Photographer’s Guide To Screen Calibration With DisplayCal

In Blog, How-To by Jeff Harmon4 Comments

You can hear the podcast episode for this guide at https://masterphotographypodcast.com/guide-to-screen-calibration-using-displaycal/

Screen Calibration Disclaimer

Before we get too far into things, I want to make it clear that although I have been calibrating screens for my own photo editing for many years and have been happy with the results I have had, it hasn’t taken long in reading through some of the information in screen calibration forums online to realize I am pretty far from being an expert on the topic.

Seems these days if you haven’t totally specialized in a field you really don’t have a chance to claim any more than a basic or surface level understanding and that is certainly true here in the space of screen calibration. That said, I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about this so that I feel confident in providing a pretty comprehensive guide on what photographers should to get get a good screen calibration for editing their photos. I just may not know the full details about why you need to do something or how to troubleshoot a problem you may encounter.

I am not alone on this. The online forums I have poured through to help me get the understanding I have on screen calibration are filled with people starting off questions with the disclaimer that they don’t know much of anything compared with the very technical answers that are being provided by the real experts.

Do All Photographers Need To Calibrate Their Screen?

I have witnessed a lot of passionate discussion on the question of screen calibration for photographers. I have heard a wide range of answers from calibration being a complete waste of time and money up through needing insanely expensive equipment (colorimeter and spectrometer) and screen so that your photos don’t look like terrible.  Two extremes there for sure, so I want to share where I have come to be on this over the better part of the past decade as a hobbyist photographer.

Beginning Photographers Don’t Need To Calibrate Their Screens

If you are just starting out on your journey towards mastering photography, there are far more important things to spend your time and money on than screen calibration.  Invest in training, workshops, and lenses all should be done before you invest in screen calibration.

I am convinced that the point where you need to consider calibrating your screen is when you begin shooting for paid clients.  Well, maybe just before that so that your first paid clients get the results they want.  If you aren’t there yet as a photographer, if you are only sharing personal work online, I agree that screen calibration is likely a waste of time and money.

Though, if that is you, may want to read on so that you know what is ahead of you when you get there.

Photographers Doing Paid Work Need To Calibrate Their Screens

Once you are hired to do some kind of shoot for a client, you need to calibrate your screen.  For sure you need to calibrate your screen if the images created for the shoot are going to be printed.  I argue that even if the images aren’t going to be printed and the client is going to use them on their website, you really need to get into screen calibration at that point.

It is probably obvious why it is if the images are going to be printed you need to calibrate your screen. You have a much better chance that the colors, tones, and contrast of the images will look the same in the print as they did on your screen if you do screen calibration.  I also think there is value in calibrating your screen when the images are only going to the web.

The counter-argument to this, where I have heard a lot of photographers I respect say that screen calibration is a waste of time, comes down to the fact that we can’t control what screens people are going to use to look at our photos.  There is going to be a massively wide range of quality from pretty good screens on many smartphones and factory-calibrated computer monitors to horrible screens on inexpensive phones, tablets, TVs, and computers.

I think of screen calibration establishing a baseline, a good middle ground.  Things can start off at a really good place and even though your image will not look the same on these displays that aren’t calibrated, it has a better chance of not looking atrocious on a “normal” screen that hasn’t been calibrated or may be low quality.

Either way, printing or not, I argue that if you are being paid to deliver images to a client you owe it to that client to calibrate your screen so that the images have the best possible chance of looking great however the client uses them.

I’m not saying photographers have to wait for a paid client shoot to worry about screen calibration. I personally found value worth the costs (time and money) in having the screen I edit on calibrated so that as I saw my images on other screens in the house they looked like I saw them as I was editing. As a result, I dove into screen calibration about a year after starting on my own photography path.

How To Calibrate Your Screen Using DisplayCal

If I have convinced you that you need to calibrate your screen, next I want to talk about how to do that.  Maybe that will push you over the edge if you were thinking you don’t want to take on the time and cost.

Step 1 – Quality Screen

Before you consider doing any of the rest of the steps here, you have to start off with a screen that is worth calibrating.  You can check out my 5 things photographers need in a computer monitor article for help with that.  In short, I recommend a 1440p (2560×1440) 27” screen with an IPS panel (or UA if you can’t find IPS – just don’t get TN).

If you don’t know what kind of screen you have today, unless you are using an iMac or a MacBookPro, it is probably not a screen that is actually worth calibrating and you need to check out that article to buy one that is.

Step 2 – Colorimeter

After you get a screen that is worth calibrating, next you need the tool to do the calibration.  There is such a thing as software-based calibration where some software walks you through multiple screens showing you different images and patterns so that you can adjust the settings of your screen and create a profile, but my experience with them is that you are better off not doing calibration than to use software calibration.  I’ve seen more harm than good come out of them.

The hardware you need for doing screen calibration is something called a colorimeter.  Even though the cost of the hardware I am going to recommend may be more than you want to spend, screen calibration isn’t worth doing unless you buy one of these options.  There are basically two consumer level manufacturers someone who has never done screen calibration should consider.  The i1Display Studio ($150) from X-Rite (replaced the ColorMunki Display in 2019) or the Spyder X Pro ($150)  from Datacolor.

$150 may feel like a lot for this, but I really think that even for a hobbyist who is just looking to make sure the images stay closer to true online when you share them the cost is worth it. Plus, I am going to save you a little money here. As you look into these devices you are quickly going to see more expensive options available from both X-Rite and Datacolor. There is no accuracy difference between the less expensive options I have recommended and the more expensive options both vendors have available. The more expensive options can function faster, although the marketing says things like 5x faster but I have seen in the DisplayCal forums now that their testing has shown it is only about 30%.  Not worth paying for, especially as you are just getting started into screen calibration.

Both devices will work on Mac and PC.  Both devices will work with the DisplayCal software I am going to recommend you use over the software that comes with the devices. If you already own one of these devices, use what you have and if you get the results you are looking for, that’s great. For those that don’t have a colorimeter yet, I personally use and recommend the X-Rite i1Disiplay product.

Even better than my recommendation as a guy who is far from being an expert on screen calibration, there is a strong preference for the X-Rite product over the Datacolor product in the DisplayCal forums. If that doesn’t convince you, check out the “Color Consultant” expert who kind of ghost writes for Photography Life has to say about it in this article.

Step 3 – Install DisplayCal

The colorimeters come with software to use them for profiling and calibrating your screen.  I have used the software and works for sure. However, I have been puzzled by how I could go through a calibration one after another and end up with it looking different with the same screen, and it is even more obvious when you are profiling a dual screen setup.  Sometimes it would come out brighter and warmer, other times darker and colder.  Even after waiting for the monitor to be on at least 30 minutes before doing the calibration – which is something you really need to do – calibration seemed a little inconsistent.

Inconsistent results led me to look into why that might be happening, and I very quickly ran into the recommendation across a lot of sites and forums to use the free and open source DisplayCal software instead of the software bundled with the colorimeter. I saw photographers attesting to not only consistent results on one screen, but being able to get two different screens to match. I was intrigued and the price was right (free) so I decided to give it a go and I really think photographers should start off right from the beginning with DisplayCal.

To be clear, it has been several years now since I have used the software from X-Rite with my ColorMunki Display colorimeter. They have released a new version called i1Studio that may produce more consistent results than it did for me in the past, so you may be just fine using it.  If it you are using that and it is working for you, then that is great. I just prefer the results I have been getting for several years using DisplayCal.

You can download DisplayCal using this link: https://displaycal.net/#download

You install the software just like you do any software on your computer. On Windows you will see something that Mac doesn’t have where the following screen come up during installation of the software:

This only comes up as part of the Windows installation

I recommend that you choose the “Let DisplayCal handle calibration loading (high precision and reliability) as is the default. This adds a little startup utility to Windows where DisplayCal will be watching for other things trying to change the color profile and set it back to the profile you create through this screen calibration.

NOTE: I have read in the DisplayCal forums that you don’t need to install the software from X-Rite or Datacolor in order for the colorimeters to function.  They are properly plug and play devices, on both Mac and PC, that don’t need any additional drivers for your computer and DisplayCal to see them as devices.  However, you do have to do an extra step with a Datacolor colorimeter (like the Spyder X) by going to Tools > Instrument > Install ArgylICMS instrument drivers… before it will see the device.

ALSO NOTE: I have also read in the DisplayCal forums that there used to be an incompatibility with the X-Rite software for their colorimeters where it would stay running on the computer and immediately connect to the device when plugged in, not allowing for DisplayCal to connect to the device.  It seems that has been fixed for a while and if you did install the software from X-Rite you don’t have to uninstall it.  Just don’t have the startup software that likely got installed run at the same time.  If you aren’t sure how to do that, just uninstall the software from X-Rite or Datacolor and reboot the computer.

Step 4 – Launch DisplayCal

Now launch the DisplayCal software and you will see a screen like this one on Windows or Mac:

DisplayCal is a front end application for an open source tool called ArgylICMS. You have to install this to have anything work

You have to click the Download button and let DisplayCal download ArgylICMS or the tool won’t function. That will be followed by this screen:

The ArgylICMS Download screen on Windows
The ArgylICMS Download screen on Mac

On MacOS Catalina after you launch DisplayCal for the first time and have finished downloading ArgylICMS, you will have to give DisplayCal permissions to Screen Recording and Full Disk Access in Security and Privacy Settings then restart the application (may have to Force Quit it – I had to).

Display Cal needs permissions to do Screen Recording if you are installing to MacOS Catalina
DisplayCal also needs Full Disk Access if you are installing to MacOS Catalina

Step 5 – Configure the Display & Instrument Screen

Like most open source tools, DisplayCal was created and is maintained by some brilliant people who know their space inside and out. As a result, open source tools tend to not be the easiest pieces of software to use with their processes and terms filled with things people less familiar with their space may have trouble understanding. Here is what the screen looks like when you first launch it:

Here is the DisplayCal screen on a MacBook Pro. This is without any software from X-Rite installed. For me the ColorMunki Display was seen immediately even having to use a USB-A to USB-C adapter to plug it into the 2017 13″ MacBook Pro.

While I think DisplayCal has a much better user experience than most open source tools I have used, this screen may look a little scary. Especially compared to the far simpler software X-Rite and Datacolor package with their colorimeters. I found it extremely difficult to go from the software I successfully used with my ColorMunki Display colorimeter with basically no knowledge of screen calibration to DisplayCal.

The good thing is I have put this guide together to help you get through your first calibration. You always have the DisplayCal forums where you can post your questions and get help pretty quickly – for free. With that, let’s walk you through the screens of the software.

Display & Instrument Screen Breakdown

  • Display & instrument – Display: I have always seen the Display drop down auto-populate in the software. All of the screens connected to your computer should show up in this drop down and then you can choose which you want to calibrate.
  • Display & instrument – Instrument: Your colorimeter should show up in this dropdown. If it doesn’t, hit the little refresh button to the left of the drop down and see if it populates. If you are using a Datacolor colorimeter you may need to go to Tools > Instrument > “Install ArgylICMS instrument drivers” and then click that refresh button. If none of that works, you may need to close out software you have installed from X-Rite or Datacolor (maybe uninstall it and reboot). If that doesn’t work, hit the DisplayCal forums and search for help or post a question.
  • Display & instrument – Mode: These days we are all creating calibrations for LCD screens, so you choose “LCD (generic)”. You choose “Refresh” for CRT (those old massively heavy screens) and Plasma.
  • Display & instrument – White level drift compensation: Some testing can be done for DisplayCal to understand how the color of your screen changes at it warms up, it adds time to the calibration and should seems to only provide value if you are calibrating a screen with an OLED or Plasma panel.

    I recommend you leave it unchecked.
  • Display & instrument – Black level drift compensation: Same concept as above but for black, and only provides value if you are using a spectometer (very different from a colorimeter) for a more advanced calibration than we are doing here.

    I recommend you leave it unchecked
  • Display & instrument – Correction: This is a setting where you can dive in for weeks and still not fully understand what is going on. There is enough to this I am going to talk more about it in the next section. Setting this right is CRITICAL to getting a good screen calibration.
  • Display & instrument – Note 1: Make sure to pay attention to the first note here on this screen telling you that you shouldn’t calibrate the screen until it has been powered on for at least 30 minutes. Not only should it be powered on for 30 minutes but the colorimeter should be in place on the screen for those 30 minutes!
  • Display & instrument – Note 2: Pay attention to that second note as well, asking you to disable all dynamic picture settings your screen may provide. Things like dynamic contrast, automatic brightness or similar features where screen itself is going to change things. More on this further in this guide.

Display & Instrument Screen – Correction Details

This is complicated enough we need to go through just this in some detail. When I first started using DisplayCal many years ago, I had to pull in a “correction” profile from the X-Rite software so that I could get a good result. The software didn’t really tell you that was what had to be done back then and figuring that was one of my biggest challenges. Without the right measurement “correction” your screen calibration is not going to go well.

That option to pull in the correction profile from X-Rite or Datacolor is still there. It is at Tools > Correction > “Import colorimeter corrections from other display profiling software”. However, I don’t think this is necessary with the current version of the software (3.8.9.3) so I mention here as something you can try if you end up not having a good screen calibration.

What is vitally important with the current version is choosing the choosing the right “Spectral” correction for your screen. These correction profiles are built for specific panel technology of your screen and you are going to have to figure out which panel technology has. To help you with this there is a button at the bottom of the screen, it is the little “i” circle that says “Show information about common display technologies”.

Clicking that brings up this very helpful screen to help you figure out which correction profile to choose:

As you can read on that screen, for most inexpensive screens (say under about $600 or so) that have up to 100% sRGB color space, you will want to choose the “Spectral: LCD White LED Family (AC, LG, Samsung)” correction profile. You will also want to use this profile for iMac/MacBook computers from 2009 through mid 2015.

For screens that have wider color gamuts (90% or more of P3 or Adobe RGB), like iMac 4K/5K late 2016 or newer, you want to choose the “Spectral: LCD PFS Phosphor WLED Family” correction profile.

For a MacBook Pro Retina late 2016 or newer you should choose the “Spectral: LCD PFS Phosphor WLED IPS, 99% P3 (MacBook Pro Retina 2016)” correction profile.

If you aren’t sure what kind of panel and color gamut your screen supports, you can try to find it at this website and then decide which of the correction profiles is best.

After you have decided which correction profile to choose you are ready to configure the next screen, don’t hit that Calibrate and Profile button just yet!

Step 6 – Configure the Calibration Screen

It isn’t immediately obvious that there are other screens to configure, but if you click on Calibration just to the right of the Display & instrument then you are shown something that will look similar to this:

Click on the Calibration tab of the DisplayCal Application so that you can configure important calibration settings
  • Interactive display adjustment: Needs to be checked as enabled since you have yet to do a screen calibration. With this enabled, when you click the Calibration & profile button at the bottom of the screen DisplayCal is going to have you place a calibration target in the middle of the screen and then after hitting a “Start measurement” button it DisplayCal will pop up a window called “Interactive display adjustment” and help you to configure your screen for the color tones and brightness you are configuring here.

    It takes some time to do this, and if you come back to do other calibrations in the future you can click on the “Update calibraton” checkbox to skip this part of the screen calibration process entirely (all of Step 10 in this guide). Just to make sure things haven’t changed for me I prefer to do this with every screen calibration.
  • Whitepoint: Set the dropdown to “Color temperature” and then choose a kelvin setting that you want to edit at. Just like the kelvin setting for white balance on your camera, your screen calibration will do the best it can to have the display itself white balanced so that you can do a better job of editing white balance on your photos. I have seen a range of 5,000 on the low end through 6,500 recommended as a good value to use here.

    The whites on your screen will look a little warmer at 5,000 and it is the setting to use if you want to softproof for printing. The whites will look a little cooler at 6,500. This is a setting your are going to have to play around with a little to see what your preference is.

    I calibrate to 6,500.
  • White level: This is how bright you want the whites to appear. Set the dropdown to custom and then you provide the number of candelas per meter squared. I have seen a range of 90cd to 120cd recommended, and that there is risk of having clipping of the whites and/or blacks if you go outside of that range.

    90cd is pretty dark for my liking, but is that value that is recommended to start with if you goal is to softproof for printing. You would set this to 90, do a screen calibration, print a photo without any brightness adjustments being made manually, and then compare how the print looks to your screen and adjust from there.

    I calibrate to 120cd.
  • Tone curve: Always use Gamma 2.2 here.
  • Calibration speed: Choosing a slower speed runs more tests during the calibration which could lead to more accuracy. However, information in the forums has convinced me that the colorimeters we are using here are not accurate enough for this to make a meaningful difference and I recommend you leave this value at the default of “High”. It seems anything slower is really just wasting your time until you have better equipment (both screen and measurement instrument).

    By the way, under the Calibration Speed is an estimate of how long the calibration will take with that setting – my experience has been it is at least 2x longer than that number.

NOTE: There are little target looking icons to the right of the Whitepoint and White level lines. If you click on those targets and your colorimeter supports measuring ambient light (the X-Rite colorimeters support this) then it asks you to make sure the diffuser is over the lens of the colorimeter and it will tell you what the white point and the white level is in the room. This is helpful as a reference so that you can get an idea for where your Whitepoint and White level numbers should be, but I wouldn’t use them as direct values to use.

Step 7 – Configure the Profiling Screen

Not much to change your first time doing a screen calibration here. You mostly want the defaults, but things change on this screen the next time you come into the software because it assumes you are only calibrating a single screen. If you have more than one screen you will want to make sure to “reset” things back to these settings as you profile another screen.

  • Profile quality: I recommend only High here. Unlike the speed slider from the previous screen, there is value in making sure the quality is set to high here to get the most accurate calibration your screen and your measuring instrument allow.
  • Testchart: Auto-optimized is the default and I don’t know of any reason to change it on your first screen calibration. In fact, when you come back into this screen after having finished your first screen calibration this is automatically set to be the profile you just created and the “Amount of patches” slider below it isn’t there. I don’t know why that is but I don’t think you want to use that if you are trying to calibrate a second screen. I recommend that this be set to “Auto-optimized” every time you do a screen calibration.
  • Amount of patches: I don’t have extremely solid information on the value of doing something other than default here, but I did see it recommended in the forums to set this to 175. I just don’t know why or if that falls within the tolerance of the colorimeter we are using to know if increasing from default to 175 is actually of value. The higher the number here, the longer the screen calibration is going to take. Still, I saw it enough times in the forums I am using 175.
  • Profile name: I don’t see any reason to change this. There is a lot of information that is automatically being put into the name of the profile already, including the Whitepoint and White level settings you configured in the Calibration screen in the previous step.

Step 8 – Place The Colorimeter

You are finally through setting up the software to run your first screen calibration! I know it is a lot of pretty technical information and choices here, but hopefully this guide has helped with some guidance for your first run through this.

I have already mentioned a couple of times in this guide that for the screen calibration to be most effective it is recommended you have your screen on for at least 30 minutes and you have the colorimeter contacting the screen during those 30 minutes before you start the testing process. Most computers put their screens to sleep before 30 minutes, so you will want to change the settings on your computer to not put the screen to sleep for at least 30 minutes.

Make sure your computer is plugged in and then configure it to not put the screen asleep for 45 minutes (Settings > System > Power & sleep)
Make sure your computer is plugged in as this can take some time and then configure your Mac to leave the display on for at least 35 minutes (Settings > Energy Saver)

For Mac you will also want to turn off “Automatic adjust brightness” (Settings > Displays > Display) as well as Night Shift (Settings > Displays > Night Shift) as these features can cause problems while you are calibrating your screen (I recommend you have them off while editing as well)

Turn off Automatically adjust brightness on Mac at least while calibrating your screen (though I recommend doing this while editing as well)
Turn off Night Shift on Mac as well

On Windows you will want to make sure you don’t have anything in your graphics card drivers that may be artificially changing things. For example, with an NVIDIA card go to the NVIDIA Control Panel and take a look at the Adjust Desktop Color Settings screen:

Make sure your graphics card isn’t doing something to the colors. DisplayCal will create a much better calibration that takes full advantage of the colors and contrast of your screen so long as nothing else is mucking with things at the same time.

Finally, place the colorimeter in the very middle of your screen as best you can. Screens, especially less expensive screens like those I have recommended, are most accurate in the middle and can have consistency issues as you get to the edges – sort of like lenses! With the X-Rite colorimeter you want to swing the diffuser away from the lens of the device (not sure if Datacolor devices have this). Next, with either colorimeter, position the counterbalance weight so that it can be kind of half way down the back of your screen and position the colorimeter so that it is making direct contact with the screen in as close to the center as you can make it.

The colorimeter is placed well at the middle of the screen and making good contact with the screen, but the environment is not good for calibration with too much light reflecting off the window facing the screen.

I have read that the ambient light shouldn’t be a massive factor to the calibration, which makes sense when you look at how the colorimeter doesn’t really let outside light in as it lays on the screen. Though I did see some posts in the forums say they got better results when the screen was not in a lot of sunlight and there is the note in the DisplayCal software advising trying to not have a light shining directly on the screen during calibration.

I used these photos on purpose to draw your attention to the light reflecting off the screen. These photos were taken early in the morning where my screen was facing a window with the blinds fully closed and it still made for a less than ideal environment for screen calibration. It is best to calibrate in the environment where you are going to edit your photos and see if you can block out anything producing significant reflections on the screen like I have in the photos.

Step 9 – Configure The Physical Screen

It is finally time to go back to that Display & instrument screen in the software and hit the “Calibrate & profile” button at the bottom of the screen. When you do, if you using a Mac, you will probably see this

This message is telling you that some of the MacOS system applications do not support color profile types other than a little simpler “single curve + matrix”. What it means is that the apps you run that do their own color management, like Lightoom and Photoshop, will be fine using a more advanced color profile but if you look at a photo using the default Preview app for example the colors won’t be controlled by the color profile that you build doing this screen calibration.

If you want the built in Preview app to look right, you hit Yes on this window. If you would rather have the more advanced calibration happen that is more likely to get more out of your screen then you hit No and just have to remember not to look at your images using native MacOS apps like Preview (and probably Messages). I choose Yes here.

Now on both Mac and Windows you will see a calibration target put on your screen, probably dead center

If you computer is connected to multiple screens, make sure that target is placed on the screen you configured DisplayCal to calibrate, place it as close to the middle as you can and make sure the colorimeter is on top of it. Then hit the Start measurement button. You will see another window pop up somewhere on your screen and some colors be shown in the target screen while DisplayCal takes a couple of measurements. The Start measurement button should then become enabled:

DisplayCal is ready to measure the whitepoint and white levels of your screen and help you set them according to the values you configured in the software

By default the sound is enabled in the software and it makes a sound every time the colorimeter is used to take a measurement. I find it annoying, so I turn that off by hitting the speaker icon in the bottom middle of the screen. You can thank me later!

From here, we have two different paths to take. One path for a screen that provides no hardware based brightness or color temperature controls, like the native screen on a MacBook Pro or an iMac, and another path for a screen with hardware buttons on it to navigate menus and configure the brightness and color temperature. Lets’ start with the less configurable but easier path.

Screens With No Hardware Color Temperature Controls

With a screen that has no hardware buttons to change settings, like a native screen on a laptop (Mac or PC) or native screens of all in one computers like iMacs or some all in one PCs, there is not anything to fiddle with there and you are ready to hit that “Start measurement” button.

DisplayCal will take a measurement of the screen every few seconds and give you feedback about how the screen itself is configured for the Whitepoint and White level settings you configured on the Calibration screen. Here is what it looked like on my MacBook Pro with my Whitepoint set at 6500, my White level at 100cd, and my screen brightness set to about 4 levels from full:

My Whitepoint and White level numbers on a 2017 13″ MacBook Pro with the screen brightness set 4 units from full. Way too bright for the target.

The color levels weren’t where they need to be on my 2017 13″ MacBook Pro, but without any hardware controls to alter color temperature on a native Mac screen you can ignore the RGB values in the top half of the screen. Yes, you may be able to get a little more out of a screen where you can alter the RGB levels of color balance to get to a good neutral point, but these values aren’t terribly far off and the screen calibration will work with what it has. Mac screens are extremely high quality and the lack of these controls doesn’t end up being significant for most photographers.

We can do something about the bottom meter though. This is the White level and it was far too bright for the 100cd level I wanted for photo editing. I used the keyboard (F2 on this MacBook Pro – a touch bar button on newer models) to lower my screen brightness one level, taking it from 4 from full brightness to 5 from full brightness. That measured to be 102.30cd, pretty close to what I wanted. If I went 6 from full brightness it dropped to 72.28cd way too dark, so slightly brighter than what I was looking for at 5 clicks from full brightness is where I need to edit at with this MacBook Pro.

Once you find this for the native display on your Mac, you can click the Stop measurement button and then the Continue on to calibration button. Now let’s talk about he more complicated setup of the physical screen.

Screens With Hardware Color Temperature Controls

Before you can hit that Start measurement button, you need to get your screen set at a baseline so that DisplayCal has the full performance of the screen available for the profile. It is a little bit complicated, and using the hardware buttons on the side of a screen to navigate horrible on screen display (OSD) menus is terrible. I promise it is totally worth the pain.

What I am going to illustrate here isn’t a step-by-step guide that will work for everyone because every monitor has a unique button and menu system. The steps I am going to outline are shared here to give you an idea of what to look for. A fighting chance to figure out how to do something similar with your screen. So let’s walk through the gory details.

I did this screen calibration process with my Windows 10 desktop computer connected to a BenQ PD2700Q screen and a 2018 15″ MacBook Pro connected to a ViewSonic VX3211-4K-MHD. I figured this is the ultimate test of screen calibration – two very different screens connected to two totally different computers (a Mac and a PC). If I could get things to look pretty close to the same between those two then that is a major win!

The first thing to consider here is possibly resetting your screen to factory settings. If you have played around with the settings before, the contrast setting in particular, rest the screen to defaults before you get going. The DisplayCal forums are filled with people saying that you need to leave contrast at default or you run the risk of clipping whites and/or blacks at a hardware level and the screen performance will be far less than what it is capable of when you are through calibration. If you aren’t sure, go ahead and factory reset your screen just to be safe.

Next you should look at the user’s manual of your screen and see if there are any auto-enhancement settings you need to turn off. Look for things like auto-brightness, HDR, things like that. You want to get the screen to be configured as vanilla as possible.

In order to figure out where you should set your brightness and color temperature settings, I recommend you run the DisplayCal Interactive display adjustment in a corner of the screen away from where the screen’s menus show up so that you can watch what happens to the values as measurements are being taken. Something like this.

The DisplayCal measurement target should be dead center on your screen, then put the DisplayCal Interactive display adjustment screen in the opposite corner from where the menus of the screen show up

Now change the screen to some kind of picture mode that allows you to set custom brightness and color temperature values. I think every picture mode allows for brightness controls, but I found that there were very few picture modes on either screen that allowed me to set custom RGB temperature settings.

On the BenQ I had to go to the Picture Advanced menu and then there was something called Picture Mode there with choices of Standard, Rec.709, sRGB, CAD/CAM, Animation, Low Blue Light, DarkRoom, ECO, and User. I started the Interactive display adjustment measurements in DisplayCal and then tried out the different picture modes to see which might be the best starting point – looking for one that may have the RGB values in the middle. None of them put the RGB color temperature perfectly in the middle, which was interesting to me because the BenQ came with a certification about calibration that was done at the factory. All of them were also far too bright.

The color temperature was pretty close, blue had to come down and that would bring the rest up. I later decided I like 100cd for White level

I decided that User was the setting that would make sure things were as baseline and bland as possible so that DisplayCal could create a profile that would get the most out of the screen. With the DisplayCal Interactive display adjustment up on the screen taking constant measurements, I lowered the brightness (a ton) using the buttons on the screen until it landed in the middle and the text under the white slider at the bottom of the DisplayCal screen went green.

Then I found the menus to change the individual RGB values for color temperature (Menu > Picture > Color Temperature -> User Define). They all defaulted to 100. I watched what DisplayCal was telling me about the measurements it was taking and as I lowered the blues, the red and the green increased. At 96 on blue it was perfect in the middle, red was a little left of middle and green was a little right of middle. I lowered green down to 97 and the text under the RGB bars in DisplayCal went green telling me I had reached my Whitepoint.

Trouble was, the White level I had already got where it needed to be was now a little under, the text under that white bar had gone from green back to white. Went back to the brightness control and increased it until I had green confirmation text under both the RGB and white bars on the DisplayCal screen.

With green confirmation text under the Whitepoint RGB bars and under the White level bar, our screen is ready for calibration.

The process to get the ViewSonic screen ready for calibration was very similar, though the menu and names was entirely different. There was a menu called View Mode with options of Standard, Game, Movie, Web, Text, MAC, and Mono. After going through them I found the option that let me control the color temperature was Standard.

From there I watched the bars on the DisplayCal Interactive display adjustment screen while I changed the brightness first, then the color temperature, and then had to visit brightness again. Color temperature was changed by going to Color Adjust > Color Temperature > User Color. Same process as with the BenQ, lower the highest one until you get it to the middle, then change another that isn’t quite right and play with the RGB until you get them in the middle.

OK, whew. Once you get a screen like the one just above with green text confirming your Whitepoint and White levels are where you wanted them to be, time to hit that Stop measurement button and then hit the Continue on to calibration button.

Step 10 – Install Calibration Profile

This is the easiest part of the process. You get to kick back now and just watch DisplayCal do it’s thing – or you may want to go and get a drink or find something else to do for about 20 to 30 or more minutes. Just make sure your screen won’t turn off and that you don’t do anything else to get something in the way of that target where the colorimeter is taking measurements.

DisplayCal is taking lots of measurements as it displays different colors where the target was placed. The screen in the upper left shows the status of the calibration.

In the upper left of that photo you can see the DisplayCal software providing a status of where the calibration is at, including an elapsed time and an estimated time remaining. I have found the estimated time remaining to not be very accurate, especially because there are a few stages to the calibration and the software doesn’t seem to predict getting through all of the stages. Just be patient, let DisplayCal do it’s thing. It will be worth it.

When it is done, you will see a glorious screen like the following:

The final result screen on MacOS
The final results screen on Windows

I recommend choosing to install the profile as system default and then clicking the Install Profile button.

Final Results

How did it turn out calibrating two screens from different manufacturers with one driven by a Mac and the other drive by a PC? This photo won’t win any awards but it shows how I was able to get the color and contrast reproduction to look close enough that there isn’t any meaningful difference when I look at my photos on the one or the other.

What do you think? Pretty good match with both screens calibrated?

Bonus – When To Re-Calibrate

This Verification screen is used for validating things after you have done a screen calibration. I believe you can compare your calibration to a printer ICC profile here, but I have never done that. I just work with the Whitepoint and White level settings on the Calibration page and do prints until I get things to match.

There is another good reason to use this screen, it is a great way to see if your screen has drifted enough that a re-calibration is needed. Here is how you configure things for that.

  • Testchart or reference: The default is “Extended verification testchart” and is that sweet spot between the time it will take to do the calibration and how precise your colorimiter can measure things. Choosing “Verification testchart” will reduce the time to calibrate but may not be as precise as you can get it and “Large verification testchart” will lengthen the time to calibrate in a way that is probably not worth the time given the colorimeter we are using.

    I recommend sticking with the default “Extended verification testchart”
  • Simulation profile: I think this is how you can compare your calibration to other profiles if that helps you, but I haven’t found value in it. Maybe this documentation will help over at https://displaycal.net and search for “HowTo—Common scenarios”. It doesn’t matter if you have something in the dropdown, but for a check to see if you need to re-calibrate don’t check the box.

You can use this just before editing a big shoot to see if you need to do the full screen calibration. You do still have to let the screen warm up for 30 minutes and are supposed to have that colorimeter on the screen during that warm up time.

Hit the “Measurment report” button at the bottom of the screen. You will see the familiar target in the center of the screen and you need to get your colorimeter placed over that target. The software does a quick couple of minutes test and provides you an HTML report that will autoload in your browser about how well the profile is doing compared to the actual performance of the screen.

Here is what you are looking for in the report:

The screen was tested as still performing withing the profile created from your last calibration and you don’t need to do one. If you get red in this table, you need to re-calibrate
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Comments

  1. Pingback: Guide To Screen Calibration Using DisplayCal - Master Photography Podcast

  2. Hi Jeff. Thanks for putting this together. Very helpful. I just listened to the Master Photography Podcast in which you talked about using DisplayCal for screen calibration. The timing was great since I just replaced my monitor with a Dell U3818DW. A 38″ widescreen monitor probably isn’t needed for photo editing, but I needed something that could be used for productivity purposes also, since I work my day job (engineer) from home for now.

    The calibration process went smoothly. As it turned out, the “standard” preset had perfect white balance and all I needed to adjust on the monitor was brightness. Perhaps as the monitor ages, I might have to go to “custom” preset.

    Keep up the good work. I enjoy geeking out with you.

  3. Awesome walk-through! I just start using DisplayCAL and your tips definitely made it easier getting to know the software.

  4. Thanks for creating this walk-through. Coincidently, I recently purchased a BenQ PD2700Q, and also acquired a used ColorMunki Display. Calibrating as I type this.

    One comment: the panel types are IPS, *VA* (not UA), and TN.
    VA get a bum rap. They’re a good all-around panel: good gamut (~95% sRGB) and great black/contrast (best for video/movies). They do colour-shift when viewed at an angle, but I think they’re the best compromise for general use.

    I don’t think there are any dud VA panels, unlike IPS, where there are various sub-types of IPS, such as the cheap e-IPS panels, to watch out for. However, technology usually improves, so maybe even e-IPS is now capable of high sRGB coverage.

    FYI, the BenQ PD2700Q has an AU Optronics AHVA panel (advanced hyper-viewing angle — which is not the same as VA, vertical alignment). Perhaps this IPS-like technology explains why there is less backlight bleed/glow that is typical of IPS panels.

    Lastly, for Windows, there is a freeware tool called HWInfo that can ID the panel used in notebooks. Just don’t get the panel mixed up with the EDID part ID used by the notebook manufacturer.

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