How Can the Datacolor SpyderX Colorimeter Make Your Images Better?

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Monitors are flawed. They display limited color space, usually sRGB (although newer ones can display a wider color gamut), they age and change over time, and different backlight technologies will affect how the images are displayed. Let us not forget that the viewing conditions make a big difference in how we perceive, and need to be considered. For text, this isn't important, but for the visual media, this can make a huge difference. I remember the analog days of trying to calibrate the field monitor by eye, using the various test patterns and manual brightness, contrast, hue, and tint controls. It was maddening. Post houses had all sorts of test equipment and controlled environments, as well as obscenely expensive monitors that I could never get near. Things have improved today because high-quality monitors are more affordable, but higher resolution and increased color space make using a properly calibrated monitor necessary to get the most out of your images.

A Solution

The datacolor SpyderX is the first lens-based color engine in the Spyder line. It can also measure ambient room light, and uses software to evaluate your monitor and create a color profile to compensate for flaws or weaknesses in your monitor's display capabilities. It won't fix a bad monitor, but it will let you know what color space your monitor can display, and you can use it to calibrate all the monitors you work with so your images will be consistent.

Why Bother to Calibrate?

We work in a visual craft and we rely so much on monitors these days—from acquisition in the field, to our post work, and then to display. In the field during production, there is only so far I can go to make sure my on-camera monitor is consistent, so I accept those limitations. And I can't go to the computer or monitor of everyone who is going to view my productions and make sure their monitor is set up correctly, even though I've tried (my family has banned me from touching the remote when visiting because I'm always tweaking their TVs). However, in post, when working on the final color correction and contrast of my images, this is the last chance I have to make sure the images look the way I want them to look. This is where a properly calibrated monitor can make the difference in your images.

Whether you are just starting out, or have been doing this for a while, at some point you are probably going to start playing your videos on a variety of screens, going back and forth between tweaking the monitors and tweaking the color and contrast of your image, trying to make it look right on every screen you can access. This is exhausting and counterproductive. I've gotten accustomed to my monitor setup, so I have a good idea of what the images will look like, but I've never calibrated them before, even though, like many of you, I know better. So, when the opportunity came to work with the New SpyderX, I jumped at the chance.

Working with the SpyderX

Working with the SpyderX is ridiculously easy. I tested the SpyderX Elite, which is more full-featured than the SpyderX Pro (see chart below).

Feature SpyderX Pro SpyderX Elite Feature Description
SpyderX Device Colorimeter with NEW lens-based color engine for fast and accurate calibration
Single Click & Wizard Calibration Capability Fast & Easy Calibration Modes
Multiple Monitor Support Supports Calibration of Multiple Displays
Ambient Light Monitoring & Profile Switching Can Adjust for Room Light Changes
Before and After Calibration Review Shows before & after comparison of display calibration
Display Mapping & Analysis Tools Basic Advanced Offers tools to check the quality of your display
Calibration Setting Choices 12 Unlimited Calibration options (combinations of gamma, white point and brightness)
Expert Console Calibration   All-in-one calibration control panel
Video & Cinema Calibration Targets   Calibration Targets for Motion Work
Soft Proof of Print Results   Soft proofing with print output preview
Projector Calibration   Calibrates digital projectors
Display Matching in Studio   Defines a studio standard for all displays to be matched (StudioMatch)
Visual Fine Tuning for Side-by-Side Display Match   Precisely tune side-by-side displays

To get started, I installed the software, plugged in the SpyderX, and followed the instructions. It really is that simple, no messing around with knobs, or menu settings, except for setting the initial brightness. That was the only "difficult" part in the whole process—adjusting the brightness on my Mac. I'm using a 27-inch iMac, from 2013, running Mojave. Outside of opening the system preferences and adjusting the brightness slider, the whole calibration took less than 90 seconds. I timed it. That was it, and the software created an ICC profile and installed it in the Mac's system and selected it. I was all set.

The Dialog boxes are very helpful, and you can make selections for a variety of variables, including your monitor's gamma, white point, and brightness. I've calibrated my monitor a few times, mostly with the lights on, so the software is starting with a brightness of 200, although the default recommended is 120.

When calibrating, it is important to have consistent ambient light. I don't like working in the dark, but I've created a calibration for that scenario, as well. The next step is to measure the ambient light in the workspace.

Then make sure you don't have any questions about where to place the sensor (see below).

After the Calibration

The software presents you with a display screen that allows you to toggle from your system's default display settings to the calibration you just made. It shows a variety of images and you can see the difference between the two calibration settings clearly. You can also select your own image to use to compare.

I calibrated my iMac and a Dell Laptop—Software is available for Mac and Windows—and, in general, I found the difference to be that my calibrated monitor was a little warmer and had more saturation. It takes a little while to get used to the way the new settings make your monitor look. Don't worry, though, you will get used to it quickly.

Uncalibrated
Uncalibrated
Calibrated
Calibrated

After just a short time with a properly calibrated monitor, I can see a difference in my images.

Going Deeper

I now have a calibrated monitor but, what if you have more than one monitor with which to work? Obviously, you can calibrate those independently of each other. But why stop there? The Elite software offers you the opportunity to create a standard target from your main monitor and match all your monitors to that one (or as close as they will come.) When running the software, I select Studio Match, and I can create a target file that I bring to my other computers and use that to match the calibrations. Sadly, the Pro version of the software doesn't allow for this great functionality.

Display Analysis
Display Analysis

After running the tests, you can get a readout of your monitor's performance.

My monitor displays 100% of sRGB, 81% of P3, and 77% of AdobeRGB
My monitor displays 100% of sRGB, 81% of P3, and 77% of AdobeRGB.
Not so consistent across the screen
Not so consistent across the screen
Not so bad for a 5+ year old monitor
Not so bad for a 5+ year-old monitor

Non-Computer Based Monitors

So, the SpyderX and the software are primarily used for monitors connected to a computer, but what if I have a 4K TV kicking around and I want to calibrate that? Generally, for calibrating my TV monitor, I find an image from a film I know well, pause it, and tweak the image until it looks right. Not scientific, but it works—most of the time. Having an opportunity to do a real calibration on that monitor was too good to pass up. But the question is, how to do that? If you can drive your monitor from your computer and the sensor can reach your monitor, then, yes, you can calibrate an external TV monitor. However, there are some caveats. The SpyderX is supposed to be connected directly to your computer via USB and not through a hub or extension cable. Also, the calibration will only be accurate when playing onto your monitor from your computer. For me, this meant both a 30' long HDMI cable and a 32' long Active USB cable, because I've only got one TV in my house and it's in a different room. Still, it worked with no perceivable problem. I'm able to watch content on my 65" 4K monitor when played through my computer, which is great for seeing how my color corrections are playing with a real calibration. I haven't tested the screen uniformity yet, but if I can hang onto the SpyderX for a few more days, I will be able to run all those tests.

Conclusion

Whether you are working on stills, or with motion images (video) currently, being your own post house working without a calibrated monitor is like playing pin the tail on the donkey with your images. Sure, you can get close, but you need to be able to work with a calibrated monitor to be sure your images look their best. Do you have any experience with calibrating monitors that you'd like to share? Please comment below.

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