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IR begins monitor & calibration coverage, launches reader deal with ColorVision
(Tuesday, July 31, 2007 - 14:06 EDT)

We're going to begin covering higher-end monitors and calibration products, and have struck a deal with ColorVision to encourage more of our readers to get (and keep) their monitors calibrated.

As you might expect, it's important for an organization like IR to have well-calibrated monitors. After all, a lot of people rely on our comments about image quality to make their camera-buying decisions.

In the past, we'd used a variety of monitor calibrators, but never settled on any one as our "official" standard. For the sake of consistency, critical judgements were made after viewing the images on my own monitors, a combination of an old CRT with beautiful tonality and a newer Apple Cinema display, both of which I kept calibrated with a ColorVision Spyder2PRO. While all our monitors were undoubtedly in much better shape than those of our readers, I decided that we really needed to do some upgrading and standardize on a calibration solution for the company as a whole. With that as motivation, I took a broad and pretty deep look at what solutions were on the market, and how well they fit our requirements.

As I looked around, I realized that the whole area of color calibration in general and monitor calibration in particular is vastly underserved on the web. Since everything in digital photography flows through users' monitors, it struck us that this was an area that IR needed to begin addressing, on behalf of our readers.

So we've done a couple of things, and will be doing more going forward...

First, we settled on ColorVision's Spyder2PRO as our in-house calibration solution. After spending quite a bit of time playing with the various calibrators on the market, the Spyder2 Pro consistently seemed to be the most accurate and reliable. The difference was sometimes subtle, sometimes pronounced, but the Spyder2PRO generally gave better results, and also seemed less prone to getting "lost in the weeds" with difficult-to-calibrate monitors than most other solutions we tried. It also supports multiple monitors well, and provides for matching luminance levels between monitors, a useful ability in a multi-monitor environment.

Second, we developed some monitor-check graphics to include on all our review pages and the carrier pages for our sample images. In the process of doing my research, I found that the typical greyscale step images offered for monitor checking on many photo-related sites are almost universally too forgiving to be useful for critical evaluation. Their shadow ends almost always start at too high a level, and their highlight ends stop at too low a value to reveal all but the most severe tonal problems: You could have a monitor that was pretty seriously out of whack, and still be able to discriminate the full tonal scale that's presented. The tiny dimensions of the grey swatches and lack of black or white reference panels in most such scales also make it hard to make critical judgements, again reducing their value.

In our own reference graphics, we concentrated on the ends of the tonal scale, and provided much more finely-divided tint swatches there, with black and white references as appropriate. This, plus the larger swatches (particularly as found in the article I wrote about the need for monitor calibration ), makes it much easier to see exactly how well or poorly your monitor is maintaining detail in highlights and shadows. All the standard calibration-check graphics also contain a gamma-checking element for validating your monitor's gamma setting (contrast, basically) against the sRGB standard. This is something that many sites also neglect to include in their monitor-check graphics. The combination of good highlight, shadow, and gamma-checking targets will give our readers an accurate, quick way to determine whether their monitors are performing as they should be.

Here's a look at the three reference images just mentioned:

The highlight-check graphic starts just darker than where most monitor-check greyscale wedges leave off, and provides very fine-grained steps all the way to 254. There's also a large central area at full white (255/255/255) so you can see exactly how your monitor is handling highlights. (You should be able to clearly see the 250 block on any even reasonably decent monitor, good ones will let you discriminate all the way to 254.)

Our shadow-checking graphic once again picks up where most greyscale step-wedges stop, and goes all the way down to a brightness value of 5 units, and again offers a region at full black (0/0/0) as a reference to check against. How your monitor performs with this image will depend on both the monitor and the room lighting. A well-calibrated monitor in a dark room will show separation all the way down to the 5-unit block. A decent monitor in normal office lighting should let you see down to the 15 block.

Our gamma-checker graphic provides the typical alternating white and black lines against a background at a grey level of 186, the value for 50% luminance with a gamma of 2.2. On a properly calibrated display with a gamma of 2.2 (matching the sRGB standard), when you blur your eyes, the two areas of this target should blend together.

As noted, smaller versions of these targets will appear on every page of current and future camera reviews, and on all image-carrier pages as well. Each instance will carry a link back to the Is your monitor calibrated? article, where readers can see the full-size versions.

Going forward, we're going to be reviewing the full range of color calibration products, and also plan to expand our review coverage to higher-end graphics monitors as well. To kick off this coverage, I've posted a review of the ColorVision Spyder2PRO monitor calibration solution that we settled on for our internal use.

Finally, to encourage our readers to avail themselves of the same color management solution we use here, I've struck a deal with ColorVision to offer the Spyder2PRO to our readers at a substantial discount. This lets them buy the Spyder2PRO for what amounts to the low end of typical street pricing, but with the assurance that comes from buying direct from the manufacturer. IR will also receive a commission on any sales made through our affiliate link with ColorVision, so your purchases there will directly support this site.

So stay tuned for more coverage in this important area. Realistically, our review efforts here will have to compete for scarce editorial resources with the never-ending flood of new camera models that's our stock in trade. We do hope, though, to be able to produce at least a steady trickle of reviews of calibration solutions and high-end monitors in the months to come.

Meanwhile, if your monitor failed the tests above, now you know there's a problem, and at least one thing you can do about it.

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