Techniques

Is Accuracy Important?

by Tim Grey | June 27, 2012

Color calibration devicesI think many photographers can appreciate a loose definition of “accuracy.” To be sure, there are plenty of photographers who aim to render a photograph as a completely accurate representation of what was before the lens. But many (including myself) enjoy adding a subtle embellishment or even a dramatic interpretation of a scene. Photography is an artistic pursuit, after all.

When it comes to the display you use to view your images while organizing and optimizing them on your computer, however, it seems to me accuracy is a little more straightforward. You want the display to be as accurate as possible, so you’re seeing an accurate reflection of the information contained in your digital photos.

In a recent edition of the Ask Tim Grey email newsletter I addressed a reader’s question about adjusting the display on a new computer to match their previous computer. Of course, first there was a bit of basic semantics to address:

First off, it is important to keep in mind that the aim of display calibration and profiling is to ensure the display presents an accurate view of the tonal and color values contained in the digital photo. I realize this is largely a matter of semantics, but I think it is an important thing to keep in mind.

The core issue here is one that many photographers face, though they might not be aware of it. Put simply, most displays are far brighter than they should be from a color management perspective, meaning they don’t accurately reflect what is contained in the image. As I explained in my answer to the reader:

Most LCD displays are significantly brighter than they should be for photo editing, so you’ll typically need to lower the brightness quite a bit during the calibration process. Presumably you had previously reduced the brightness for your prior display, and so reducing the brightness on your new display will get you pretty close. But you want to make your adjustments with accuracy in mind.

To really ensure accuracy, I don’t think you should just use your eyes to adjust the display. There is far too much room for error there, due to the adaptive nature of our vision. Instead, you’ll want to employ the right tool for the job, as I elaborated in my answer:

I highly recommend using a colorimeter to measure the actual luminance of your display, and adjust it accordingly. The ColorEyes Display Pro package you refer to doesn’t include a colorimeter, but hopefully you’re using a third-party device. With a colorimeter you can measure the actual luminance of the display, and then adjust the display itself to achieve a target luminance that is appropriate for your existing lighting conditions.

With an accurate display, you can feel confident that the adjustments you apply will be based on an accurate view of the image, and thus that they are indeed good adjustments. But another reader followed up to suggest that if most digital displays are too bright, shouldn’t we just keep our own displays bright as well? That way, when other people view our images (such as in an online gallery), at least the images would look pretty good for them.

This is a reasonable concern, but in my mind not important enough to intentionally “break” my color-managed workflow. As I explained in my answer:

By having an accurate display, you’re ensuring that all color-managed output will be accurate. That includes not only display on a monitor that is properly calibrated and profiled, but also printing using a printer, ink, and paper combination that has also been properly profiled. Considering the wide range of possible ways an image might be shared, I’m much more interested in having a display that is accurate, and an image that is optimized based on an accurate view, than I am in trying to anticipate and correct for what might be a wide variety of different problems with the displays being used to view my images.

Photography can most certainly be a wonderful creative pursuit. And we can absolutely take creative license with our images in many cases. But sometimes I feel there are firm rules to be followed. Making an effort to ensure the most accurate display possible in the context of a color-managed workflow is one of those rare moments when I actually do consider following the rules to be very important. So, break any rule you like in photography, but keep your display accurate.

See the selection of calibration devices in the NatureScapes store →

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About the Author

Tim Grey is an educator in digital photography and imaging, offering clear guidance on complex subjects through his writing and speaking.

Tim has written more than a dozen books on digital imaging for photographers, has published dozens of video training courses, has had hundreds of articles published in magazines such as Digital Photo Pro and Outdoor Photographer, among others. For more than a dozen years he has been publishing the daily Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter, answering questions from photographers, and produces the related Ask Tim Grey Podcast. He also publishes the monthly Pixology electronic magazine, and publishes video training courses through GreyLearning.com. Tim teaches through workshops, seminars, and appearances at major events around the country and around the world.

Tim can be reached via email at tim@timgrey.com.

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