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Photo viewing on a computer monitor

Monday, June 20, 2011
Digital photography has changed almost everything about a photograph. Not only are photographers able to process a photo on a computer but they are able to instantly view the image on the camera monitor. Photography is everywhere if you have a some sort of digital device. Without making any judgments about whether this is a good thing or not, some understanding of viewing photographs on a digital device is essential to a modern day photography.

The most important problem for photographers is something called the viewing environment. When a photographer displays a print, they have determined what that print is going to look like and it is a hard copy which will not change. When you view a photo on a computer the interpretation of that image is device dependent. The photographer has no control over how the image is viewed.

There is an international calibration standard called an ICC profile. Unfortunately most devices do not follow this standard in any way. When you go to buy a computer monitor all of the settings on that monitor are meant to dazzle with brightness, contrast and over saturation. Most monitors out of the box are set too bright, not just computer monitors but hand held devices and even the camera monitor you proof the photo on.

A monitor is like putting on a different pair of glasses. Your eyes see the world normally but if you put on glasses with a blue tint then everything turns a little blue. It is a filter. The computer monitor is the same way. They have settings. If it is set too blue then all of the photographs you look at will have a blue color cast. Your eyes adjust to this color cast with something called chromatic adaptation. If you go and print that photo (which observes ICC standards to interpret the information) the colors and tones will all look different from the monitor interpretation. What is a photographer to do?

One person looks at your portfolio and their monitor is set too bright so all of your highlights have no detail. The contrast is off, the colors are flat and the black point looks like a quarter tone. The file tells the computer to do one thing but the monitor settings do another thing.

Here are a few tests to see how well your monitor interprets tone.

Your monitor should see all of the tones on the above chart evenly. This is not very hard for most monitors because there are huge tonal jumps between the squares. If you don't see a difference between all of the squares (especially the 0-13 and 242 to 255) then your monitor is way off ICC standards.

The chart below shows one, two and three tone differences starting at RGB 245. The first square on the top left is a one tone difference between RGB 245 and 246. The next square on the right is a two tone difference and the last is a three tone difference. My monitor shows the difference between RGB 245 and 246 but by the RGB 248 to 249 box there is no perceptible change in tone. My monitor barely shows a difference on the bottom right square of RGB 248 to 251. This is the highlight portion of your monitor.

To further test the sensitivity of your monitors tonal interpretation visit this excellent graphic at Dry Creek.

The same types of test need to be evident on the monitors black point. The link below is excellent at determining your monitor black point settings. My monitor starts to see a tonal change at RGB 6. Monitor Black point/Shadow test

The viewing environment for photography should be very important to a photographer. Someone who works in graphics must learn how to calibrate monitors or at least understand when a device is showing the wrong information. They cannot control how other people view the photographs and new hand held devices compound this problem, but the original file should be correct. That is all we can really control.

Professional photographers have to understand the points in this photography tutorial. It leads directly to proper post processing techniques. When post processing an image for media devices a good standard is:

  1. black point to at least RGB 8 
  2. white point to RGB 248.

If you have a printer then you need to test it for the points where it stops showing detail in the black and white areas. My current printer shows no detail before RGB 12 and after RGB 242. All printers are different depending on quality. They will have different white and black points. They follow ICC standards, so a print is more reliable to judge what a digital photograph actually represents, but the printer may also have improper mechanics or even settings. Less likely than having a bad monitor but you should be aware of the possibility. That is why we proof our images with the printers ICC profile in Photoshop.

All digital monitors and printers interpret the information of a digital photography file. If the mechanics or settings are wrong for that device then the glasses (interpretation) need to be changed so it can see at 20/20 vision again, or international ICC standards.

We want our photos to be all they can be. I really dislike looking at photographs on a digital monitor. I just like the direct connection to the art a printed photo gives me. It feels more like real photography. It is a tactile experience that interacts with your whole body.


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