If you’ve read this blog, read my articles or attended any of my classes, you know that monitor calibration is one of the fundamental pillars of an efficient digital photography or graphic design workflow. Assuming you’re calibrating and profiling your monitor regularly, how do you know, for sure, your monitor is accurate? Or, to put it more succinctly, how can you gauge the accuracy of your monitor calibration?
Most monitor calibration packages provide a quick reference image with a before-and-after button to allow you to toggle between the two representations of the photo. This is not the best method for judging accuracy because there’s no tangible reference, like a printed copy of the photo. A better test is to compare the display of a photo on your monitor to a reliable, printed photo under controlled, neutral lighting (like a dimmable viewing booth).
Note: The accuracy of your test (and any monitor to print comparison) will be heavily dependent upon the lighting within your workspace. Unless your lights are color balanced to the graphic arts D50 standard, it is unlikely you will be able to see an exact match.
You can create your own digital reference image by compositing a variety of your own color and grayscale images. Be sure to include skin tones and memory colors like blue skies and green grass. It is also helpful to include high-key and low-key images to check for shadow and highlight detail. Be sure to print the image using a color managed inkjet printer or through a color-management savvy digital lab. Remember, if your reference image isn’t accurate, it may cause more harm than good.
Another popular technique is to use a standard Gretag Macbeth (now X-Rite) color checker as a physical reference. The 24-patch color checker has long served as a versatile tool to help photographers evaluate the color characteristics of studio lights and film stocks. In the digital age, it serves as a quick tool for setting white balance and contrast at the beginning of the shoot, a reference for building Adobe Camera Raw profiles using the DNG Profile Editor and can be used as a physical reference for evaluating the accuracy of your monitor calibration. Be sure to download the LAB or ProPhoto RGB digital file on the Real World Color Management companion site. Compare the digital file to the physical color checker. Look for gray balance, overall tone and contrast and accuracy of specific colors.
For the highest accuracy, consider purchasing the Altona Test Suite. This marries the Altona visual reference listed above with a series of carefully created test prints, each representing a specific printing standard. This helps you evaluate your system’s accuracy at soft proofing common commercial printing conditions. This high degree of accuracy doesn’t come cheaply. The full suite will cost you 480 which may sound expensive, but is significantly less than the cost of a failed press run.
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