Colour problems with my photographs #2

Colours are annoying, particularly when you’re messing around with digital photos. If I email a photo to ten people at ten different computers, they’re all going to see slightly different colours. This is because every monitor has unique quirks in its colours. It’s a trade-off of non-professional consumer hardware, and is perfectly reasonable – most people don’t need to worry about how exactly their photos will appear on other machines. Unfortunately, I am no longer one of those people.

For example, I want to make a Blurb book of my Year 25 photos, and I’d obviously like the colours I see on-screen to be very close to the final result. Now, Blurb print their colours according to the sRGB standard. sRGB is a widely-used database of colour values: any two printers, if calibrated to this database, should print the exact same colour if I say ‘dudes, print me some green’. And computer monitors can be calibrated too – if I can ensure the green on my monitor matches the green in the sRGB specification, problem solved! But my monitor isn’t calibrated – I have no idea how well the colours on my screen match the sRGB colours. If my monitor is rubbish at green and displays them darker than it should, I’m going to get a Blurb book in which all the greens are too light.

So the question becomes, how do I ensure that I’m seeing the right colours? How can I calibrate my monitor? It’s possible to alter the colour balance in Windows, but that doesn’t help – Windows only knows it’s telling the monitor to display green, it can’t tell what colour my monitor is actually showing.

Thankfully, there’s an easy solution: I need to buy a hardware calibrator. This is a device that physically looks at the monitor while the computer displays a pre-determined series of colours. The accompanying software analyses the calibrator’s data and determines the difference between the theory and the reality. Then comes the clever bit – it adds a layer between the image and the monitor, called a colour profile. So your photo says ‘I am green’, then the colour profile says ‘right, I know that this particular green will come out too dark, so I’m going to tell the monitor to display a lighter green – one that will show a truly representative colour’. The photo isn’t changed at all, but the colour profile ensures you’re seeing the correct colours1.

Unfortunately, a decent hardware calibrator costs £130. I can’t justify that for something I’m going to use once. But I’ve had various paying photo jobs recently(!), and I’ve become increasingly paranoid that colour-matching will bite me in the ass at some point. What if my not-too-shabby-but-getting-on-a-bit Dell 2004fpw is way out? I’ve had pictures printed before and they’ve been close enough, but what if the lab optimised them to fix the problems?

Then I discovered the Spyder2express hardware calibrator.

It’s a cheaper version of the £130 recommended-everywhere Spyder2. It only supports one monitor. There’s little in the way of configuration. But the reviews say it does a good job and actually uses the same hardware as its more expensive siblings – it’s the software that’s crippled, and the results aren’t necessarily as good as the fancier models. It also has the major advantage of ‘only’ costing £62 inc. delivery.

My paranoia got the better of me. I didn’t want the worry, and I figured pretty-close-but-not-perfect was much better than hope-things-turn-out-ok. I bought one. It arrived this morning.

Now, I knew this wasn’t going to be the most exciting purchase ever, and I was preparing myself for the anticlimax. I figured I’d use it once, then sit there looking at my £65 and wonder whether I’d made a mistake. Review tomorrow.

  1. this always reminds me of the Hubble space telescope, which had a problem with its mirror after it was first launched, meaning it produced fuzzy images. They couldn’t replace the mirror in situ, so they designed a filter that exactly reversed the mirror’s flaw, and stuck it between the mirror and the CCDs. It worked. []