Why: Calibrating a Screen is Insufficient When Creating an Art Photograph

To correctly create an art photograph, the calibration of a computer screen is essential for the development phase.

The correct calibration of a screen guarantees that the photos will be viewed in the same way on another calibrated screen from any location in the world.

As we wrote in another article, an artistic photograph exists only on paper whether for a wall display or for a beautiful book. The display on a computer screen, tablet or mobile phone is only an intermediate step, which is not essential to us. To correctly print an artistic photo, the calibration of a screen is insufficient if it is viewed as the only step in the development process.

Art Photograph of sand dunes. The calibration of the screen is not enough to print it correctly.
Art Photograph of sand dunes. The calibration of the screen is not enough to print it correctly.

Calibrating a Screen Is the First Step in the Development Process

As we mentioned in an article dedicated to the development of an artistic photograph, the use of software is essential for a photographer to present his vision of the world through his photographs.

But before using software, it is essential to properly calibrate the screen that will be used during the development process.
If this step is not done correctly, the development of colors, tones, and contrasts will not be accurately represented.

Why: Calibrating a Screen

Screen manufacturers produce devices that are often very bright and highly contrasted; the photographs displayed can appear to be washed out and cold-toned. Indeed, photographers are a very small minority of individuals who use screens daily, whether it is in a professional setting of for leisure. Most screen users play games, visit websites, or use desktop applications. The original settings are made to satisfy these users.

But a photographer has other needs that require more specific abilities. Since his photographs will be printed, the details need to be translated properly from a camera to the computer system and onto the digital screen. When a photographer edits a photograph, he wants to capture the beautiful array of colors, contrasts, and tones in such a way that correctly represents reality. For example, he does not necessarily want exuberant colors that tablets can produce. Although the colors presented by the tablet flatter the eyes, they are incompatible with quality paper printing.

For this reason, it is necessary to calibrate the screen. Colors, contrasts and tones will be displayed relative to standard values.

The Principle of The Calibration of a Screen

To properly calibrate a screen, it is necessary to use a calibration device. A calibration with eyes will not give a good result because it will be subjective.

A calibration device is a small electronic device sold by specialized companies. It connects to a computer via a USB cable, and displays on the screen for the calibration phase. When the device is purchased, the manufacturer supplies a special application to the consumer so that they can control the probe during the entire calibration phase.

To begin, the photographer enters some very simple data, and performs one or two operations. Then the software drives the probe for calibration.

When all operations are complete, the application generates a file called an ICC profile that contains the characteristics of the screen.

This ICC profile is then loaded by the operating system of the computer at each startup. This profile will provide information to the video card to correctly display colors, contrasts and tones.

The goals of correct calibration are to:

  • Neutralize the default settings of the constructor of a screen.
  • Display a correct level of contrast and brightness in the widest range of colors possible.

For example, the gray in the gamut RGB has the value 128. If the screen is calibrated correctly, it will display a true gray. If the screen is not calibrated properly, the gray will gleam orange.

Why Eyes Alone Inhibit Good Calibration

As we have just described, a calibration device is necessary to properly calibrate a screen. The human eye is not adapted for this operation.

A human eye cannot read color without having an element of comparison. It is difficult to know the exact brightness level of a screen, and this can cause problems. Even when the light is low, it can detect details in a scene. If a photographer observes a dark picture on a screen, he will be able to see details. He may think that the tones are correct. Only when the photograph is printed does the photographer realize that black shadows may be darkened colors or that the range of saturation may be lighter than previously believed.

Calibration in Practice

Calibrating a computer screen has become quite easy. The application editors have made very great progress in the ergonomics and software interface.

The first step involves the configuration of data. The photographer will fix the color temperature, the gamma, the contrast value, and the maximum brightness, which is also called the white point.

Once these values are taken care of through the calibration device application, calculations are performed for a few minutes. This step is known as characterization. At the end of the process, the application asks for a name for the data file. This is the famous ICC file that we mentioned earlier. It will be loaded each time the computer starts.

One of the essential points for an art photographer is to fix the amount of light emitted by the screen between 80 and 100 cd / m2 (candelas per square meter). A higher value will cause problems at the time of printing.

After a screen has been profiled (or characterized or calibrated) the settings must not be modified any more. If this happens, it will be necessary to redo a calibration.

We recommend performing a full calibration every two weeks as the settings change themselves. Although these are not great variations, they are quality developments that must strive to achieve perfection from the beginning to the end of the post-processing chain.

Proper Calibration is Not a Guarantee for Correct Impressions

Correct screen calibration only ensures that the photos you develop will be viewed in the same manner on all screens around the world that are properly calibrated.

If you use another method to view your photos, such as a video projector or printer, you may be disappointed with the results.

Take the specific case of using a printer. As artistic photographers, this is the primary method we use to display our work.

If you do not make any other changes after developing an art photograph with your calibrated screen, we strongly believe that your printed photo will be darker than your desired setpoint. Indeed, paper absorbs light while a screen emits light.

When printing an art photo, it usually lacks between 1 and 2 EV of light. Shadows are often obstructed and causing the entire photograph to appear flattened.

If you have a personal printer, it is essential to calibrate it so that the printed result will be consistent with the image on the screen.

This problem is caused by impressions made in specialized laboratories. You cannot intervene in the printing process by calibrating the printers at the manufacturer.

In addition, if you use the services of a general laboratory, you will not be guaranteed to have your photographs printed by the same printers with each order. This is a real problem because you cannot create a specialized rule for brightness management and apply it to only your order every time you want prints from the company. Thus, it is totally unpredictable.

For this reason, we always use the services of specialized laboratories with whom we can discuss with and interact directly. We have learned which brands of printers to trust and which printing procedures are best.

But in both cases, whether it is a specialized laboratory or a generalist, it is necessary to increase the light of the photograph to print it correctly.

The problem is how much EV you must adjust to increase the light. Too much value may cause overexposure of certain areas. A low value will cause a picture to come out darker than planned.

It is for this reason that one must ask for tests by asking a proof of your final prints. The printer selects a portion of the photo and sends it to you for verification. This process should be repeated as many times as necessary until the desired results are achieved. The proof can be expensive, but it is necessary. Once the photo is printed and glued onto a support, the cost is quite high.

For this article, we will not explain any more details concerning how to print an artistic photograph. This will be the subject of another article.


The correct calibration of a screen is the first step in the development of art photographs. However, if the photographs are to be used for other media, such as a projector or printer, other processes must be initiated for the image to be properly displayed. A photographer who wishes to create artistic prints must place massive focus on this crucial phase if he wants to highlight his photographic vision accurately.

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Article published on Friday, May 11, 2018 . Written by
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