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Datacolor vs. X-Rite Monitor Calibrator: what are they used for and how to choose?

Once you become seriously interested in photo editing, you will undoubtedly discover how indispensable a Monitor Calibrator (also called colorimeter) can be to your work. Why? That’s what we will be discussing throughout this article.


The Spyder 5 from Datacolor

Many photographers don’t bother using a monitor calibrator at all. Personally, I think this is mainly due to a lack of information on the subject. In fact, the price of these calibrator has dropped considerably in the last few years, meaning that they are no longer exclusively reserved for photo editing professionals. Let’s take a look at how they work and what they are used for…

A digital image is composed of pixels (up until now I don’t think that I have told you anything that you didn’t already know…). These pixels show up on a display as small colored squares. Each pixel is capable of displaying a large number or different colors. Therefore, the display plays a fundamental role in digital photography since it is the medium which allows you to visualize your images. As a result, it needs to be capable of reproducing – with the highest degree of accuracy possible – the colors which were captured by your camera in the form of a image.

Without accurate color reproduction how will you be able to edit your photos with precision? If, for example, they appear too yellow, is this effect due to a poorly adjusted white balance on your camera or to an improper color balance on your display? In order to answer that type of question you will need a monitor calibrator .

To put it simply, the monitor calibrator allows you to be sure that your display is accurately reproducing colors.

How does a monitor calibrator work?

Essentially, the calibrator is positioned facing the display and reads the colors which are being sent back to it through the calibration software. For each analyzed color, the calibrator measures the difference between the expected result and the result obtained in reality. The calibrator then creates a profile (a small file a few Kb in size) which serves to correct the color mismatch and which will allow you to visualize on your display the real colors captured in your images.

How do you use it?

Manufacturers of monitor calibrator must make sure that their devices are easy to use in order to incite photographers to use them. The steps for using a monitor calibrator are always the same regardless of the make and model:

1. Install the software (which comes provided with the Calibrator).

2. Make sure that your display has been on for more than 15 minutes before starting the calibration. This step is necessary because the colors can vary slightly until the display has had time to warm up.

3. Run the software and choose between automatic mode (for beginners) or advanced mode (for more precise adjustments) and let the calibration process take place.

4. When requested to do so by the software, suspend the sensor in front of the display in the indicated position (by using the supplied counterweight).

5. At the end of the calibration process, the software will automatically create and save the profile (a file with an .icc file extension). This step is called characterization.

It is at this point that you will truly begin to realize the value of the investment you have just made. You might even ask yourself how you could ever have worked without calibrating your display! Monitor Calibrator are no longer just tools for professionals (you may also be wondering what to do with it after you have calibrated your display, you have to admit that having it sitting on your desk makes you look more professional!) The difference between before and after calibration is easily noticeable!

Should you regularly recalibrate your display?

Anyone who works in an industrial capacity knows the importance that metrology plays in the production process (I’m speaking form the experiences I had in my former profession). Let’s look for example at a pH-meter: the calibration of this type of device needs to be done at least once a day by using buffer solutions. Otherwise, how can you be sure of your measurements you are taking if the last calibration was done a month ago? This principle also applies to monitor calibrator. A display, no matter how good it is, will always be prone to color shifts of one sort or another. You should therefore plan to recalibrate it regularly. The belief that “once it has been calibrated it will stay properly calibrated forever” also explains, in part, why the number of photographers who use monitor calibrator is so limited (they don’t see the point in investing in a device which they believe that they will only use once).

Now that I have answered the basic question, there is still the matter of how frequently you should calibrate your display…

There really is no rule for how often you should calibrate. It all depends on your specific display, its quality and how often you use it. You can leaf through as many manuals as you like without ever finding any information regarding calibration frequency. Once a day is too often and once a year is too infrequent. In order to determine a suitable calibration frequency, you can try doing the following: start by calibrating once a month. If you don’t notice any variations between two calibrations, you can probably get away with calibrating once every two months. Keep extending the time between calibrations until you notice a deviation in the results – at which point go back to the shorter period between calibrations.

What Monitor Calibrator should you choose?

Nowadays, two brands dominate the market: Datacolor and X-Rite. Is one better than the other? Frankly, no. Unless you’re an expert in the field, you will not notice any difference between them. On the other hand, you should be aware of the fact that both brands offer different product levels: entry level models, intermediate level products and professional level devices.

  • Entry level sensors calibrate your computer’s display entirely automatically.
  • The intermediate product level offers access to more precise adjustments since it allows for several manual adjustments (luminosity, contrast, gamma…), features which you may find that you require after a few calibration cycles. Moreover, this type of sensor takes into account the ambient light levels for a more precise calibration. This is the product level that I would recommend, since for a few euros more, you will get a sensor that will give you satisfaction for years to come.
  • I will not spend time discussing the professional product line since it goes far beyond what the majority of users will ever require.

My advice:

  • Get into the habit of keeping all of the profiles generated by the calibration software. In this way you will be able to review them in order to better appreciate the color deviations which have taken place over time. This will help you to determine the time you require between calibrations.
  • Name the profiles by using the YYMMDD format. This will allow them to be chronologically recorded.
  • Activate the software’s automatic reminder feature which will advise you of when it is time for a new calibration.

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