Color Management

Photos look different on various devices

Dave asks:

I have a question regarding viewing images on different devices, I used a calibrated 24in Asus monitor and LR5.7 to process my images, I would consider myself fairly conservative with the colour sliders in general, but I’m finding that my images never look correct in terms of colour saturation when viewing on mobile devices, i.e. iphone/ipad/Nexus tablet. Images viewed on these have less colour when compared directly with my monitor.

I have compared my monitor against my ipad when viewing images on 500px, and it doesn’t look too bad – perhaps 500px optimise their mobile app?

Any ideas, is it simply a case of the mobile devices not being able to display as wide a colour range? I’m generally happy with what I’m seeing from my monitor.

My reply:

There are several factors in play here.

Firstly, your desktop display can most certainly output a much wider gamut of colours than most mobile devices. But that’s not likely the issue.

Before I get into suggestions for a solution, there are a few fundamental principles to review:

1. Your photos will never look exactly the same on every device or in every viewing scenario. So forget about that.

2. You need to work on your photos using a good quality display, properly calibrated and profiled, and use software that effective colour manages your on-screen previews. (Sounds like you’ve got most of that covered with your Asus and Lightroom…)

However, you didn’t mention what system you’re using to profile your display. I only recommend the X-Rite solutions. For most people the i1 Display range is ideal; for people on a budget or making their own prints the ColorMunki is very good too.

But unfortunately many calibration systems on the market simply don’t perform well. (The Spyder system is one of these. Avoid it!)

3. When your images are destined to be viewed on any type of display, you always need to embed the appropriate profile for on-screen viewing. This is always sRGB. Using any other colour profile will produce highly variable results. So when you export from Lightroom, make sure you’re specifying the sRGB colour space.

If any of the above conditions are not met, your viewing results will be highly variable at best.

And even if you’ve done all the above, the most you can hope for is to find a comfortable compromise.

This means getting your images to look the way you want in your colour managed environment, and then view them on several other systems to see how they look.

In many cases your images will look darker or lighter, and more (or less) contrasty and saturated when you view them on different devices. And even in different browsers or apps. This is due to the fact that the systems and software are rendering the colour values differently.

And yes, 500px is most certainly processing the photos internally when they’re uploaded, to try and make everyone’s photos more vibrant and punchy.

However, if what you’re seeing is that photos on your own display look one way and on several other systems they look different than yon your display but similar to each other, it’s most likely because your primary display is not showing you an accurate preview. Or you’re using the wrong profiles. Or both.

In my experience, my desktop display looks less contrasty and less saturated than when I view my pictures on non-colour managed systems.

If yours is more saturated, there’s likely something amiss with your colour management procedures.

Let me know what display calibration package you’re using, and try making a better profile.

And be sure your operating system is set to actually use that profile! (And in case you’re wondering, it’s never a good idea to set your display profile to sRGB or Adobe RGB… these are working spaces, not display profiles.)

Locking down your colour management can take time and there are many fiddly little bits that can throw the whole thing off. I’ve written a lot about colour management over the years, and there are many more articles on the subject here on Photography Essentials.

Hope this points you in the right direction; let me know how you get on. And thanks for your contribution!


  1. Hi Nat,

    Many thanks for the detailed response, I had a feeling that some compromise would almost certainly be required somewhere, but I can’t help feeling something isn’t quite right, alas I’m using the Spyder 4 system – can you tell me what exactly is the problem with these?

    What I do know is that uncalibrated looks less contrasty and has a blue tint, switching on the calibration is a marked improvement that makes colours pop and warms up the balance significantly to my eyes – much more pleasing.

    I had a look and noticed the current target settings are as follows:

    Gamma 2.2
    white point 5800k
    brightness 120

    I recently moved home and recalibrated and found that I needed to adjust the brightness down a lot during the calibration, but the monitor is generally pleasing to work with and colours look good.

    Do the above values sound O.K or should I be aiming for different targets?

    Many thanks


    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your reply. Unfortunately I’m not savvy enough about the workings of the Spyder systems to tell you (from a technical standpoint) what exactly is their defect.

      I only know that for many years working with clients, the Spyder systems can’t be relied on for accurate profiling.

      Also, these are the target settings you should use, regardless of the device:

      Gamma 2.2
      White point 6500
      Brightness 100 (or even 90 if you can stand it.)

      And yes, the most common problem with people’s viewing conditions is the display simply being set far too bright.

      You can very easily sell your Spyder (there are many people willing to buy one!) and use the funds toward an i1… the best investment a serious photographer can make.

      Good luck, and keep me posted!

  2. Cheers Nat I will look into it, no idea why its suggesting 5800k as the “recommended” setting is indeed 6500.

    Thanks again 🙂


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