As a Digital Photographer, Do You Really Need to Color Calibrate Your Computer Display? — X-Rite ColorMunki Display — a Mini Review

© 2013 Peter Free


31 October 2013



The short answer is — maybe not, depending on (a) your eye and (b) degree of obsessive compulsiveness


The conventional wisdom among Internet forum posters is that you absolutely must color calibrate your computer display — if you want even a semblance of a chance of having your digital photographs properly printed.  This certitude is so enshrined that questioning it seems an imbecile’s errand.


However, after using X-Rite’s ColorMunki Display for a few weeks, I am leaning toward the blasphemous view — at least for some people.



Not alone in my skepticism


Trey Ratcliff, better known as Stuck in Customs — a superb HDR (high dynamic range) photographer — wrote:



Yes, ColorMunki is great and I’m glad I have it.  But, I’m not sure everyone else in the world needs it to make their lives complete.


If you do a lot of printing and home and you want to make sure everything is 100% accurate, then this is probably a very good idea. I don’t print at home, so this is not a concern for me.


There is one other very important consideration.  The people that are looking at my photos on their monitors are totally uncalibrated!  And that is over 99%! That means that I went through all this trouble for people that will be seeing the results with janky colors.


But, again, this doesn’t bother me because I do indeed believe that people’s brains auto-calibrate the colors.


© 2011 Trey Ratcliff, ColorMunki Review, Stuck in (03 January 2013) (paragraph split)



Enter, the ColorMunki Display mini review


X-Rite’s ColorMunki Display is a computer display and projector color calibration gizmo.  It is designed to hang from the top of your computer display screen, during calibration, with its optical lens flat against the surface.


This device does not calibrate printers.  To harmonize your printer with your display, you will need one of X-Rite’s more expensive systems.  Those calibrate both display and printer, by reading colors on the printer’s output.


ColorMunki Display appears to be aimed at people who want to feel more confident that their display looks fairly close to what a professional printing service’s might.  If the professional service’s display is properly calibrated to its printer — which, of course, is what you are paying them for — the prints they make for you should look fairly close to the digital file that you sent them.



How ColorMunki Display works


ColorMunki runs your computer display through a series of white, gray, and colored screens, while the optical device’s readouts interact with the display’s own software to calibrate what you see.


With a couple of exceptions, X-Rite has done a brilliant job of making this process child’ splay.  For example, one of the steps even shows an outline of the ColorMunki device on the screen that you are attempting to calibrate, so that you know where to place it.  Notice, however, that you can move the entire placement box anywhere you want on your display, which somewhat defeats the implied specificity of the process.



For more detail on the calibration process itself — see these outstanding step-by-step reviews


Damien Symonds, X-Rite ColorMunki Display calibration tutorial, (2013)


Keith Cooper, ColorMunki Display review, Northlight Images (2013)


A couple of minor initial negatives


The pamphlet of written instructions that comes with the ColorMunki’s small packaging box is nearly useless.  The print is foolishly tiny and the pamphlet says almost nothing that the first-timer is going to want to know, right away.


Second, there is no prominently displayed warning (where a first-timer is likely to see it) in the instruction manual that indicates that you must install the software, before you plug the device’s USB cord into your computer.  If you plug first, the software will not operate properly.


Fortunately, you can uninstall the program and reboot your computer to start over.



Mild confusion regarding the vital “Preferences” setting


If ColorMunki is going to work correctly, you have to enter the correct options on its Preferences setup step.  Preferences appears under the File tab on the top left of ColorMunki’s onscreen page.


I managed to get one of the Preference settings wrong by leaving ColorMunki on its default settings, even though it apparently recognized that my display was a ViewSonic VP2365-LED.  The gizmo’s default CCFL preference, turned out to be the wrong one — as I found out after multiple attempts to tone down the warmness of multiple subsequent calibrations.




This warm cast was significant — whether seen under ambient light ranging from tungsten, to fluorescent, and through morning-to-dusk daylight.  It looked as if someone had stacked a couple of warming filters on the camera lens.


The white LED setting (in the Preferences file) performed noticeably better.


This lack of sophistication points to an obvious ColorMunki shortcoming.  The software appears to recognize the name of your display, but it apparently has no idea which defaults it should use to calibrate it.


That shortcoming is the philosophical opposite, for example, of DxO Optics Pro’s RAW processing software, which automatically identifies what camera and lens you are using and downloads body and lens software modules to get the best out of both.



Two confusing calibration steps


Two points in the calibration process are potentially confusing.  These are the only two that ask the user to do or decide something:



One is brightness calibration, which gives you a choice between ColorMunki’s default setting or having ColorMunki measure the ambient light near your display and calibrate it from there.


The second hitch is whether to choose “D50, D55, D65 or Native” for the white point setting.


My display lacks a brightness control, so I click on the ColorMunki’s Next button and the colorimeter calibrates brightness automatically.


White balance is slightly more complex. ColorMunki’s software does not tell the user what the Preferences menu’s “D” numbers and “Native” mean.  Fortunately, the menu says that D65 is recommended, so the incurious can confidently proceed with that setting.


Once you look on the Internet, you will recognize that the D numbers do not appear to mean a whole lot.  From my perspective, which could be wrong, they are more or less arbitrary color temperature points that someone, somewhere thought would be a good representation of how one might harmonize:



(a) the display’s colors




(b) those from a reflected light print (or computer projection) made from that display’s output,


(c) as seen under three kinds of commonly used ambient viewing light.


Most commentators seem to think that D50 and D55 are warmer than D65.


The Native setting lets your display’s software, rather than ColorMunki’s, select the white point.  This setting was always cooler, meaning a higher Kelvin temperature (on both my displays), than any of ColorMunki’s D settings.


Note that there is no way to nuance the white point to one’s own estimate of appropriate color temperature.  It is D50, D55, D65, Native and no more.



“But Pete, can you really pick whatever you want and still call it a calibration?”


Apparently so.


Days after I calibrated my display, I came across a piece of advice from an apparently highly knowledgeable poster on The Luminous Landscape’s Discussion Forum.


You can read what he said on this subject, here:


Shewhorn, Reply #3 — Need help with ColorMunki Preferences on iMAC 27" CLUELESS HELP!, Luminous Landscape Discussion Forum (21 October 2011)


The gist of shewhorn’s October 2011 advice — provided to someone confused about display calibration — was that:


(1) There is no such thing as a correct color temperature setting across the board.


(2) Colorimeters vary from one to another, even in reading identical spots on the display.


(3) Luminance measurements also vary, depending on the colorimeter and shewhorn refered readers to Dry Creek Photo’s review of these at:


(4) The intensity and quality of ambient light also matters:



So, in addition to colorimeters being all over the place, you also have your illuminant to consider.


If you proof with a 3500ºK bulb like John Paul Caponigro likes to do... D65 is most likely going to be way too cool.


If your illuminant is D50 and you're looking at a traditional RA-4 print then D65 is what you want but the best way to get there is to use a known print and then adjust the white point until your screen matches paper white (same goes for luminance).


Keep in mind that you might have an optimal luminance for proofing which might give you a headache when editing.


The best settings for white point and luminance are the settings that best match the conditions in your print viewing booth.


© 2011 shewhorn, Reply #3 — Need help with ColorMunki Preferences on iMAC 27" CLUELESS HELP!, Luminous Landscape Discussion Forum (21 October 2011) (paragraph split)


(5) Last, even if display settings are “correct” for your print viewing conditions — Photoshop needs to know how the printer is calibrated, before it can generate a display view that will match the printer’s output.  In other words, to do that, you will need a device that can read both your display and your printer’s output.



Other ColorMunki shortcomings — sometimes annoying


The File and Help menus are so thin as to be near useless.  “Preferences” is tucked under the File tab, when it more logically should pop up automatically during the first step of the calibration process.  This means that the unwary may forget to see whether its crucially necessary settings are appropriate for the display that they are calibrating.


Overall, the software is so automatic that you have virtually no control over anything.


Annoyingly, one cannot recover previous ColorMunki-generated color profiles via its X-Rite software.  That is true, even if you take the time to give the profile a name other than ColorMunki’s default name for it.


Nor does the software give you the option of reverting back to the profile from which you just changed.


This obtuseness is laughable because ColorMunki’s last step shows a before and after picture comparing the old and new profiles.  What is the point of having a comparison, if the user cannot revert back to the earlier setting?


To get around this flaw, you have to go into your computer’s operating system, find the older profile, and assign it to the display you want it to control.



Aside — How to recover previous color ColorMunki profiles on a Windows 7 computer


Reverting to an earlier ColorMunki profile on Windows 7 — namely to one of the calibration profiles that you had individually named, so as to distinguish from ColorMunki’s default name for it — means that you will have to:


go to the Windows Start button,

click on Control Panel,

find Color Management and click on that,

select Devices — to confirm that the new profile (meaning the one that you do not want) is indeed the color profile that has been assigned to the display in question as a default,

go to the All Profiles tab,

find the older profile that you want to revert to,

highlight it and click Add,

return to the Advanced tab,

ensure that the box named “Use windows display calibration” is checked,

return to Devices and make sure that the older profile has now become the default profile —

and — if it is not —

highlight it and click the Set as Default Profile button.


Even after doing all this, I found that my Sony laptop’s display would retain neither new nor old ColorMunki calibrations.  It always reverted back to the manufacturer’s settings after computer shutdown or after moving to the ViewSonic monitor and coming back.



Then there is ColorMunki’s irritating inability to remember which display it has calibrated


With my sample of ColorMunki, whenever I shifted from one display to another — by using the Windows 7 control panel to select among the displays hooked to the same computer — and even though the previously calibrated display was still hooked up, ColorMunki forgot that it had already calibrated that display.


I get a message that the returned-to display has never been calibrated.  This is the case, even with the Sony laptop’s own built-in display screen.



Eye alone — maybe not as bad as it’s cracked up to be


In practice — if you accept that (a) virtually no one is going to be looking at a display that is calibrated like yours or (b) looking at prints in the same ambient light that you do — you can see that a lot of this color calibration talk is overhyped nonsense.


When I started in digital, I calibrated my displays by eye alone — having come significant amounts of film darkroom color work.


Getting the computer displays and equally low end printers to harmonize (within a very broad ballpark) required some experimentation.  But the results were usually adequate.  I did this for five different monitors over the years, four printers, as well as for all the canvas print jobs that I sent to Canvas Press.


As Trey Ratcliff indicated, the human eye appears to adjust “off” colors into reasonable approximations of what they should be.


I have also noticed that most folks are not too picky about color — otherwise how to explain the public’s non-acrimonious acceptance of the obvious color differences among Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony’s unmanipulated digital renditions?


Have you noticed how digital camera reviewers claim that some digital sensors are color accurate, even though test chart results from these allegedly equally color accurate cameras look obviously different, when they are placed side by side?



ColorMunki’s main benefit to me


Perhaps, convenience.


It is easier to have ColorMunki fiddle with the display’s settings than doing it oneself.  This is certainly true on my relatively primitive 23 inch ViewSonic VP2365-LED.


On the other hand, given that I could easily settle for the ViewSonic’s choice of white point setting, as opposed to ColorMunki’s, I am not certain that the convenience factor really counts.


One other thing to keep in mind is that ColorMunki Display is slow in calibrating.  The process seems to take at least 6 minutes.


If you calibrate before each processing session, so as to set the display up for whatever ambient light you are working under — as, for example, you might in a room that has an exterior window that is exposed to changing daylight — you are going to be passing a lot of time with ColorMunki.


Recall that ColorMunki calibration takes up your entire display screen.  You cannot amuse yourself by doing something else with the same computer, unless you have it rigged to run two applications divided between two displays.



The bottom line on ColorMunki? — Just okay


I am not as enthusiastic about ColorMunki Display as other reviewers.  I suspect that X-Rite’s higher end devices might be more rewarding to use, if only because you can calibrate both display and printer.


I have been able to wing it successfully for years, without a colorimeter.  Even with ColorMunki Display, I am not convinced that I am getting superior or more consistent results.  Shewhorn’s comments at Luminous Landscape reinforce my pragmatically based skepticism.


The best that I can say in ColorMunki’s favor is that the device may be useful in keeping displays within an approximated output band, slightly more time-efficiently than I can do it myself.


Nevertheless, I still scrutize ColorMunki’s results by eye, before I am willing to commit to them.  Isn’t that backwards — given the underlying intent of electronic color profiling?


In sum, if you are not confident in your eye for color, ColorMunki might be valuable.  But for people who are, and who do not mind fiddling with their displays, I am not so sure.


Perhaps, this is one of Modernity’s not infrequent examples of technology aimed at solving problems that do not exist on the wide scale that manufacturers would have us believe.


Blasphemy, I know.