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A guide to calibrating your monitor

If your photos look different in print compared to how they look on your PC, or movies just don't look as good or as detailed as they should, chances are your monitor needs to be calibrated. Sure, you can rely on a professional to get this done, but why spend the cash when you can take on the task yourself? By making a handful of adjustments, you can improve your monitor's image detail and colour accuracy, and reduce eyestrain while you're at it.

There are several methods of calibration available depending upon your needs and budget. For photographers, content creators, and designers who use high-end monitors and require very accurate colour and greyscale performance, a professional calibration may be the way to go. Certified ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) calibration technicians use high-end colour analysers and test pattern generators to tweak things like gamma, white balance, black levels, RGB gain and offset, and a multitude of other settings, but as you might expect, this can get expensive.

Fortunately there are several do-it-yourself calibration products available that are relatively affordable, and in some cases, free. Granted, you may not get the exact same results as the pros, but in most cases even a basic calibration – if done correctly – can make an inexpensive monitor look much better than it did when you first took it out of the box.

The Datacolor Spyder 4 series of calibration tools includes the Spyder 4 Express, the Spyder 4 Pro, and the Spyder 4 Elite, with prices ranging from £100 for the Express to £180 for the Elite. Each uses a colourimeter and software to help you achieve consistent colours across all of your monitors, and each has a specific feature set.

The X-Rite ColorMunki products include the ColorMunki Smile (£84 RRP) and the ColorMunki Display (£139). As with the Spyder series, these solutions include a colourimeter and software. (Look for reviews of the Spyder 4 Pro and ColorMunki Display coming soon). X-Rite also offers a line of much more expensive professional calibration tools for monitors, printers, and projectors, including the i1Photo Pro 2 (£1399) and i1Publish Pro 2 (£1899).

If you don't have the funds to invest in calibration hardware, there are affordable software solutions available. One such product, DisplayMate for Windows (£43 direct), offers a variety of test patterns and simple instructions on how to obtain proper brightness, contrast, and colour levels for your monitor. There's also a more advanced professional version, DisplayMate Multimedia Edition (£310), which is one of the tools that I use to test and calibrate monitors and HDTVs.

Of course, if you'd prefer not to spend any money at all, there is a free calibration process built into Windows.

How to calibrate in Windows 7/Windows 8

Unbeknownst to most users, Windows 7 and Windows 8 have built-in calibration utilities that can make a huge difference to the way your monitor displays images. Here, we'll walk you through the Windows 8 calibration process (Windows 7 is identical).

In lieu of a colourimeter, you'll use various test patterns and your eyes to perform the calibration. Again, you won't get professional results but you should notice a marked improvement in colour quality, shadow detail (in dark areas), and highlight detail (in bright areas). You may also find that you've been looking at an overly bright picture all along, in which case your eyes will thank you.

Before getting started you need to make sure your monitor has the necessary controls to perform a Windows calibration. At the very least it should allow you to adjust brightness and contrast. Set your colour temperature to 6500k, or warm if it doesn't specify a value. If the monitor has a picture mode, set it to standard (or user if it's available). Additionally, make sure your monitor is displaying in its native resolution. Right, on with the calibration process...

1. Calibrating tool

The easiest way to access the calibration tool in Windows 8 is to use the search option in Charms, highlight Settings, and type calibrate in the search bar. Select Calibrate Display Colour. Follow the instructions to move the calibrate window to the display you're calibrating (if you work with more than one monitor, for example) and click Next. The next screen will instruct you to set your display to its factory default settings if possible. Click Next to continue.

2. Gamma screen

The next screen explains gamma, a critical setting that affects luminance and how reds, greens, and blues interact with each other. The gamma screen presents three samples depicting the gamma being set too low, the right level of gamma, and gamma too high.

On the next screen, use the slider to adjust gamma so that you cannot detect a dot inside the circles. Feel free to use the back arrow to help match your gamma to the correct level of gamma example, and then click Next to continue.

3. Brightness and contrast controls

The brightness and contrast controls play a big part in how the monitor displays highlight and shadow detail. The first screen shows you how to adjust the brightness to achieve optimal shadow detail. Once again, there are three examples (too dark, good brightness, too bright).

On the next screen use your monitor's brightness control to match the good brightness sample. The X should barely be visible and you should be able to notice shadow detail on the shoulder of the man's suit jacket.

The contrast helps bring out highlight detail. Again, the three images depict not enough contrast, good contrast, and too much contrast. On the next page there's a large version of the image; use the monitor's contrast control to bring the contrast up as high as you can without washing out the picture. You should be able to see the buttons on the shirt clearly.

4. Colour balance

The colour balance screen deals with tinting in the greyscale as a result of oversaturated reds, greens, or blues. The goal here is to achieve neutral greys in the five swatches. Study the examples of the result of too much red, blue, and green (there are six in all) and proceed to the next screen where you will try to match the neutral example. Use the red slider to remove red tinting, the green slider to remove green tinting, and the blue slider to remove blue tinting.

5. Final screen

On the final screen you can compare the newly calibrated picture to its previous state. There's also an option to turn on ClearType, which makes text easier to read. If you're happy with the results click finish. The ClearType Tuner will make sure your monitor is set to its native resolution and take you through a series of five screens with text samples. On each screen, pick the sample that looks the best to you. Click finish after the fifth screen and that's it; you've just completed a Windows calibration.

The Windows calibration is very basic but it can help ensure that your monitor is not overly bright, washed out, or oversaturated with colour. If you're still not satisfied with your monitor's performance it may be time to invest in a hardware calibration solution, or to consider buying a new monitor.