If there is one sure way to make your digital pictures look better it is to view them on a color balanced monitor. A computer’s monitor is already hard pressed to display a digital camera’s images in the first place, they just don’t have the range of colors and tones available to fully realize the depth of a digital image file. Yet it gets worse when their color balance and contrast settings are off.
The solution to seeing better color on a computer monitor is to have the settings properly adjusted in the first place. As simple as it sounds adjusting monitor settings isn’t as easy as eyeballing the screen while turning the dials in order to create good color. If you have ever tried to make your TV image look better only to find out that you have trashed the view on all of your other channels you will have some idea of how tough color balance can be.
Over the years I have tried many different products to color balance my monitors. These devices are just as much a digital camera accessory as a filter for my camera’s lens. Without proper color balance it wouldn’t be possible to accurately judge the images that my digital camera captured.
I have used monitor balance devices that have ranged from under $50 to a few priced over $800.00. And while each has shown a significant improvement over my ability to achieve color balance by eye there hasn’t been a lot of difference in the outcome. In every case my monitor wound up showing great color accuracy after the adjustment. The main difference between the systems comes down to the actual monitor calibration process. And I have to tell you, I’m for easy and intuitive processes any day.
The Datacolor Spyder color management tools really are easy to use. The photographer only needs to set the monitor contrast level to the factory level and (if available) set the white balance to a specific level as well. Then another click or two and the Spyder 3 software will take over the process. After all of the readings are automatically taken the Spyder 3 software sets the color and contrast levels creating and saving a color profile for the monitor.
That’s easy but it’s not to say that there weren’t any problems. I hope you aren’t like me, I really hope that you read and understand all directions before diving in. You see the Spyder device must be plugged into the computer directly; it cannot be plugged into a USB hub or into a keyboard port. I didn’t see that little bit of useful information in the Quick Start Guide because it’s not there! Only after installing the software and three failed attempts to install the hardware did I notice the warning against using USB hubs on the installation software splash screen.
Tip #1 – After registering the product online in step #4, write down the registration code! If the hardware fails to install the user must start hardware installation from square one. Starting from the beginning means entering the serial number or the product registration number again. On subsequent attempts the website will argue that you have already used the serial number to register your device. The registration code on the other hand will work without argument.
After everything is registered the Spyder 3 device is ready to do its thing. The user is requested to reset the monitor’s contrast to factory standard and to set the white balance to a specific temperature. I found that6 the easiest way to do this on my monitor was to simply use the “Reset to Factory” option in the monitor’s menu.
Tip #2 – When the software asks the user to adjust contrast and white balance these adjustments are made on the monitor itself, not from an interface on the computer. While I’m certain there is a monitor out there without any knobs or buttons for adjustment every monitor that I used preparing for this article had the knobs or buttons right on the LCD frame.
Next we drape the device’s cord over the monitor and position the device over the target on the LCD screen. At this point in the proceedings we are about to make our most strenuous contribution, go get some coffee. With the next click of the mouse the Spyder 3 software takes over. A series of color patches as well as black through gray and white pass under the watchful eye of the Spyder 3 device.
On the first color balance session it takes about 5 to 7 minutes for the Spyder software to measure and adjust the monitor’s color, contrast and white point. After the process is complete the user is shown a picture swatch to illustrate the after balance colors. A “Switch” button allows us to alternate between before and after views so that we can see just how much the Spyder 3 did for us.
One last click and the software will create and save the new monitor color management profile. Now each time the computer is started this profile will be used to properly maintain the color balance of the display.
A monitor needs to have its color profile checked periodically. The Spyder 3 software allows the user to set a reminder to perform a recalibration every day, week or month. The good news -it only takes a fraction of the time to recalibrate compared to the initial profile setup.
Datacolor offers the Spyder 3 in three different configurations for computer monitors. The Spyder 3 Express which is the device used in this article. Up the ladder is the Spyder 3 Pro which adds an ambient light sensor. The ambient light sensor adjusts the monitor’s brightness as the room light changes. Finally the Spyder 3 Elite which not only has the ambient light sensor but allows the user to create multiple monitor profiles to match any need (match monitor performance to different printer papers, for a laptop that is used in many different ambient light environments, different presentation needs, matching multiple computer displays to a single target). Prices range from $80.00 to $280.00.
In conclusion: Photographers will get the best presentation of their images on a color balanced monitor. The Datacolor Spyder 3 system is an easy and accurate device for setting and maintaining a monitor color profile. Periodic recalibration is required to maintain the monitor’s accuracy and the Spyder 3 software has a built-in scheduler. While all three Spyder 3 devices perform the same basic color profile function, each step up from basic adds more flexibility and control.