Adjust Your Monitor

This page will help you adjust your monitor to best view the photographs on the Virtual Light Table. If you’re an AOL user please read this first.

To get the best color rendition for viewing photographs— and especially for processing your own digital images— you’ll need to profile and calibrate your monitor with a colorimeter, a specialized tool for that purpose. My review of Pantone’s huey discusses one inexpensive and easy to use colorimeter. It also offers an introduction to the often mystifying concept of color management, a system that displays colors in a standard and consistent fashion so that prints more closely match what you see on the screen.

There are various software tools that purport to let you “calibrate” your monitor using only your eyes. Although they might be better than nothing, they’re worthless for color management. But if you can’t calibrate your monitor properly you can still improve the way photographs look on your screen.

Photographs viewed on a monitor always look best in a darkened room. You’ll be able to see all the tones and colors in the picture, from bright to dark, with maximum impact. That’s why cinemas are dark. Room lights inevitably make a picture look “washed out,” particularly in the shadows (dark tones). It’s not always practical to darken your room just to look at pictures, but you can compensate at least somewhat for lighting by adjusting your monitor for your actual viewing conditions.

First, adjust the Brightness. On older monitors it’s often a dial marked with a “sun” icon. On newer monitors it’s on a setup menu accessed through buttons. Adjust it up or down until the screen is comfortable for viewing under your current lighting conditions. In particular, this white text should be free from glare. Unless you’re in an windowless office with constant fluorescent lighting, or better yet a darkened room, the correct brightness level may vary throughout the day.

contrast wedge

Then adjust the Contrast. On older monitors it’s often marked with a circle that is half black and half white. On newer monitors it’s on a setup menu accessed through buttons. Adjust it up or down until each of the 17 patches in the above image is distinctly visible. You can’t see the darkest patch (on the left), since it’s the same pure black as the background. The second patch should be just barely visible against the black background. If you can’t set the Contrast so that the two brightest and the two darkest patches are distinct— not all combinations of monitors and video cards have the dynamic range of tones from dark to bright to permit this, especially if the room isn’t darkened— set the Contrast to make the two brightest patches distinct. This process should yield a setting that’s comfortable to view, and that renders the tones of the photographs as accurately as possible.

The best settings for viewing photographs may not be optimal for doing normal work. When your monitor is adjusted for photographs (using this page or just your own judgment), word processing, spreadsheets, or other text may seem too bright or lack contrast. So you may have to re-adjust your monitor every time you switch between text and viewing a Web site that contains full-color photographs (some newer monitors have switchable settings that reduce this problem to the press of a button). If the adjustment you make using this page doesn’t look good or isn’t comfortable, change the settings until they look good to you. I offer this page as a guide and starting point rather than an absolute directive. Home