In this paper we present one method for the characterization of the spatial light modulators (SLMs) of a real-time Vander Lugt type of correlator. This correlator uses two SLMs: one to introduce the scene and a second to introduce the frequency‐matched filter. The SLM characterization methods are in situ, that is in the correlator set‐up. Illumination conditions are different for each SLM, and consequently different characterization techniques must be used in each case. For the characterization of the scene SLM a diffraction method is used, while for the characterization of the filter SLM an interferometric technique is more convenient. Finally, we take into account the operating curves of scene and filter SLMs in the design of the filter in order to optimize the correlation peak. © 1998 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.