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Display Calibration 201: The Science Behind Tuning Your Monitor

Calibrate Your Monitor For A Better Picture

Since we spread the calibration steps out among all the science, let’s sum up with a quick walk-through.

  1. Warm up your monitor for at least 30 minutes before taking any measurements. You want to be sure the backlight is completely stable.
  2. Choose a picture mode that provides a good starting point for levels, gamma, grayscale, and color, giving you all of the adjustments you need.
  3. Set levels with PLUGE and step patterns, taking care not to clip at the darkest and lightest extremes of the brightness scale. You may want to use your meter to determine a maximum light level. We always use 200 cd/m2.
  4. Set your gamma control to 2.2, if you have one. And set the color temp to user or custom to unlock the RGB sliders.
  5. Verify the gamma is close to or right on 2.2. If not, change the preset until it is.
  6. Using an 80-percent white window pattern, adjust the RGB sliders using your meter and software. We like bulls-eye and bar charts but you can use whatever method you prefer to set your white point to 6500K or D65.
  7. Measure your color gamut using window patterns. Record the CIE coordinates so you can create an ICC profile. Some software packages will do this for you. If you have a monitor with selectable color gamuts, choose the one that best suits your purpose. sRGB/Rec. 709 is perfect for games, movies, and general computing. Adobe RGB 1998 is the choice for photo editing as long as your camera records the same gamut.
  8. Verify your results with a final measurement run. Then, you’re done!

The main advantage to this method compared to a software look-up table is consistency. With LUTs, it can be very easy to chase one’s tail trying to dial in color, especially when you throw in the additional variable of ICC profiles. Every application does things a little differently, and a subtle change in color on your monitor might mean big changes later when you go to print. When your display is set up correctly using its own controls, there is no need for a LUT, and you can use a single ICC profile that is either on or off depending on the application. When we create graphics for reviews, for example, we don’t use a profile, since everything is created for the Web.

If you're trying to figure out which monitor to buy, creating your own benchmarks is easy if you just follow our steps. Then you know exactly what areas of performance are weak or strong. Just as we cover brightness, gamma, grayscale, and color, you too can test these parameters to see what display is right for you.

If this article has raised questions, be assured that there is more help on the way. Our next focus will be on a subset of the CalMAN package we use here at Tom’s called CalPC. SpectraCal has several bundles with value-priced meters and a client module that generates patterns for around $300. And if you already have a meter, you can buy their software for $149 online.

We hope you now have a better understanding of the principles behind monitor calibration and how the built-in controls can be used to make your display better. By following the same procedures we use in our reviews, anyone with the basic tools at their disposal can achieve the same results we do.

Christian Eberle is a Contributing Editor for Tom's Hardware US. He's a veteran reviewer of A/V equipment, specializing in monitors.