The most critical issue facing every photographer is how our final images look, both in Print and on the Internet. We have invested in quality equipment and we spend the time and effort on post-processing only to see our work elsewhere and worse yet, to be embarrassed by something major we missed in post-processing. With this article we are primarily concerned with the monitor’s Black Point calibration.
It was a widely accepted practice to edit only on CRT monitors several years ago and to avoid LCD flatscreens like the plague. I’m not going to get into monitor selection, but I can say the “old-school experts” are starting to jump ship for the newer high-end LCD flatscreens. It’s important to note the low-end flatscreen LCD monitors will show your work changing the image in a very flattering way, especially in the black areas. We don’t want this. This is where all of our problems arise and this is where the embarrassment factor comes into play, very fast.
Black Point calibration is by far the most critical affect to every successful image you will ever produce. If all you do is Black Point calibration and stop there, you’ll still walk away shinning shining like a shooting-star. As an example I have included an image that was edited on a poorly Black Point calibrated CRT monitor. If you do not see the garbage in the background of the image to the left, you’re a prime candidate for Black Point calibration!
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Black Point Calibration:
Before proceeding with any critical monitor adjustments your monitor should be warmed up for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour. To obtain the reliability and accuracy for this project you need to use an ambient light source. Base this on your own viewing conditions. The monitors Black Point in a brightly lit room will be higher than a dimly lit room. After adjusting the room lights, close all open applications including your browser. Move any brightly colored icons sitting on your desktop to a folder and minimize the folder. You can retrieve them afterwards. Turn off your Desktop Wallpaper and set your Desktop Background color to Black.
Now reopen your web browser, you should be able to distinguish all of the proceeding gray-scale splotches between 0 and 10. Splotch 0 should be perfectly black, matching your monitor, background precisely and splotch 10 should be barely visible. If not, you need to adjust monitor brightness so the Black Point is perfectly calibrated.
When the Black Point is set properly, the RGB value of your monitor will be true black – 000. Increase the RGB value slightly and you should see an increase in intensity.
Set the desktop background color to black. Set brightness and contrast to 100%. Adjust the vertical dimensions of the screen so that you can see a margin between the scanned areas and non-scanned areas of your monitor (Your picture/desktop). I like to have this somewhere between 1 and 2 inches. Next decrease brightness until the scanned area blends into the non-scanned areas. If a Monitor Control Panel dialog box distracts you block it with a piece of black paper or material. Adjust the brightness up and down until you have properly identified the areas scanned and ensured perfection.
There are no non-scanned areas on an LCD/Laptop monitor. This is why it’s so important to set your desktop background to Black before beginning.
Gamma is always a software adjustment, you should always follow your software vendors instructions precisely. For the below example we are assuming you are using Adobe Gamma, while I am not! CRTs monitors usually have a gamma of around 2.4, while MACs have a gamma much closer to 1.8. The newer monitors of today attempt to adhere to the sRGB standard and have a gamma of 2.2. Gama is sometime also referred to your monitor’s Color Temperature. Several techniques attempt to adjust the Black Point with gray-scale splotches, but the quality of monitor varies greatly and some monitors try to do this for you. Attempting to read something out of low value splotch can be extremely difficult. To overcome this I always use True Black as my reference point.
The idea here is to open Adobe Gamma (Control Panel, Adobe Gamma) and stand back approximately 10 feet and makes the adjustments needed to make the gray blend into the background as close as possible.
After finishing this step I always recommend running through the first Black Point calibration one more time quickly. It’s usually very close and doesn’t require much adjustment if any at all. You’ll also find a huge difference in the quality of your work from this process. I follow the directions above on a monthly basis to ensure consistency and accuracy. After all it’s my name and image out there.
My eyes are far too old for the tedious process of exact color calibration. Several years ago I invested in Color Vision’s Spyder Pro 2. I attribute the Spyder Pro2 to be the biggest single quality improvement other then stepping up from 6Mp to a 10.8 megapixel camera.