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Adjusting Your Monitor

There is a great deal of variability in how computer monitors represent colors and because of that, it is very difficult to make sure that you are “seeing the same thing I am seeing” when you look at my pictures on my web site.

I have discovered that many monitors apparently have the contrast, brightness, color corrections, gamma, temperature, etc. set so that some of my pictures either look washed out, too saturated, too bright, too dark, overexposed, underexposed, or something and they make me and my pictures look crummy!!!  And I won’t even mention the ones that turn me into a brunette or a redhead, (or greenhead, or bluehead!!  YIKES!!)

This is NOT GOOD!

AND — not only does it make ME look crummy, it makes EVERYTHING you see with your monitor appear crummy!!!

Unfortunately, in an imperfect world, (that would be DNA Land,) you most likely can’t get your monitor perfectly “perfect,” (particularly not for a reasonable amount of money,) but we can adjust it so both your favorite blond and everything else looks a lot better.

A Little History

The problem with monitors has evolved over time.  One of the key characteristics is something called “gamma.” Basically, this is a measure of how “non-linearly” a monitor responds to changes in brightness.  In a grayscale image, pure black has the assigned value of 0 and pure white is 255.  Halfway in between would be 127.5, but since we can’t do fractional values, the “middle gray” has a value of 127.  If your monitor behaved linearly, that is if the gamma were 1, then a value of 127 would produce a “middle gray.” Unfortunately, monitors produce a 127 value that is too dark, so a middle gray actually needs a grayscale value of around 180 or so!

This is further complicated by the fact that Macintosh monitors traditionally had a gamma of about 1.8 which made the middle gray about 174 while PC’s had a gamma of about 2.4 which made the middle gray about 191!!  This effect is seen not just in the grays, but in all the colors.  This got even crazier when monitors became standardized to work on both Mac’s and PC’s.  You could order a gorgeous “pink” blouse on line and have a purple, apricot, or teal one arrive at your door!  Isn’t that just DUCKY???

SO — all the folks involved, (otherwise known as the guilty parties,) got together and compromised on the “RGB standard” for monitors and how pictures should appear on them.  The RGB, (it stands for Red, Green, and Blue — the colors your monitor uses,) specifies that the gamma should be 2.2 and the color temperature should be 6500K.  Most newer monitors are built to this standard, but they all have individual controls which get changed around, or were improperly set to begin with, or something!  We’re going to adjust things as closely as we can to the “intent” of these standards.

Getting Started

The first thing to do is let your monitor warm up for a few minutes.  This is more important with a CRT than with an LCD, but it’s still best to give it a while for things to stabilize.  Make sure that you don’t have too bright of room lights shining on it and avoid reflections.

I can’t give you specific instructions for adjusting the dials, buttons, on-screen controls, etc. for your particular monitor.  Every single one of them that has ever been made has a DIFFERENT way of adjusting everything!  I personally think this is some kind of conspiracy perpetrated by Big Foot and/or Space Aliens to torment computer users.

SO — figure out how to get your monitor into configuration mode and write down all the current setting so you can put everything back — just in case!!

Adjust Color Temperature

Start with the “color temperature.” What this is REALLY doing is setting the color balance between the Red, Green, and Blue components that your monitor uses to produce all colors.  As a first approximation, select the 6500K option.  You’ve probably got several other temperature setting and a “user setting” also.  We MAY use these later so remember how you got there.

Set Black and White

We’ll use the “brightness,” (might be called intensity,) and “contrast” controls to define “black” and “white.” A quick warning — some monitors have these labeled backwords!  (More Gremlin magic!!) If things don’t seem to be working properly, try the other control — they may be swapped!

Now look at the two charts below.

Set Black Chart

Set White Chart

Set the Black first by examining the top row of squares labeled 0% through 40%.  As a first try, set your brightness, (or intensity,) to 100% and see if you can see a difference between the 0% and 10% square.  If brightness is at 100% and you can’t see any difference, you’re probably stuck with what you’ve got.  Take a look at the second row and see if you can see the difference between 0% and 5%.  All monitors should be able to differentiate between 0% and 10%.  Most new ones can differentiate between 0% and 5%.  The last row is so that you can have “monitor bragging rights” at the office water cooler.  Most monitors CAN NOT differentiate between 0% and 1%.  If you can see the difference, you’ve got a really good monitor and need to guard it carefully!!

You can leave the brightness at 100%, but I usually adjust it downward slightly until I can I can just see the difference between the 0% and 5% squares in the seconds row.  The monitor I’m typing this on is set to 96% brightness.

Next, set the White by looking at the second chart and adjusting the contrast control.  Start with contrast at about 50% and increase it until you can see a difference between the 90% and 100% squares in the top row of the Set White chart.  Once you’ve got that, look back at the Set Black chart and make sure it still looks OK.

Increase the contrast gradually until you can see the difference between the 95% and 100% squares in the second row.  Again, check the Set Black chart to make sure everything there is still OK.

All monitors should be able to show a difference between 90% and 100% and most will differentiate between 95% and 100% without messing up the Set Black stuff.  For bragging rights, try increasing the contrast until you can see a difference between the 99% and 100% boxes in the third row.  Check the Set Black and if it is STILL looks great, you will be awarded the title of Monitor Maven and accorded all rights and privileges associated with the office!!

If your monitor is adjusted so that you can at least see the difference on the Set Black chart between 0% and 10% boxes on the first row and can see the difference between the 95% and 100% boxes on the Set White chart in the second row, your monitor is set up close enough for most things.

Gamma Considerations

The first step is to determine the current gamma setting of your monitor.  Use the charts below and back up across the room until the “lines” merge into a solid color.  If you can back up far enough, use the large chart, but if your space is smaller, then look at the smaller one.

Small Gamma Chart

Large Gamma Chart

When you get far enough away, one of the cute Meredith hearts should blend in with the lined background.  Come back to the monitor and check the associated gamma value.  Most likely, if you have a newer monitor, your gamma is around 2.2 to 2.3 and is close to the RGB standard.

A word of warning about LCD monitors.  The viewing angle will change what you see by a HUGE amount.  If you are standing directly in front of the monitor and the 2.2 gamma Meredith heart is merging with the background, you can probably step a foot or two to one side and see something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!!  To see an even more dramatic difference, look at your monitor from above or below the normal viewing angle!  As you shift up and down, it can change dramatically — even totally reverse colors!!

By the way, the heart in the lower right labeled “1.0” is just to show you how dark things would be without a gamma correction.

If any of the second row hearts blend into the background, and therefore your gamma is somewhere between 2.0 and 2.3, then this is probably good enough for most applications.

If your gamma is something else, or if you have a demanding graphic applications, you can MAYBE adjust your computer to compensate for the gamma difference.

First — see if there is a gamma adjustment on your monitor — a few, (woefully few,) will let you set gamma directly.  If you’ve got one of these monitors, cherish it and buy it an expensive gift!!

If your monitor doesn’t have a gamma adjustment, then you need to set up a “monitor profile” in software.  Most higher end graphic programs, PhotoShop, Corel, etc., can use monitor profiles and will compensate for the peculiarities of your monitor.  Mac’s can maybe use a monitor profile with a web browser.  Most PC’s and there associated web browsers can not.  This situation is evolving so check your browser documentation to see what it does support.

To REALLY determine a monitor’s gamma, (and a lot of other parameters,) you can buy some clever little gadgets, (but expensive,) that “look” at the monitor and automatically create profiles and adjustments.  We use some of these at work, but again, the created profile may be application specific and not work with web browsers.

If you are someone that finds gamma adjustments of critical importance, then your probably already know all the stuff I’ve been writing about.

Gray Banding

The next chart is mostly for more monitor bragging rights.

Gray Banding Chart

Take a look at it and see if it there is a smooth transition from end to end.  More than likely, it will show some “banding.” That is, the color will “jump” in places, or you may see some vertical lines or stripes.  Only a few very high end monitors can show this chart smoothly.  If you have severe banding, there isn’t much you can do but change monitors.

Color Adjustment

When you look at the gray strip about, also look to see that the color is “gray” from end to end.  If it has a green, blue, or pinkish color tinge to it, then your color balance is a little off.  Go back to the “color temperature” setting of your monitor and change from the 6500K setting to “user settings” and individually adjust the Red, Green, and Blue controls until the gray is uniformly “gray.” This may take a bit of tweaking because you will likely have to readjust the Black and White, too.  If the color fringes are not too severe, you may decide to just leave it at the 6500K setting.

Real World Tests

Look at the color samples below.

Meredith Web Site Color Chart

The black should really be BLACK — not gray — not charcoal — BLACK!  The black square and the background for my entire web site are RGB black — that is, 0 Red, 0 Green, and 0 Blue.  Hold up something REALLY black next to the monitor and see whether the monitor really “looks” black.

Take a look at the white box.  It should look WHITE!

Now take a look at the last one — this is Meredith Hot Pink!!!  (It is sometime referred to by those of an unenlightened persuasion as MAGENTA.  As soon as I’m elected President I’ll clear that up once and for all!)

It should look like HOT PINK — not soft baby pink and not red — it should be a hot sexy pink!

The next chart below is pure RGB.  That is, the Red is maximum Red with zero green and zero blue.  And similarly for the Green and Blue.  All three colors should be really bright and fully saturated.  They should also look uniformly bright.  If one is different, you might try adjusting that individual color on your monitor in the color adjustment section.

RGB Color Chart

The four colors shown below are the famous, (infamous,) CYMK colors that your printer uses — that is Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, and Black, (and why on earth they abbreviated Black with a K is beyond me!!  Ask Elvis, maybe he knows!)

CYMK Color Chart

If these are weird looking, not only are my pictures likely to look crummy, but when you print something your printout is likely to be VERY different than what you saw on the screen!  Sadly, most monitor only do a reasonably job of approximating what your printer is going to print.  You CAN get monitors that do a much better job, but you might want to notify your bank first because you are going to spend some big bucks on the monitor, the calibration, and the ongoing certification services.

To get an idea of how well your printer and monitor match, right click on the chart above, select print and send it to the printer.  It’s best to print it with the highest print quality available on your printer and on coated photo paper.  Hold this up next to your monitor and compare it with the chart above.  This will give you a pretty good idea of how well your monitor and printer match up.

We have several computer, monitor, printer, software combinations that are set up and optimized for accurately printing what we see on the screen.  This is kind of an extreme case and is only really needed if you absolutely must get the color right!  For example, if Coke was your client, you wouldn’t want to send them anything with a purple Coke logo — you’ve got to get THAT red right!

These adjustments should hopefully not only make my pictures look better, but EVERYTHING should look better on your monitor.

Download Graphic Files

One last thing — below is a link that will download all of the graphics on this page to a zip file.  After you download it, unzip it to a CD, and then take the CD with you when you go computer monitor shopping.  Have the store people show you these graphic files on the monitors instead of the “pretty pictures” that don’t tell you much about the various monitors’ quality.  These files will allow you to do a better job of comparing different monitors.  Be sure and read the End User License included in the zip file!!

Download the Meredith Monitor Calibration Graphics

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Love,

Meredith

Last Updated: November 2006


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