While doing a presentation recently I was asked if I was really happy with the image that I was showing to the group. A legitimate question, but the real issue was that I was making a judgement on a laptop screen that, while calibrated, changes brightness with the viewing angle. Making matters worse, the audience was seeing the results on a large screen with a ceiling mounted projector interpreting the image. The projector was old, and I guarantee nobody made an effort to calibrate it as it is not normally used for anything critical.
My laptop screen had been profiled so I was fairly certain that my interpretation, while probably not “accurate” was at least a pretty good representation of the file which had been processed before the presentation on my regular computer. The numbers were good and the visual representation of the file as I had fixed it was also good. So, the issue was that the audience was seeing the image as interpreted by a non-standard, uncalibrated output device.
The lesson is a good one, and applies to more than substandard projection devices, it applies to any output device including monitors and printers. We tend to assume that what we are looking at is “correct” even if we should realize that there may be a translation problem between the source material and the image were are actually viewing. If someone were giving you information in another language than your own and the interpreter was not particularly good at their job, you may get a very different impression of what is being said than what is intended by the speaker. The problem is not what the speaker is saying, it is that you are not hearing the message accurately.
Current monitors are pretty good at showing us a reasonably sharp image, but many people do not realize how much interpretation is involved in brightness, contrast, and especially the colors being displayed. If you have a two monitor setup as I do, you can see how poorly an image can be represented by dragging it from the calibrated monitor to the second device which may only be intended for use for email and similar tasks.
Inexpensive monitors display a smaller color gamut, which is like having a smaller box of crayons compared to the colors available on a better monitor. The contrast and brightness capabilities may also be considerably different. Out of the box, most monitors are too bright and rather cool in appearance, which your brain adapts to all too quickly. Making the assumption that your inexpensive monitor is showing you the images properly is a big mistake.
On my website Learning page there is a link to a well done article on this very topic that you may want to read if you want more information on monitor and printer calibration and why it is important. In addition to working with a calibrated and profiled output device (monitor or printer) it is also valuable to learn to understand the numbers in an image. Often I find that it is possible to make an initial correction to a questionable image simply by looking for some key numbers in the highlights and shadows to know that an image is in line with technical expectations. Then my personal interpretations of the image can be made from a legitimate starting point and the results should be dependable. If the image does not look right as displayed or printed, I can be reasonably sure that the output device is the culprit.