches. Other windows direct you to choose between two color temperatures — 5000K for print or 6500K for multimedia, web or video applications (see Figure 3), and Gamma, 1.8 for Mac or 2.2 for PC (see Figure 2). The one window that is confusing asks you to identify display controls. You’ll need to consult your monitor’s documentation to determine if it has separate RGB color controls. Once the parameters are set, you attach the hardware sensor to the screen (see Figure 4) and the rest of the process is virtually automatic. The sensor is a 2.5" square object that attaches to your screen with suction cups. The sensor feeds into the computer via either the SCSI or USB port, depending on the model you purchase.

The sensor analyzes the temperatures of the red, green and blue components of your monitor (see Figure 5) and feeds the information back to the software where your custom profile is written. In the last step of the process you are directed to save your profiles to your Colorsync folder on the Mac or the Monitor Profiles folder in Windows.

I found the PhotoCal mc7 colorimeter to be an easy-to-use, fairly inexpensive instrument. It’s equal or better than other instruments costing a lot more. It assures accurate, stable color on your monitor from session to session. It is superior to software calibrators because it measures and profiles the monitor’s actual characteristics. Because the color on monitors shifts over time, the manufacturer recommends that you perform this procedure every two weeks. Color Vision has a website you can access to learn more about the system at

Stephen Romaniello is department chair of the Visual Communications Department of the Communications Graphics Program at Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz., and a certified instructor/authorized trainer of many of today’s computer design software packages. He is the co-author of Mastering Adobe GoLive (sybex) and the author of Mastering Adobe Photoshop (sybex) to be released in November 2000 DG


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