No amount of tweaking will help your final printed photo if your monitor is not calibrated accurately. How else will you know how much contrast or brightness to add to your carefully optimized image, or how will you know when your colors are right? If the monitor is off, there is no way to predict what the image will look like when it is printed.
Fortunately, the calibration process is simple and can be done with free or relatively inexpensive tools. If you are using Adobe Photoshop Elements?or if you are using a Mac with OS X, you already have what you need. Elements includes with the Adobe Gamma utility, and OS X has its own Display Calibrator Assistant found in the Utilities folder. Both walk you step by step through the processing of calibrating your monitor. They also produce a color profile that you can apply to your printer to make sure the on-screen and on-paper colors match.
Windows operating systems and other common photo-management programs such as Microsoft's Digital Image Suite 9 and Jasc Paint Shop Pro don't come with a calibration utility. However, Jasc offers a useful on-line calibration tutorial, which can be found here. For another good on-line resource go here. A couple of good third-party "visual-reference" calibration tools are: Powerstrip ($29.95) and Quickgamma (free).
While all of these tools will get the job done, if you want to be extremely precise, it pays to spend a few hundred dollars for a sophisticated calibration device that attaches to your monitor and physically measures the colors and brightness. These products produce a color profile that can be applied to compatible desktop printers for even more consistent results.
Two popular products that include a colorimeter and profiling software:
MonacoOPTIX creates monitor profiles for both the Mac and Windows operating systems, LCD or CRTs, for around $300. (Colorimeter and monitor shown below)
Eye-One Display for both Mac and Windows, LCD or CRTs. $249.
Before you proceed with any calibration, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Set your operating system display preferences to the maximum number of colors, usually millions.
If you are using a CRT monitor let it warm up for at least 30 minutes before performing the calibration.
Avoid calibrating in a brightly lit room.
Set your desktop background to a neutral/non-distracting color, preferably mid-tone gray.
When adjusting the monitor to the target it helps to squint your eyes and lean back at distance from the screen.
Calibrate your monitor regularly, two or three times a month. Settings inadvertently change, and monitors dim with time.
Mikkel Aaland is the author of Shooting Digital: Pro Tips for Taking Great Pictures with Your Digital Camera.