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I saw this question from Leon Neal on Twitter a while back:

If a computer screen needs constant calibration and checks, how come the screens on our cameras lack that facility?

I can think of a few potential answers but I'm not sure any of them completely cover it:

  1. Because it's too small to be used for fully accurate work anyway (so near enough is good enough).
  2. Because it's only for previewing, not for editing.
  3. Because it's not usually the last screen we view a photo on: it's normally going to be copied onto a computer so colour management can be left until later.

However if you think of a press photographer at a news event, perhaps shooting JPEG for speed and filing the pictures over the air straight from the camera to a news desk, then none of those reasons really hold water. Surely they have a valid need to check that the camera's colour reproduction is faithful?

So: is it in fact possible to calibrate a camera's LCD? If so, why do so few of us bother? And if not, why not?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Two words: "ambient" and "context".

At the risk of making what sounds like a "No true Scotsman" argument, "real" monitor calibration is always in the context of the ambient lighting conditions. Not only do the pertinent standards (ISO 12647 and related) specify the lighting levels and colour temperatures under which critical colour work should be performed, pro-level calibration devices sample the ambient light as well as what's coming from the monitor. Since both the actual value of the max black and the apparent value of the max white depend on the ambient lighting, you can't really make even the basic global contrast adjustment without regard to ambient. (And if you are calibrating your monitor under one set of lighting conditions and using it under another, you're fooling yourself -- you're not really doing that much better than an educated eyeball calibration would have gotten you.)

In terms of actual calibration, then, you would pretty much need to do a fresh calibration every time you look at the LCD (or, at least, for every shooting session). And you'd have to hold the camera at the same angle under the same lighting every time you used that profile (or get used to using a sealed viewing environment, like a HoodLoupe or a dark cloth/viewing tent). If you have time to be messing about like that, you're probably not shooting breaking news or sports action.

Recent cameras will allow you to do an educated eyeball calibration, at least within the limits of the device. All you need is a reference image on the card. But unless the screen is way out of whack, I'm not convinced of the utility of anything other than the basic brightness setting (which is a contrast setting in the context of ambient lighting). If you can count the number of mireds you are off by on one hand, you won't be able to tell the difference without an external reference anyway, and I don't recall running across any cameras that allow you to manually adjust gamma conversion curves and so on in-camera (although many of the better ones will let you create your own presets externally and import them to the camera).

We have ways of calibrating the capture instead, which is of far greater utility. That includes things like setting a white balance (auto, camera presets, or custom, all with fine tuning for preferred deviations like warmth), including calibration targets (from a simple grey card to more comprehensive targets like a ColorChecker or SpyderCube) in images, global and channel histograms and blinkies (highlight warnings). And if the colours really are that critical (say for advertisement product photography), you're almost always going to be using a "colour to target" tool in post to match a Pantone specification anyway.

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Thanks Stan, a very thorough and considered answer. –  Mark Whitaker Jan 11 '12 at 17:17

All three reasons you give are valid reasons. The hypothetical press photographer you refer to would, as you say, be connected to the internet, leaving the photo editor back at the newsdesk to check and adjust the photos as necessary. The photographer's priority would be to get the crucial image, and any time spent chimping is time not photographing.

I don't think it would be possible to effectively calibrate an LCD screen, even if a tool were available, as the colour gamut would be so small compared to a high-end display that you would never come close to the accurate colour rendition needed.

You can of course change the brightness setting to match the conditions you are shooting in which would give a reasonable impression of how well exposed the photographs are, but even then, the histogram would be a more reliable guide.

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"would, as you say, be tethered to a laptop" - actually I didn't say (or mean) that! I was thinking of a camera that's directly networked via Ethernet or Wi-Fi, like a Canon with a Wireless File Transmitter fitted. The point I was making was that in those circumstances the camera screen is all the photographer sees before the photo leaves them. –  Mark Whitaker Jan 10 '12 at 20:23
1  
Fair enough (edited accordingly) - but my point still stands - it's the editor's job to sort through the photos, not the photographer's. –  Nick Miners Jan 10 '12 at 20:25

The Pentax K-7 and K-5 have the ability to make basic adjustments to the rear LCD screen on a green-magenta and blue-yellow grid. There's no curves or calibration measurements, so you have to eyeball it, but even still it's a nice feature. I adjusted mine by putting a gray card right next to the screen and adjusting until it seemed to best match (a few notches off of "center").

I'm sure if comparable cameras from other brands of this level or above have a similar feature. I find it very useful, as I often do RAW conversion in-camera and it's nice to have the color reasonably accurate.

I think it's a fair point to say that the small, relatively low-quality screen is not the ideal place to work, and accuracy shouldn't be expected, but why not make it as good as possible?

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Certain Panasonic and Olympus cameras also have the ability but also allow contrast to be adjusted. You can get closer to reality but given the viewing conditions change a lot, you still cannot get consistent results. –  Itai Jan 11 '12 at 2:30

That press photographer couldn't care less about perfect exposure or colour balance. Neither the published media nor his editors care one iota about that if the image is so time critical there's no time for post processing at the office, all they care about is having an image, any image at all, to go with the story.

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Please don't add a new answer when all you are doing is commenting on another answer; please use the "add comment" functionality underneath the answer you are discussing / disagreeing with. –  Paul Hadfield Jan 11 '12 at 11:34
    
@jwenting: If this is a comment on another answer, could you indicate which one so I can convert? Thanks. –  jrista Oct 13 '12 at 20:38

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