Calibrating your monitor means making sure it displays colors correctly—that content other people have created looks accurate on your screen, and vice versa. If you’re working on documents or images for a wider audience, or simply just want things to look good, you want that kind of accuracy.
Color calibration is also important for making sure anything on your screen looks its best, from games to movies. It ensures that light areas aren’t too blown out, that details aren’t lost in dark areas, and that color tones look natural. The process can improve your viewing experience even if you’re not a creative professional.
You should also bear in mind that laptop screens are configured and calibrated at the factory, and no adjustments are necessary (or indeed possible, apart from brightness). These calibration steps only apply if you’ve got a separate monitor hooked up to your Windows or Mac computer.
Getting started with color calibration
Before you dig in, you’ll need a working knowledge of your monitor’s settings and controls, so checking the documentation that came with it or running a quick web search might help here. You can also just play around with the on-screen controls until you know what’s what. You’ll be adjusting settings such as brightness, contrast, and color temperature.
Every monitor will be different in terms of what settings are available and how you access them, but the calibration tools we’re covering here will take you through the adjustment process—you don’t need to guess when it comes to which levels are right. Just make sure your monitor is set to its native resolution (the highest resolution it supports) for best results.
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A warning: don’t touch anything until you make sure the ambient lighting in the room where you’re using the monitor is as close to its natural state as possible. If you’ll usually have a light on, turn it on; if the room is most often bathed in bright sunlight, make sure the curtains are open. This will make a difference to how whites, blacks, and colors show up on screen and how they look to your eye.
Windows color calibration tools
To load up the monitor calibration tool that’s built into Windows, open the Settings panel from the Start menu, then search for “calibrate display color” in the search box in the top left corner. Click on the first result that appears, and you should see a new screen that promises to help you calibrate your monitor for you. Click Next to continue.
The tool will take you through adjustments for gamma, brightness, contrast, and color balance, showing you how a series of sample images should ideally look on screen, and then guiding you through the process of adjusting your monitor’s settings accordingly. A final tweak ensures that text is as readable as possible on screen.
macOS color calibration tools
Over on macOS, you can launch the built-in monitor calibration tool by opening the Apple menu, then choosing System Settings > Displays. Click the dropdown menu next to Color profile (it will be displaying the profile your monitor is currently using), then choose Customize followed by the plus icon to find the display calibrator.
Follow the instructions on screen—you’ll be shown images that help you correctly set the brightness, contrast, and color of the display, and each step will be explained in detail. When you’ve finished the process, you can save the calibration settings as a new color profile, which you can select for the monitor you’re using.
Online color calibration tools
There are a few free online tools that can help you in your quest to get the perfectly calibrated monitor. They work in a similar way to the functionality built into Windows and macOS, using specifically created images and telling you how they should look on the screen to give you an idea of the levels that your monitor settings should be set at.
One example is Photo Friday, which displays a variety of grayscale tones on screen. In some parts of the configuration image, the difference between the tones is very small—your monitor should be configured so you can see these slight differences and they aren’t lost due to incorrect contrast settings.
Online Monitor Test is more comprehensive, with both color and grayscale tests so you can ensure the color temperature and color balance are accurately set. In each case, your monitor should be set up so you can distinguish the smallest gradations in color (scroll down the page to hide the menu overlay from view).
You can also find a detailed set of calibration tools over at RTINGS.com, one of the best monitor review sites on the web. The site offers downloadable patterns that you can use to get the picture mode, brightness, contrast, sharpness, and color temperature of your monitor set appropriately. There’s also some useful information on the technical aspects of calibration and the tools that the professionals use.
Professional color calibration tools
Speaking of professionals, if you’re employed in a field such as graphic design or photography, you’ll want a dedicated hardware tool called a colorimeter (or color calibrator). As they can cost hundreds of dollars, they’re not really for the casual user, but it’s worth mentioning them in the context of calibration.
Colorimeters are similar to digital cameras, only they’re built for the specific purpose of monitor calibration. They give you a super-precise reading of the colors your monitor is displaying, and can then produce what’s known as an ICC (International Color Consortium) profile—this essentially tells the software on your computer how to display colors correctly, given your monitor settings and work environment.
One of the most popular colorimeters is the Datacolor Spyder X Pro, which costs $150. It sits on the screen like a webcam in reverse, measuring color output, and it’s particularly geared toward photographers. If you spend a lot of time taking and editing photos, even just at a hobbyist level, you might consider it a worthwhile investment. For graphic designers, meanwhile, something like the $250 Wacom Color Manager is a common pick.
As with the tools we looked at above, the software bundled with these devices takes you through the steps of displaying and measuring sample images, then adjusting the monitor settings accordingly. For best results, you should check color calibration every few weeks to account for the small changes in the output of monitors as they age.