Price: $599, with discounts at various sites
Pros: Very easy to use, excellent documentation; generates excellent profiles and calibration; tech support is by email but is excellent.
Cons: Note that this is actually an issue with Apple’s hardware design: can only be used effectively with the very latest iMacs, otherwise the display can not be dimmed enough to avoid prints appearing too dark; strip reading method works only with new color patch target which requires more paper.
by Bruce Herman, AAUG Member
Conflict of interest disclosure: Datacolor, Inc provided a free copy of Spyder3Studio SR for the purposes of the review.
Computers used in testing: Mac Pro with dual quad core processors and a MacBook Pro. Both computers run Mac OS X version 10.5.8
I don’t recall when I first began using the Spyder to calibrate my computer display, but I do know that lot has changed since then. Then, everyone used film cameras and made their prints with photographic paper. More likely, someone else developed their film and made their prints. Today, most people make photographs with digital cameras and print their photographs on inkjet printers. That gives the average photographer an unprecedented control and responsibility. The quality of what we see on our computer displays and what we print depends in no small part to our skill in digitally manipulating color and brightness in our computers. This can be a frustrating process unless our actions in software yield predicable results on the computer display and with our prints. Given our reliance on our hardware and software, I continue to be surprised that more people do not calibrate and profile their computer display and their printer/paper combinations. This is a critical issue for getting the results that you intend. I think that one of the reasons that people do not calibrate and profile their displays and printers is that many are intimidated by the process. The cost of the tools is a second reason.
Datacolor has certainly addressed the process side of the equation with Spyder3Studio SR because it is the easiest package to understand and use that I have tested. The display calibration software (calibrates both computer displays and digital projectors) and the printer profiling software install from the same DVD and from the same menu although you still have to install them separately (two clicks instead of one). The installation into Mac OS X 10.5.8 (Leopard) went without a hitch. At the end of the installation, the Spyder3Studio SR icon appears in the Dock. To begin, just hook up the Spyder3 spectraphotometer to calibrate your display or projector, or the colorimeter to profile a paper for your printer and then click on the icon in your Dock. In the first screen, you choose whether to calibrate your display, profile your printer or learn about Spyder cube (more about this later). Select either of the first two and you are taken to a new screen where one of the options is “Learn about color management.” In other words, you can start using Spyder3Studio SR without knowing anything and then learn as you go. Each screen has a “Help” button at the top right that takes you to a page that includes both basic and more detailed information about that particular step in the process. Datacolor’s documentation is very well written.
Being able to launch both the Spyder3 display calibration software or the printer profiling software from the same interface simplifies the process compared to previous versions of the software. Perhaps the most improved component of the software is the printer paper profiling. In the previous version, I recommended that you use both the 225 color patch target and the 238 patch extended grays target. This required two separate paths for reading the two targets which made it easier for a person to make a mistake in the workflow. Now you can explicitly choose to use the combined color and extended grays targets with the resulting linear workflow that incorporates both targets.
A second area of improvement is the speed for reading the targets. Reading can be done by the individual patch or by reading each strip of patches in a sweeping motion. Although I haven’t actually recorded the time, it feels as if the time to measure each patch is a third to one half the time previously required. I first tried the strip method, which is also used by Datacolor’s primary competitor. In this method, you push the colorimeter along a strip of patches using the supplied guide tool to keep the instrument over the strip. It requires that you move the colorimeter at a relatively uniform speed. Before you attempt this method, be aware that you have to use the EZ targets, and not the Classic targets. The individual color patches on the EZ targets are larger than those on the Classic targets. However, the instructions don’t warn you of potential problems if you use the Classic targets. So I initially used the Classic targets. Although the software indicated that I was moving the colorimeter at the correct speed, I had a modest number of mis-read patches. There were also several occasions in which the software hung. I experienced the same issue with the competition, which made me think that it was more my lack of hand-eye coordination than a problem with the software. At the recommendation of the Datacolor staff, I then attempted to profile my printer with the EZ Targets. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had only a few misread patches which were easily corrected. The only drawback to this methodology is that it takes four 8.5×11 inch sheets of paper instead of two when you read the patches individually with the Classic targets. I don’t view this as a major shortcoming.
I tested several Epson papers and achieved profiles that had essentially the same gamuts as the profiles supplied by Epson. As was the case with the previous versions, you can edit the measurement files to create special profiles more appropriate to the special lighting conditions where your prints are hung. You do need to create a series of test prints and then view them in the appropriate light to assess which adjustment is correct.
Here are two things to remember. First, connect the colorimeter to your computer at least 15 minutes prior to using it to allow it to warm up. Doing so reduced the number of misread patches regardless of whether I read with individually or via the strip method. Second, be sure to place several sheets of your printer paper beneath the targets when you read them. Without the extra sheets of paper, the light from the colorimeter will sample the underlying surface if the paper is thin, which will bias all of your colors and essentially corrupt your profile.
Display calibration has always been a straightforward process with the Spyder software and this has not changed. One thing that has become apparent is that many people are now using iMacs to edit their photographs from which they then make prints. Many people complain that the prints are too dark, even after they’ve calibrated their display and profiled their paper. David Brooks, who writes the “Digital Q&A” column for Shutterbug magazine has responded to a number of readers that the iMac display is not controlled by the software written by Datacolor or by most of its competitors. He recommends a particular brand. I have not tested their software, but I will pass on what the Datacolor tech support staff said when I asked in general about calibrating iMac displays. They said that up until the most recent versions of the computer that were released just a couple of months ago, it was not possible to control the brightness and contrast of the display through software. Simply turning down the brightness (there is no control for contrast) of the display dims the display at the cost of diminishing the gamut (range of brightness values). Note two things: 1) using the Spyder3 software and spectrophotometer with older iMacs will improve the color accuracy, and 2) manually decreasing the brightness with the newest iMacs will allow you to reach a level where the prints and screen will agree without sacrificing the gamut. Datacolor hopes to release an update to their software that will control the new iMacs. From their perspective, the previous iMac was designed more for entertainment and video editing than for photo editing. My personal recommendation is that people who don’t have the latest iMacs should purchase a second display, calibrate it, and then use it for photo editing. This would be less expensive than purchasing a new iMac.
A component new to the Spyder3Studio SR package is the Spyder Cube. This is a small cube, roughly 1.4 inches on a side with gray, white and black areas and an attached small shiny sphere. To use the cube, you include it in the composition of the first photograph in a series in which all of the photographs will be made in the same light. With the first photograph in your editing software, you use the gray, white and black areas to adjust the color balance and brightness. These adjustments are then applied to the other photographs in the series. I think that the Spyder Cube will find its greatest use in commercial settings, where the lighting is controlled. Its use in wildlife or landscape photography will be more limited because natural light can change rapidly and because the subject is sometimes in different light than the photographer. Despite this limitation, I am likely to carry it with me especially when I anticipate making photographs of flowers.
At the opening, I mentioned that Datacolor had addressed one of the two issues facing people who want to manage color on their computer display and printer. The issue not easily addressed by any vendor is cost. With a retail price of $599, Spyder3Studio SR is not inexpensive, but it is a great value when compared to its competitors. Indeed, I would highly recommend purchasing Spyder3Studio SR if you are not currently managing color in your digital photo lab. It will make your printing more predictable, which will take a lot of the frustration out of the process of going from capture to printing. This is definitely a 5 moose product.
If you already own the previous version, Spyder3Elite Studio, you can update the software for display calibration at no charge on Datacolor’s web site. I asked the tech support staff if the Spyder3 spectrophotometer or colorimeter were new designs. The Spyder3 itself is unchanged, which is why the software upgrade for display calibration is possible. However, the new colorimeter was modified to allow the more rapid response required for strip reading. If you are profiling paper for other photographers, I would purchase the new Spyder3Print SR so that you could make your work more efficient. Otherwise, you might consider waiting for the next full version. This does not detract as the previous version was also rated 5 moose!