Photo Editing 101: Why You Need to Calibrate Your Display

I've seen lots of talk lately about people who think buying a new monitor (display) will magically make them a photo editing wizard. This is entirely false. While having a high quality display is important and necessary to properly edit photos for color accuracy and exposure (for those times when you don't get your exposure perfect in-camera), simply having a high quality display won't make your post processing any better.

The fact is, yes, you do NEED a high quality display - this is the one I use and was built specifically for photo editing - but you also must have two things: 1) a high-quality, gaming-level video card to support the display and accurately render colors to it, and 2) a professional calibration tool to accurately calibrate your display for brightness, contrast, and color representation. Without those two things, your shiny, expensive display is no better than a $50 piece of junk off the bargain bin.

Now, I'm a PC guy, so I had the luxury of building a PC to spec from the ground up so I could process photos quickly and easily, while having the RAM to handle Lightroom and Photoshop running at the same time, and a video card powerful enough to render colors correctly on a high quality, calibrated display. The other option would have been to buy an iMac with a retina display, which is factory calibrated for superior color accuracy. I hate Apple and have been a PC user my entire life, so sticking Windows was a no-brainer. If you're an Apple user, great, you've already won the battle and can stop reading.

The way the Spyder calibration tools work is quite simple: you connect the tool via USB, install the included software, put the calibrator on your display, press a couple buttons and get out of the way while it does its thing. Its "thing" is calibrating your colors based on the amount and type of light in the room. For me, I calibrate my display during the day with my blinds (shutters for those of you outside the US) open so the sunlight hits my screen, as I've found through trial and error that this offers the most accurate color representation and brightness calibration. Once that's done, you're good to go and if you leave the SpyerPro connected and set it to monitor the ambient light in the room, it'll automatically correct for changes in light to maintain your calibrated settings and you'll never notice a difference.

The OTHER key you need to pay attention to is that you want a display with IPS - In-Plane Switching. What IPS does is allows you to view your screen the same way from any angle. This means that the image you see on your screen when you look directly at it will be the same image you see when looking at your screen on an angle, from the other side of the room, laying down. It doesn't matter how you view your display, what you see will appear identical from all angles. Without IPS, you'll see your image differently depending on your viewing angle and even with proper calibration, your colors and contrast *may* appear differently. I always edit head on, for the most part, so I don't have this problem, but I'd never go back to a display without IPS after seeing the difference.

So, the long and short of photo editing is that if you're editing on a display that is NOT calibrated for photo editing using a professional calibration tool and NOT the buttons on your display, it doesn't matter how good the display is or is not. You still won't see your exposure, contrast and colors correctly until you've calibrated your display. Now that doesn't mean calibrating a $50 display will make your life any easier. The fact is a high quality, high-dollar display will render colors infinitely better than a cheap one, and a cheap display isn't worth calibrating because the improvement will be marginal at best and your final images will still look terrible to someone viewing them on a good, properly calibrated display. Having a good display in and of itself won't make you a better editor until you've calibrated it properly. I saw my post processing go from garbage to what it is now once I built a new PC, bought a quality display and calibrated it, and it's like night and day.

If you really want to be a wizard in Lightroom and Photoshop, invest in a good display and a quality calibration tool and get to work. I may make "Photo Editing 101" a series on here, maybe as a way to show my workflow or some behind the scenes editing, but I will almost certainly be launching a new photo series on the blog in the coming weeks. That's all I've got for now, deuces.