Display Calibration 201: The Science Behind Tuning Your Monitor

In Display Calibration 101: Step-By-Step With Datacolor's Spyder4Elite, we discussed one specific way to dial in your monitor; that is, to use the Spyder4Elite package to create a software look-up table (or LUT). This approach is both easy and relatively accessible, requiring very little knowledge of or training in the principles of display calibration and imaging science. 

But many readers commented that they wanted to learn more about adjusting their display's controls to achieve the same results. There are many tools available that can help you do this, and they'll be the subject of future articles. In fact, our next installment will cover the use of the CalPC package from SpectraCal. Today though, we’d like to lay a little groundwork so you know exactly what you’re in for.

There are two main reasons to calibrate any display. One is to match it to the other devices in the production chain like cameras and printers. In a photo studio, it’s crucial that the camera, printer, and monitor all conform to the same color and gamma profile. That way, what the photographer sees through the lens is what he sees on paper and on the screen. The second reason, the one we’ll be exploring here, is to match your display to a particular standard.

Why match a standard? It’s simple, really. Nearly every game or movie you view on your computer is mastered to the Rec. 709 video standard. This is nothing more than a specific set of parameters for color gamut, white point, and gamma. It covers other areas too, but for the purposes of display calibration, we only need to worry about those three. We’ll discuss what those parameters are and their importance in the first four sections. But calibrating your display to that standard ensures that you see exactly what the content creator saw.

There’s one more thing we’d like you to keep in mind as you move through the next few pages: the priorities of imaging science, a science of perception. How can one create a two-dimensional picture on a video display that naturally and accurately represents three-dimensional reality? Accepting the limitations of that display, we have to know how human beings perceive color, light, and detail.

To that end, imaging science as we know it is based on four elements. They are, in order of importance: dynamic range, color saturation, color accuracy, and resolution. Simply put, standards like Rec. 709 are intended to maximize those four elements. When all four are satisfied, you're looking at the most realistic image possible.

As we move on, we’ll go behind the scenes in the four major areas addressed by display calibration: levels, gamma, grayscale, and color. Understanding those principles means you’ll know exactly what’s happening when you move that brightness or RGB slider. And you’ll be able to identify your own display’s deficiencies and how to correct them. It's a wild ride, but we think you'll find it rewarding.