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Four Quick Color Management Tips

Intro Image: An Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch laptop placed on a monitor stand with an external keyboard and mouse attached.

I’m no David Copperfield, but after consulting with many people in their homes, studios and offices over the past 15+ years, I’ve seen, calibrated and profiled more than a few displays. From those experiences, I’ve learned some tricks of the trade. Here are four tips that you can use to improve the accuracy and consistency of your monitor setup. In all cases, I am assuming you have followed the basic tenets of monitor calibration and profiling. A good overview of monitor calibration and profiling can be found here on Photo.net.

1. View Your Displays at Eye Level

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Most monitors have stands that allow you to adjust them so that the center of the screen is roughly at eye level (within about five inches above or below your line of sight is optimal). Of course, everyone’s desk, chair and physical height are different, so consider using some type of base for your monitor if your monitor height is too low compared with your eye level.

Since most laptop screens are much lower than desktop monitors, it’s especially important to use some type of platform to raise your laptop up to eye level so that you don’t have to angle your screen. That will help your monitor produce more accurate results without as many shifts in color or contrast as you move your head slightly while working. A printer stand (or other stand commonly sold at office supply stores), a stack of large books, or another surface, such as the Matthews Mini Full Apple Box (10×12 inches, and 8 inches tall) is ideal for raising most laptops up to eye level. The Matthews Mini Half Apple Box is another option (10×12 inches, and 4 inches tall).

There is one negative aspect to this laptop modification. You will need to use an external keyboard and mouse (or other input device) to make this setup feasible. The intro image above shows a 17 inch laptop on a heavy-duty stand designed for CRT monitors.

Part Number Description Weight
259531 Full Mini Apple Box 5
259532 Half Mini Apple Box 3.25
259533 Quarter Mini Apple Box 2.25
259534 Eighth Mini Apple Box 2
259535 Full Mini Apple Box 9.25
259536 Half Mini Apple Box 6.25
259537 Quarter Mini Apple Box 4.5
259538 Eighth Mini Apple Box 4.25

Table 1: A chart describing various Matthews Apple Boxes.

2. Angle Your Second Monitor

If you’ve ever used a view camera, you know how powerful the swings and tilts can be for matching a specific plane of focus with the camera’s lens and film (or sensor). This is known as the Sheimpflug Principle. Similarly, if you have a second monitor to the right or left of your main monitor, you should angle it slightly so that your eyes are on the same plane as your display when you turn your head to the right or left. That, combined with a proper height level, will give you the most accurate and consistent color and contrast.

3. Create More or Less Visual Contrast and Saturation by Adjusting Your Image Background

It’s common to have multiple monitors with different overall saturation and brightness levels, even if you’ve meticulously calibrated and profiled them. Monitors age, or you may be using a CRT monitor with an LCD monitor in a dual monitor setup. One way to compensate after you’ve done all you can with hardware and software calibration is to change the background tone in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture or other application. Changing the background tone around your photos will cause them to appear more saturated/contrasty if placed on a dark gray or black background, and less saturated/contrasty if placed on a light gray or white background.

In Photoshop, you’ll find the preference for the background color under Photoshop>Preferences>Interface (Fig. 3). There are three options for the background color – Standard Screen Mode, Full Screen with Menus and Full Screen. You can mix and match them to your heart’s content. In Fig. 4, I’ve prepared a side-by-side comparison with a number of different images to give you a quick look at the same file surrounded by black or white.

4. Match Your Desktop Backgrounds When Using Multiple Monitors

Fig. 3: Photoshop’s preference pane for setting image backgrounds.

As described in Tip #3, it’s very common to have slightly different brightness, color and contrast when you are working with multiple monitors, especially if one is older than the other. Even if you are able to make adjustments and view images so that they appear to have very similar contrast and saturation on-screen in Photoshop or another image editor, it’s common to have desktop backgrounds that are slightly different in color and brightness.

Fig. 4: Side-by-side comparison showing the same image on a black and white background.

Medium gray as a desktop background tone makes the most sense if you want to view images “floating above” the desktop with no color bias. Most photographers view their images in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, or Photoshop Elements, but it’s nice to look at multiple desktop backgrounds on multiple monitors with a seamless gray color, instead of them being “close but no cigar.” The trick to matching your background grays is to first set both of your monitors to a neutral gray (I prefer about a R100/G100/B100 for my desktop, which is about 70% gray). The best way to find step-by-step directions for setting your desktop background is by searching for the following term in your favorite search engine: “How to change desktop background,” followed by “OSX, Windows 7, etc.”

Once you’ve set both monitor backgrounds, then decide which monitor you want to adjust to match the other one, and create a jpg file about 20×20 pixels in size that is slightly darker or lighter than the gray you have on your “favorite” monitor. I recommend saving it at JPG quality 5, and sRGB is a good choice as the embedded profile. Getting the tone right may take a bit of experimentation; I recommend creating about four different grays depending upon whether you think the gray adjustment should be a bit darker, lighter, more warm or cool. Some sample RGB mixes are R100/G100/B95 (a slightly warm gray) if your monitor is a bit too cool, or R100/G100/B105 (a slightly cool gray) if your monitor is a bit warm.

Conclusion

Because we rely so much on our monitors, anything we can do to help produce more accurate and consistent results will help us every step of the way, from capture to print. Hopefully, these tips will help you create a bit more magic with your images. Stay tuned for more color management tips, including product reviews and step-by-step techniques.

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Andrew Darlow is a photographer, author and digital imaging consultant based in the New York City area. For more than 15 years he has conducted seminars and workshops at photo-related conferences and for photography organizations, including the American Photographic Artists (APA), Arles Photo Festival (Arles, France) and the International Center of Photography (ICP). His editorial and fine-art work have been featured in numerous exhibitions and magazines, including Photo District News, Popular Photography, Professional Photographer and Rangefinder magazine. Darlow is editor of The Imaging Buffet, an online resource with news, reviews, and interviews covering the subjects of photography, printing, and new media. His book, 301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques: An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers (Course Technology, PTR) was chosen as the winner in the “Photography: Instructional/How-To” category of The National Best Books 2008 Awards, sponsored by USA Book News. His newest book is Pet Photography 101: Tips for Taking Better Photos of Your Dog or Cat (Focal Press).

Original text and images ©2011 Andrew Darlow.

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