Colour is a tricky concept to pin down. Try describing a colour in words… there are no other adjectives that apply except those that are other colours and these all mean different things to different people. And exactly what colour is an object, given what we’re seeing are the reflected wavelengths from a given part of the visible spectrum. All the other wavelengths are being absorbed so, technically speaking, the colour of an object as we perceive it, is actually the colour it isn’t.
So how do we define a description of a colour… precisely so everybody knows what we’re talking about and, more importantly, it can be accurately reproduced by anybody, anywhere using any medium? It’s a challenge that has been occupying both artists and scientists since the end of the 17th century when the first ‘dictionary’ of colours was published, but with purely subjective descriptions. More recently in the mid-1960s, the American company Pantone sought to standardise colour reproduction via its charts of colour swatches which quantified tints with specific values mixed from 14 base pigments (including black). PMS (Pantone Matching System) colours are therefore standardised to the extent that matching a swatch should guarantee accurate reproduction. Essentially what Pantone created was its own colour ‘space’ with a numbering system, and the same principle is behind the colour models that photographers have to work with in the digital era, such as RGB and CYMK (but there are others). Here the colours are mathematically mapped to establish precise values for standardised interpretation and reproduction across machines and media. The full range of reproducible colours within a colour model is the gamut (which refers to both the saturation and hue), but it will be reduced to varying degrees by a device or process. Matters are further complicated for digital photographers because devices such as cameras and computer monitors use the RGB model – i.e. additive colour mixing – while any printing process uses the CMYK model – i.e. subtractive colour mixing.
Consequently, colours in the RGB space are said to be out of gamut in the CMYK space… in other words, not reproducible, which means they have to be converted into values which will be reproducible (and which, in fact, can only be approximate no matter how clever the algorithm).
Not surprisingly then, managing digital colour from capture to printing is critical if you want to achieve predictable results, and it all starts post-camera with calibrating your monitor screen (or screens, which is often the case these days). No matter how advanced the manufacturing process, no two display panels coming off a production line have exactly the same accuracy of reproduction… they’ll be close, but never identical. The higher-end monitors designed for designers and photographers are generally calibrated before being packed into their shipping cartons, but even despite this, things can change by the time such a monitor lands on your desk.
Datacolor is a specialist in monitor calibration and its Spyder series of colorimeters is in wide use with photographers, both at the enthusiast level and professionals. In fact, Datacolor specifically caters for both categories with its Pro and Elite versions of the Spyder and, before you ask, it’s the opposite of what you might suppose… the Elite is the professional option. SpyderX follows on from the Spyder5 model (which was introduced in early 2015) and the change of designation is meant to signal the introduction of a completely new generation of device.
On the outside, SpyderX looks pretty similar to its predecessor except it now has smoother lines and a gloss white casing rather than matte black, but turn it over and you’ll see what the fuss is about. Instead of a honeycomb-type grille over the measuring sensors, there’s a lens which helps to better-focus the light from the screen onto the sensors. This contributes to a number of performance enhancements, most notably the speed of calibration which Datacolor claims takes less than two minutes and is well under half the time typically taken by the Spyder5. There are also some improvements to calibration accuracy thanks to the use of new colour-matching sensors including, logically, better low-light sensitivity.
The significant reduction in the calibration time is important because it means monitor calibration simply becomes a regular routine that’s quickly and easily performed, perhaps even before every work session. You’re simply less inclined to put it off because it’s delaying you from getting started. Of course, you don’t have to calibrate a monitor this frequently – around once a month is usually considered sufficient – but since you can with the SpyderX because it’s all over in a flash, you probably will. Our test run on a new-out-of-the-box BenQ SW271 27-inch monitor which has a 10-bit 4K IPS panel with 99 percent Adobe RGB coverage took just one-and-a-half minutes.
As with the Spyder5, the software comes as a download which requires the unit’s serial number printed inside the SpyderX’s box to activate, but it can subsequently be run on multiple machines.
The key differences between the Pro and Elite models are primarily all software-based, but the latter unit has a tripod-mounting socket so it can be used for calibrating front projection systems. Both models have an integrated ambient light sensor which continually measures the ambient room light and, if there are significant changes to brightness or colour temperature, the software will then either warn that a recalibration is necessary or automatically switch to customised profiles based on the room lighting (and up to three of these can be created).
As before, the colorimeter itself is dangled down the front of the monitor so it sits on the screen’s surface and is positioned as directed by the software. A counterweight hung over the back of the monitor keeps it in place and different screen sizes are accommodated by sliding it along the device’s USB cable to the designed length. When the SpyderX isn’t in use on-screen, the counterweight serves as a dust cap for the lens (of course, the device will need to stay connected for monitoring the ambient lighting).
Calibration is performed as the software sets optimum brightness and then generates a series of colours full-screen and in a range of intensities which the colorimeter reads to determine the monitor’s accuracy of reproduction. The variations are compiled into a profile which calibrates the screen. Next time around, you can run a full calibration again or opt for the ‘ReCAL’ process which is based on the previous measurements and so faster again. Even faster – at around just 30 seconds – is the ‘CheckCAL’ option which simply rechecks the accuracy of the current calibration and won’t change anything if it isn’t needed.
A nifty feature called ‘SpyderProof’ shows the differences in the colour reproduction before and after calibration and you can do this with a preloaded Datacolor composite image or one of your own. This can be a revelation especially with slight colour casts which our eyes tend to automatically correct for so we just don’t see them. You can also compare the screen’s profile in the context of colour spaces such as sRGB or AdobeRGB.
The Elite version also has a ‘SoftProof’ feature which enables you to see how the colours will reproduce on other devices such as a tablet or, probably more importantly, on your printer (for which you can specify model, paper type and inks, or upload an ICC profile). Very usefully, SoftProof highlights the out of gamut colours.
The software functionality is much the same as that of the Spyder5 with the emphasis on ease-of-use via wizard-driven processes and an interactive help panel. Help guides are something that you’re often tempted to switch off because they just get in the way, but here they really are worth keeping to explain what each function is doing and why. The Elite software offers three workflow options labelled Step-By-Step Assistant (which is exactly what it does), Studio Match for matching multiple monitors and Expert Console which provides the most control over the calibration settings and accesses functions such as the ‘Room Light Compensation’. A useful adjustment called ‘SpyderTune’ allows you to visually adjust side-by-side screens so they look the same (for example, your laptop and desktop monitors).
The Elite software additionally offers a Display Analysis function which allows for series of tests to determine a panel’s performance, including gamut, brightness and contrast, tone response, colour accuracy and uniformity (which maps both colour and brightness across the entire screen). There is quite a big price difference between the Pro and Elite versions, but these extra features are worth having and also include calibration targets for video and cinema.
The human eye is a pretty advanced optical instrument, but it’s not always reliable thanks to sophisticated built-in ‘correction’. You can look at a monitor screen and think it looks ‘right’, but this is purely subjective and heavily influenced by personal preferences.
Calibration will reveal the realities and it can be a surprise, particularly in terms of colour balance, but also brightness and contrast. Consequently, monitor calibration should be a standard procedure in any digital workflow and Datacolor now makes this even easier with the SpyderX. It couldn’t be simpler, but the results will make all the difference in terms of how you subsequently prepare your images for output. The cheaper Pro version could well be sufficient for many requirements, but the extras in the Elite package help tell a more complete story which will ultimately be more helpful in the overall managing of digital colour.
The SpyderX Pro is priced at $295 and the SpyderX Elite at $465.