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Color Calibration for Perfect Prints

Today's  Photog Tip of the Week is presented by cabbey, landscape & fine art photographer, and one of SmugMug's back-end engineers. He's usually up to his elbows in the code that sends your orders to the labs and your profits to your bank, but this week he's sharing a tip for all you photographers who want to be sure you're getting the best possible prints. It's easier than it sounds, so take a look below.

But it looked good on my screen!

Let's say you take a picture of your son and the camera does everything perfectly in terms of white balance and exposure. You used Ann's tips from a few weeks ago to make sure the image is properly exposed, something akin to the image on the left below.

Next, you downloaded that image and loaded it onto your computer. But your computer's monitor is NOT calibrated, and like many monitors your photo suddenly looks too red and way too bright. As a result, you saw that your image look a bit off, like the middle image below.

To correct this, you fixed it in Photoshop until it looked good again, back to looking like the original image. When you were done, you uploaded it to SmugMug and ordered a print… and received something that looks really dark and weirdly tinted a blueish green color (cyan here), depending on exactly what your monitor came from the factory like, it could be anywhere along the blue to green area of the spectrum:

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Why did the lab ruin my image?

They didn't! The problem is that monitors are generally made for office tasks, not photography. The manufacturers give you the brightest display possible with the most punchy red they can produce.

As a result, any time you process your photos on an uncalibrated display, you're making your image considerably darker and turning down the red cast, skewing everything towards cyan. The third image above is what your finished photo actually looks like and the lab faithfully printed exactly what you sent them.

Why calibrate?

You'll get better prints and happier customers the first time and every time without having to fall back on SmugMug's 100% print guarantee. The top 3 correctable problems that land in our Help Desk inbox are:

1. The prints are too dark

"In my experience, most of the monitors I've calibrated, new or old, are about 2 stops too bright." — Tyree, SmugMug Color Correction Hero

2. The prints have a weird color cast

"That was a white dress!!" — Unhappy Mother of the Bride

3. Their skin looks too red

"Why does my father-in-law look like a lobster?!" — Furious Husband

There is a great help page about return rates that shows what gets returned and why. The top 6 reasons are all solvable by using a properly color managed workflow.

How do I do it?

Exactly how you do it depends on what gear you buy. There are a number of different choices, but the leaders of the pack are: Datacolor's Spyder and X-Rite's ColorMunkior i1 line.

In general, you'll need a colorimeter or spectrophotometer (fancy words, but they basically mean a special device you can put on your screen and plug into a USB port) and a piece of software which usually comes bundled with it. The software will put your monitor through its paces while you have the meter on it, then it uses the information to build an output profile for your screen.

With that resulting profile, any software that cares about a properly color managed workflow can properly display accurate colors on your screen. Since monitors' color accuracy varies over the lifetime of the display, it's important to update the profile periodically, at least every month or two. Most of the above programs will remind you when it's time to re-profile your display.

I usually just kick it off and then go to lunch. When I come back, it's done and I don't have to worry about it for another couple of months.

Don't forget that you can also get a calibration print right here.With that print in hand, you can bring the calibration image up in your editor of choice and see just how much closer a calibrated workflow makes it look on your monitor. The closer it is, the closer your images will be when you're editing them.

Lab Color Correction: One click to save them all

Pros can always print through Bay Photo, WHCC or Loxley Colour, whose color correction services are always done by hand. It costs just a little more but it can save you time at your desk, or headaches if you just don't feel like fiddling with your computer. 

Find that option when editing your Pricelists. 

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Go the bargain route

Most operating systems have a sort of "eyeball" calibration you can do that will at least get you started. They aren't as accurate and they depend on your eyes making decisions, so be aware that this may not work for everyone.

On a Mac, use Spotlight to launch "Display Calibrator Assistant". (Hit  ⌘⃣–space to get spotlight, then start typing that name.) Once it opens, just follow the steps:

On Windows, search in the control panel for "display calibration" and, again, follow the steps:

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Welcome to the (accurately) multi-colored nirvāna that is a calibrated workflow! Remember that even if you don't get everything set perfectly, we've got a great  guarantee on every print order and our Color Specialists are always happy to help you out.