Spend enough time on photography websites, and sooner or later you’ll run into an article telling you how essential calibrating your display’s color is for your photography, but it is really? Let’s find out.

What Is Color Calibration?

Not all monitors display colors the same. Some panels are “warmer” (more yellow) or “cooler” (bluer). In the image below, you can see a warm whiteish color and a cool whiteish color; it’s not perfect, but it should give you an idea of the difference. If everything was tinged either of these colors, your eyes would interpret it as white.

Apps like f.lux and features like Night Shift make your display warmer at night deliberately because—at least in theory—it should stop screens affecting your sleep cycle as much.

A warm or cool display changes how all the colors appear in your image. I’ve slightly exaggerated the effect in the images below to make it clearer. The image on the left is warmer than the one on the right, but they’re otherwise identical. While each image looks good individually, they look strange side by side.

This is where color calibration comes in. By calibrating the white values of your display—and other stuff like brightness and saturation—to the proper neutral values, you will see your images correctly. Here’s how the image above should look.

When Color Calibration Matters

There are times when accurate color matters, but they’re generally limited to professional uses. For example, super accurate color is essential when:

  • You’re a professional product photographer, and you need to make sure everything looks perfectly true to life.
  • You’re working with other people, and you all need to work from the same color situation, for example, when you’re collaborating with designers.
  • You are professionally printing your images.

In short, if you’re a professional being paid for your photography or working with other people who are being paid, color calibration is a must. If not, then read on.

When Color Calibration Doesn’t Matter

Color calibration is a bit of a scapegoat. Sure, it’s important for certain things, but it’s not the be all and end all. And if you’re taking bad photos, color calibration won’t fix them.

Color calibration doesn’t matter if you’re using a cheap monitor or TV as your screen. It’s almost certainly incapable of displaying accurate colors no matter how much calibrating you do. If you’re not spending at least a few hundred dollars on a good IPS monitor, color calibration isn’t going to help much.

Similarly, you can’t accurately calibrate most laptop screens. There are some high-end laptops where it can make a difference; people have had some success improving the accuracy of MacBook Pro screens with calibration, but they still aren’t as accurate as good desktop monitors that are designed to display colors perfectly. If you’re editing photos on your laptop and you want a calibrated screen, you need an external monitor.

Color calibration also doesn’t matter unless you’re spending significant amounts of time editing your images. If you’re not doing a lot of work in Photoshop or Lightroom, the best color calibrating your display will do is show you problems you’re not fixing. The point of calibrating your display is so you can edit with confidence.

If you’re primarily sharing your images online or emailing them to your friends and family, you have to remember that they’re probably not using calibrated screens. Even if your screen is perfectly calibrated, things will still look off on theirs. It might be even more wrong since, if you edit your image on a Mac or iPhone and send them to other Mac or iPhone users, things will probably look pretty similar.

Color calibration is for professionals—or extremely dedicated amateurs. I’m not arguing it’s unimportant in some situations, but in general, color calibration won’t make much difference to most photographers. There’s no point spending time and money calibrating a display that can’t be calibrated.

What You Need to Know About Calibrating Your Monitors

If you’ve decided you’re going to calibrate your display—and you have gear that can be calibrated—then you need to get a third party tool like the X-Rite ColorMunki ($170). These tools automatically build an accurate color profile for your set up, so you’re guaranteed accurate colors all the time. You can also quickly and easily recalibrate your display or calibrate any new displays.

Both Windows and macOS have built-in tools so you can calibrate your display. Do not even think about using them. You will make things worse. Trust me; I’ve tried them. Windows’ and macOS’s tools are fine for tweaking your display, so it looks subjectively better to you when you’re playing games or watching movies. And it’s kind of nice if you have multiple monitors and you want the colors to match better between them. But those built-in tools are just not good enough—and your eyes aren’t reliable enough—to get a color-accurate display.

If you’re serious about your photography and have a display you can calibrate, then go ahead and do it. For most people, however, color calibration isn’t going to make a massive difference to their workflow.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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