Step One: Profile Your Monitor
So, you want to learn more about post processing your digital camera images but are confused about where to start. Without question, the first thing you need to do is profile your monitor. Yes, you.
By way of a round about introduction to this week's topic, let me assume that at some point you have shopped for a new color television. I'm talking the kind of big retail establishment that has a whole section devoted to showing you the latest choices in flat screens. These days, they all look reasonably good, but there is still a noticeable degree of variation. It's not like back in the days of CRT tubes when one TV would be slightly green tinted while the one right next to it would have a purple cast and the one after that looked washed out. Television manufacturers have had a lot of years now to perfect their craft, but there's still room for improvement. None are so confident yet that they have dispensed with controls to adjust the hue and tint, contrast and brightness, now have they? The option for some sort of adjustment is definitely still with us.
In the modern digital darkroom, your computer monitor is basically just a glorified color television. In fact, I could have illustrated the previous paragraph with a store selling computer monitors, but few places have a huge wall of monitors the way electronic stores hit you in the face with televisions. TV sellers have been perfecting their craft since before computer monitors were invented, after all.
What's noteworthy in both cases though is the simple fact that not all computer and television screens look the same. I mean, they're all trying to do the same thing, aren't they? They should all be as accurate as possible, right? Maybe the most expensive ones are better at it than their cheaper neighbors, but within the same budget, how come they still vary? Presumably, if you adjust those built-in controls for color and contrast and the like, you can make them closer, but how do you know which one is right? Which is the one display that all the others should look like? It's kind of hard to tell.
For work in the digital darkroom the best monitor should be the one that is most accurate, but all you have to judge by is which one looks the most compelling to you. But if the source material is itself less than optimal, the one that looks best will be the one that bumps up the saturation or otherwise addresses the underlying source deficiency. All you can judge by is the combination of source material plus display. All you can judge by is appearance, not necessarily accuracy.
But if you are the content creator, you need to know what your images actually look like. It's not enough that you can tweak your monitor to make your images look good, they need to look as good as possible all on their own. When you share your images with others, you are unlikely to also share your monitor. You may not be able to vouch for the accuracy of everybody else's monitor, but you should care very much about that of your own. Otherwise, what is it you are really sharing, and what does it really look like?
Adjusting your monitor by eye until your images look as good as possible may seem like a good idea but as a strategy for optimizing your digital darkroom setup, it can easily betray you. Doing so creates the illusion of quality. It hides problems rather than correcting them.
The answer is to profile your monitor. Such devices consist of a small hardware contraption with an optical sensor and some software to drive it. Using one is simple. You hang it or attach it in front of your monitor, plugging its cord into an available USB port. When you run the program that came with it, the software generates a series of precisely predetermined colors, and the sensor registers how it sees each. Knowing what each color is supposed to look like, the software can calculate what is needed to make them all look as they should. The result of all this measurement and calculation then gets saved as a monitor profile your system can use to compensate when rendering colors. Since the green trees in your image are unlikely to exactly match any of the greens used to generate the profile, your computer can still interpolate between the samples it does have to figure out the right adjustment to be made. Every color present can likewise be corrected on the fly as it gets rendered on your monitor. Once the profile has been created and saved, the rest is automatic. So now you can tell what your images look like rather than be satisfied with just a rendition of them tweaked to look good.
Here's a nightmare scenario for you to consider. Suppose that for some reason I haven't fully convinced you. Now suppose that some time down the road, you discover your monitor was somehow a bit off. Maybe you goofed on your visual adjustments. Maybe your monitor is simply getting older or has slowly drifted off its factory calibration. You may never really know until its too late. In the meanwhile, you will no doubt have worked on quite a few images, tweaking them until they look their best, on your misbehaving monitor. At some point, other people may ask why all your images seem too dark. Or perhaps you notice you always have to adjust the white balance the same way despite the fact that images tend to look great on your camera back. It doesn't really matter what got you to finally notice the problem. Once you do, you'll be forced to go back and at least check a good chunk of your image library. And what if you never notice? There's simply no good way to find and correct the problem unless you profile your monitor. Keep in mind that your hand tuned monitor settings would have been hiding any problems from you the whole time.
There once was a time when only the most critical of users could afford hardware monitor calibrators, but happily such devices have come down considerably in price over the years. Yes, even you can afford one. At the same time, they've actually gotten ever better, faster and simpler to use over that same period. Even though modern LCD monitors are lightyears better than earlier monitors (both LCD and CRT), it's still as important as ever to make sure yours is working at its full potential and accuracy.
Some monitors today actually come with hardware calibration built in. If yours did, use it. If yours did not, spend a little bit more and buy a standalone one. The small cost involved in terms of money and time will be repaid many times over.
Regardless of what you do next in setting up your digital darkroom, step one should be profiling your monitor.