Six Tips for Improving Color Management – Part 1

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Color management is a complicated beast which can create numerous problems with your processed images. If what you see on your monitor doesn’t match what is printed or if your images look different on different screens, you may need to fine-tune your color management workflow. Here are some tips on how to do this.

Calibrate Your Monitor for Web or Print

For best results, calibrate your monitor for web or print separately. Also, calibrate for specific output using some general industry standards. If you are serious about image quality and monitor accuracy, I suggest getting a quality calibration device for your monitor. For me, this means a X-Rite Product (I currently use and strongly advocate for the X-Rite i1Display Pro) or a new Spyder product.

In my intensive research over the years, I have asked countless photo enthusiasts (semi-pros as well as known professionals) about their calibration practices. To this day, it often surprises me how many photographers are not taking careful control of their color management practices.

When monitors have the ability for a range of over 300+cd (from nuclear bright to unviewable dark), what might be the best, average, “middle target” for web calibration? What might be a target that works well for the general masses who may be viewing our images (on their monitor, iPads, or phones)?

Target Luminance for Web Display

Although it is generally accepted that no official industry standards exist, between 120-130cd (cd is technically candelas; also known as luminance or brightness) in a diffused, lighted room (not really dark, not really bright, and no direct light reflecting off of your screen) seems to the accepted middle-of-the-road. It’s seems to be what the late, great, color guru and book writer, Bruce Fraser used to talk about when he said “we need to shoot for the middle of a very wide barn door opening.”

I reached this conclusion of the 120-130 cd target by talking with the techies of several top calibration companies, asking many top professional photographers (nearly all my favorite nature photographers), and my own 14 years of personal experience. Of course room brightness has a profound effect on this target but, for now, we’ll keep it simple and recommend 120-130 cd for web output, in a mellow, diffused lighted room.

Calibration for Printing versus Calibration for Social Media Sharing

Target Luminance for Prints

If you are serious about your print accuracy and quality, there’s no way around the importance of calibrating your monitor separately for a fine art print. This means a substantially darkened monitor (compared to web calibration); 60-70 cd is the target (lately I have been using 65) that has worked best for me over the years for fine art gallery prints I do for photographers. As part of my service, I work with their master TIFF or PSD files to match (look right) for print; or I completely rework the image from scratch (RAW) for the client. I have used this target with success for all my limited edition gallery prints as well.

This darker target is extremely critical to avoid the very common dark print problem. This method basically helps the print retain the same punch, luminance, or liveliness that we see on our monitors. By having a darker monitor, you naturally process brighter and, because prints turn out much darker than monitors, this is a great way to compensate.

Control Your Ambient Light During Processing

It’s important to control your processing room brightness. A slightly darker, diffusely lit room (but not really dark) room generally works best for critical processing. Room brightness can affect luminance targets significantly.

We’ll keep things very simple here. We need to control luminosity in the room in which we choose to do critical editing. We do not want any reflective light (light reflecting off your monitor from behind you). One of my favorite and highly acclaimed nature photographers told me that he never processes his images in the middle of the day. He waits until soft light begins or it’s dark. Then his room lighting of choice comes mostly from behind his monitor, not behind him. I cannot argue with the quality of his work, so there is something to be learned by this tip, in my opinion.

To be continued – Six Tips for Improving Color Management – Part 2


About Author Mark Metternich

Mark Metternich is a native Oregonian now living in Jacksonville, Florida. He has been a full-time professional landscape photographer and avid photography educator for over 14 years and is considered by many to be an expert in this field. Throughout the year, Mark leads many adventurous photography workshops in the US and abroad, creates educational materials (such as as his many highly acclaimed video tutorials in post processing), teaches post processing privately via Skype screen sharing, offers post processing services for photographers including critical gallery photographers, is a freelance writer for a some select photography publications, public speaker to camera clubs and professional groups, as well as produces limited edition fine art landscape prints from his photography.

  • Mark Metternich

    Yay! I love when others have success!!!!

  • Anne-Mark Rhind

    Hi Mark
    Have re calibrated my monitor for Web & Print as discussed and now have the option of selecting ICC depending on application. When i selected between the two ICC i noticed there wasn’t a major change in darkness – even tough I could see a change in histogram for colours. Is this normal?
    NB: My monitor doesn’t have kelvin selections only cool, normal, warm.
    Do you use White background in Photoshop as well as Camera Raw?

    • Mark Metternich

      Hi Anne-Mark Rhind. Thank you for your question. Sorry I have been in the SW wilderness for 2 months and then displaced because of the hurricane. Tardy… 🙁

      I adjust my monitor brightness manually for the targeted luminosities. Clicking between ICC’s won’t do that part for you… You will see a big difference if you darken your monitor to 70 vs 125…

      I think “Normal” will likely be the ticket.

      Yes, white on both for prints. At a minimum very light grey. But I recommend white for sure.

      I hope it helps.


  • Chris DeAntonio

    Hi – I found this to be really helpful, but a bit stuck on the target luminance setting. I don’t have that setting in my calibration software. Is that where you made that change? I’m using Datacolor’s Spyder5 Express. Then there’s also just my basic monitor brightness on the monitor itself. Right now that is set to 75%. I don’t imagine that “75” maps to cd luminance value, right?

    • Mark Metternich

      Hi Chris. Sorry for the tardy response. I have been traveling in Africa and the Pacific Northwest and was just too busy to check messages here…

      I did have client that owned the “express” version of the Spyder colorimeter and it chose the luminance target automatically and I do not think it can be over written. So no manual control there (and am assuming the same fro their “5” version). A great reason to upgrade! I would suggest the iOne Pro by X Rite if you do so. Please let me know if I can be of any other help. 🙂 Feel free to email me as well. [email protected]

  • Irfan Intekhab

    Hi, this is so helpful. Thank you so much! But you did not cover another common problem. About D65!
    Can you shed some light on that too?

    • Mark Metternich

      Hi Irfan. Thank you for responding. I have never had a problem with using D65 (White Point at 6500) so I am not sure what problem you are referring to. Could you elaborate a bit more? If you are asking what White Point I recommend, that would be 6500. The short end of it is that the brain neutralizes grays or neutrals (in raw and photoshop) and thus I have never had an issues with just sticking to 6500 for all of my work regardless of room temp. The White Point is designed to offset room temp. But if one chooses to go with what the calibrator recommends, that will work too.