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Thoughts on Monitor Calibration (with DataColor’s SpyderX)

As a fine art landscape photographer, I occasionally get to crunch out some prints. The first time I worked with a lab, my batch of photos all came out too dark and yellow. Why? Because I was editing on a screen that was too cool and bright.

That’s a pretty common result of going to print with an uncalibrated monitor.

By the next batch, I had borrowed a Spyder sensor from work and calibrated my monitor, tweaked the photos a bit, and sent them off to the lab. The photos still came out a bit dark and inky, but the color temperature was spot on.

My first metal print: Sella Towers in the Dolomites

Fast forward to my first metal print. I painstakingly tweaked a 10,800 by 7,200 pixel shot of Italy’s Sella Towers on my calibrated monitor to send to a prestigious lab in North Carolina. A few days later I received the proof: not even close. I followed up and described the issues. A week later I received the reproof: still off.

Four proofs later, I got the final 36 by 24 inch print. Stunning, and still a bit different from the screen version. When you are producing one-of-a-kind fine art prints, four proofs isn’t unusual. For commercial wedding work? You’d be exceptional to order a proof at all.

Calibrating with the SpyderX Elite

A few weeks ago, the awesome folks at DataColor reached out and asked if I’d like to take the new SpyderX Elite for a spin. It’s been a couple years since working with a lab, but now that I’m working from a newer MacBook, it seemed about time to recalibrate.

The calibration process was uneventful — it took 10 minutes from opening the box till my screen was calibrated, and the actual calibration process took 60 seconds. Since the older Spyders, the software has gotten much less clunky and more Mac-ish. As before, my screen was calibrated a little warmer, pinker and less contrasty: Apple’s displays are well calibrated from the factory, but always tend to be overly blue and green and crush shadows.

And now that I’m calibrated, I have to be honest: I’ll probably never pull this sensor out again. That is, not until I upgrade to a new laptop. The Spyder’s strength highlights just how niche monitor calibration tends to be, especially for digital freelancers like myself.

Would I have purchased the Spyder otherwise? Probably not, but not because the Spyder doesn’t do its job well: it does its job too well, and I’m simply not the target user.

I am a digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer. I travel ultralight and educate traveling photographers on how to leave gear behind. These photographers rarely work with a lab, and when they do it’s to produce fine art prints — where no amount of monitor calibration will replace proofing, though it might help a bit with the first proof.

Downsides to Monitor Calibration

Yes, really. Ironically, editing with a calibrated monitor has caused issues for my primary viewers: my digital audience. Most of my readers and watchers tend to own Macs and iOS devices, and Apple displays are pretty consistent with each other. Yes, they run cool and green, but consistently and not by much. So I actually prefer to edit with the built-in color profile active. Otherwise, photos edited with the calibrated profile always look dull to my iPhone and MacBook crowd.

Who Should Calibrate Their Monitor?

So if — as a photographer — I’m not a good target user, who is? I’ve found color calibration to be essential in a few scenarios:

  • You frequently print for commercial clients.
  • Your digital audience has a large non-iOS/Mac crowd.
  • Your monitor is substantially off.
  • You have side-by-side external displays that need to match.
  • You need to sync color profiles across monitors in an office, such as a studio.

If any of these describe you, I’ll bet you already have a Spyder sensor at the office. If not, you can grab one here.

It turns out that, as a nomad, I am none of these. I primarily edit and deliver to digital, occasionally doing a metal print which, in the past, didn’t benefit from a calibrated monitor.

Color calibration is the sort of thing I expect teams to use for collaboration, but probably not freelancers. In contrast, when working with the video production team at church, I see a strong use case for calibrating all monitors and laptops.

Should You Buy a Sensor?

The SpyderX Elite is a fantastic calibration sensor. The question is, do you need to calibrate your monitor at all? I will probably calibrate any laptop I own once or twice in its lifetime. Even then, I’ll likely proof with the built-in profile for the sake of my substantially Apple-loving audience.

So next time, I’ll probably rent a sensor instead of buying one which will end up in storage the next time I hit the road.

Jonathan Lee Martin

Jonathan Lee Martin

Globetrotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer in Atlanta. Working remotely as a developer + international trainer, scaling mountains at twilight to discover non-touristy landscapes.

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