Thursday, August 25, 2011

X-Rite: The Only Way to Look at Color

As a photographer who has made his reputation on shooting color, I bought a Sony Artisan monitor back in the days of CRT's (cathode ray tubes).  Then, one day, I wanted to see my images BIGGER.  And, as Sony was no longer supporting the software and the display was getting darker and greener, I bought a 30" Apple Cinema Display.  The very first time it booted up, I realized just how far off my Artisan had been.

But how far off was my new, out-of-the-box Cinema Display?  I wanted to know, because there is a phenomenon called “chromatic adaptation” which refers to the eye’s ability to automatically compensate for light sources of different color temperature.  Chromatic adaptation allows our eyes to maintain the appearance of objects under different light sources.  So just because an image on the monitor looks OK doesn't mean that the image is being correctly displayed at some predetermined color temperature, brightness and contrast.  In other words, "chromatic adaptation" is great...but not if you're a photographer.

i1 Pro on the left, and its baby brother, the new i1 Display Pro on the right
Enter a company called X-Rite, whose scientific knowledge about color measurement goes back a long way.  I found out that the solution to all my problems was a device called an i1Pro, and that I could get a package of hardware and software that allowed me to not only calibrate my monitor, but to also calibrate my projector when I do lectures, and to make custom paper profiles using the i1Pro's capability to measure reflected light.  You see, the i1Pro is called a "spectrophotometer."  But when I travel, the large size of the i1Pro becomes an issue. And, it needs to be coupled to a large base (see above) to make light measurements when profiling my projector.  

What I hoped for was that X-Rite would make a smaller, lighter calibration device.  If they could do that, I'd accept not being able to also make profiles for paper.  Such a device is referred to as a "colorimeter."  Apparently, a lot of other photographers wanted the same thing.  So as part of their nearly two-year long project to update their profiling software, which resulted in i1 Profiler (currently version 1.1.1), they decided to make a cute little sibling to the i1Pro.  No, they didn't call it "Mini-Me."  Enter the i1 Display Pro—a fantastic, small, lightweight color calibrator that can be used to calibrate monitors, as well as projectors.  But you can't generate paper profiles with it.

i1 Display Pro resting against the LCD screen to take measurements
What is gratifying to me is that the i1 Display Pro is the first calibration device I've ever used that is virtually "plug and play."  OK, I know.  Photographers work, and X-Rite knows that. So they've built an automatic workflow into i1Profiler that  takes you step by step through a predetermined workflow.  Not that you can't change just about any parameter you can think of, including white point, luminance, contrast ratio, and a new one to me—flare correction !
i1Profiler software's workflow is designed for one thing—holding your hand during calibration 
X-Rite has made a clever diffuser that stays in place went you want to measure your viewing area's ambient light. It can also swivel back and lock in place so that the optics can rest against the surface of your LCD.  They've thoughtfully placed a thin layer of foam on the measuring surface, and included a small but effective counterweight which acts to hold the i1Display Pro in place for measurements.
The diffuser remains in place to measure ambient light, or swings away to calibrate your monitor
It is hard for me to imagine any photographer shooting with a professional grade digital camera and not calibrating their monitor.  Even if a monitor was perfectly pre-calibrated from the factory, it might not be calibrated to the settings you need or want. And, it would be subject to all sorts of variables.  And monitor "profiles"—the pieces of "instructional" software that are soul of the calibration process—are only accurate for a very short period of time.  Depending on how critical you are about color, you might want to recalibrate each and every day!
With the i1Display Pro in place, the i1Profiler software begins making a monitor profile

The engineers at X-Rite have thought of the little things.  The i1 Display Pro is threaded on the bottom so it can be mounted on a tabletop tripod or stand while calibrating your projector. Despite its small size and weight, when coupled with the new i1 Profiler software the i1 Display Pro does its job quickly and efficiently, and in my experience makes very accurate profiles.  For the first time I have a very small, lightweight, fast, accurate calibration device that I can unplug from my computer, throw into an attache case, and bring with me to my next lecture. 

The bottom of the i1Display Pro is threaded so it can be mounted on a stand
If I have one small complaint, it's that I wish X-Rite had figured out a way to make the USB cord fully detachable so it's user-replaceable.  After months of use, it may break, and for now that would mean sending it back to the factory.  But at less than $250 it's the least expensive investment you can make in the peace of mind that comes with knowing the colors you are looking at are as accurate as the current state of the art.  

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