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Have you ever taken what you thought was a great photograph, only to find it looks dull when you view it on your PC? If so, your monitor may be letting you down.
Inexpensive monitors suffer from a narrow color gamut, inaccurate colors, poor gamma reproduction and other visual flaws. A better screen won’t make you better photographer, but it can help you better judge the photos you’ve taken. Here’s what you need to know when buying your first professional display.
Choosing Your Color Space
The breadth and accuracy of colors a monitor can display is arguably the most important element of any display that will be used for digital photography or digital art of any kind. A wide color gamut allows you to work with variations that would otherwise be unobtainable and accurate color helps ensure your work looks as intended on various screens or when printed to physical media.
The two gamut standards most relevant to computers and similar devices are sRGB and AdobeRGB.
The sRGB standard was created in 1996 through a collaboration between HP and Microsoft that focused on creating a standard gamut all computers could target. It is limited compared to most other gamut standards, so high-quality monitors often obtain full coverage. Photographers target this standard if they want their work to appear with minimal deviation on a very broad range of devices.
AdobeRGB is broader standard created in 1998 that covers far more visible color than sRGB. Technically this makes it superior, and even high-quality monitors often fail to fully cover this gamut. Artists often target this standard if their work will be converted to physical media or will only be displayed on devices that can handle this gamut.
Full coverage of AdobeRGB is a great target, but most photographers shouldn’t consider it a prime selling point. The sRGB gamut is more widely used and many photos end up converted to a format or shown on a display that can only handle sRGB. If you don’t have a reason to work in AdobeRGB you should be working in sRGB.
A Bit About Bits: While browsing color gamut you may also run into a specification stating a display offers 10-bit, 12-bit or 16-bit color. This describes the color depth of the monitor, which is the total number of colors its hardware can handle. More bits equal more color depth and more possible colors – in theory, at least.
Confusion occurs when manufacturers use techniques like dithering to display colors their hardware technically can’t produce. This sometimes leads to a claim that a monitor offers better color depth that it is truly capable of delivering. The specification you want to look for is the capability of the actual processor inside the monitor.
You could also ignore this specification and just rely on color gamut. While color depth can be important for users who are working in a custom color space most people, as already stated, work in sRGB. Gamut is usually a better indicator of quality than color depth.
DeltaE And Gamma
A monitor capable of displaying every color visible to the human eye would still be a bad monitor if it didn’t display the colors intended by the artist behind the image. DeltaE and Gamma are two ways of expressing how accurately the intended image is reproduced and can help you pick the good from the bad.
DeltaE is a measure of color difference. The higher the number, the more a color deviates from what it should be. In theory a DeltaE of one or less can’t be perceived, while anything above that is visible. In practice it’s a bit messier than that as perception depends both on the color shown and the person viewing it. Still, a DeltaE below three is decent and anything under two is very good.
Manufacturers will often make claims about the accuracy of their sets when marketing to digital photographers and artists. In my experience these claims are pretty close to correct, but it’s a good idea to double-check by reading reviews. And many users will be able to obtain an even more accurate results with calibration, which I’ll touch on shortly.
Gamma expresses how a display renders luminance in an image. As gamma is altered dark elements may become obscured while bright elements become more visible, and vice versa. You should make sure a monitor can accurately handle a gamma value of 2.2, the common standard, before buying it. Even minor deviation from this value can noticeably change the look of a photo (as you can see for yourself by adjusting gamma in your favorite photo editor), so this is an important specification to nail down.
Angle Of Attack
Having a broad and accurate gamut doesn’t matter if it’s skewed by how you perceive it. Viewing angle is commonly used to describe the arc in which a monitor’s performance remains acceptable, but the definition of what’s acceptable is often so broad that it’s useless for photography.
As such, I don’t recommend paying too much attention to viewing angle. What you should pay attention to, though, is the stand the monitor comes with. Does it tilt? Does it swivel? Is it height adjustable? If the answer is “yes” to all three you should have no problem positioning the monitor so that viewing angle, whatever it may be, doesn’t matter.
Most professional monitors already come with a stand this capable. If the display you want doesn’t, then at least ensure it’s VESA mount compatible so you can use an after-market stand.
The perfect size monitor is the largest you can afford while maintaining acceptable image quality. No, I’m not joking. There’s not a practical limit on the size of a professional monitor. You don’t need one that’s 50 inches wide, but no one makes a 50 inch monitor, so it’s a moot point.
Bigger is better because it lets you more clearly see the content you’re working with. However, an increase in size needs to correspond with an increase in pixel count. For example, many cheap 27-inch monitors only support 1080p resolution. That’s alright if that’s all you can afford, but 2560×1440 or 3820×2160 is preferable.
Adding pixels improves the clarity of the image and gives you more workable space. Editing a photo 1080 pixels tall is difficult on a 1080p monitor, for example, but easy on a 1440p display. More pixels also means you’ll have to zoom out less to work with the extremely large RAW image files produced by modern digital cameras.
Making The Connection
There are three connections commonly used by modern monitors; DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort. Any of these will work, but monitors with a resolution above 1080p work best through DisplayPort. DisplayPort and HDMI 2.0 (which is new and very rare) are the only connections that can support a 4K monitor at 60Hz.
The information I’ve relayed so far should help you decide for yourself which monitor is best for your needs. If you don’t have time to browser specification sheets, however, I’ve rounded up a few quick picks that won’t disappoint.
Dell Ultrasharp U3014/U2713H PremierColor: These displays remain the gold standard in image quality for many photographers. They cover all of sRGB, 99% of AdobeRGB, and are factory calibrated with a DeltaE under below two. The 30-incher is usually $1,150 while the 27-inch is $999. Watch for sales, though, as they’re occasionally sold at deep discounts.
HP DreamColor LP2480zx: The DreamColor has been listed as the best professional monitor by CNET for over four years, and for good reason. This monitor fully covers both sRGB and AdobeRGB (along with numerous niche gamuts) and provides extremely accurate color. It’s expensive, though; HP still wants $1,599, which is a lot for a 24-inch monitor. Only hardcore color snobs need apply.
NEC EA244UHD: A cutting-edge 24-incher, the NEC244UHD provides 4K resolution alongside accurate colors and full coverage of the sRGB and almost full coverage of AdobeRGB. Traits like excellent uniformity and gamma also boost its appeal. Just remember that 4K resolution on a 24-inch display will cause some text, images and programs to appear very small if they’re not scaled. This monitor will set you back $1,349.
Once you set up your new monitor you may still want to make changes to its image quality. This is called calibration. A lot of high-end monitors now come “factory calibrated,” which simply means they’ve already been adjusted to deliver a standard level of quality, but you may be able to extract more.
First check out our list of online calibration tools. These can help you better gauge the quality of your display and adjust its settings to your preference. I particularly like the Lagom LCD test pages, though they’re starting to feel out of date. However, these free websites aren’t very good at correcting color or gamma errors.
For that you’ll need a calibration utility. I often use the Spyder4Elite, which is an affordable choice that calibrates quickly and is easy for new users to understand. Some enthusiasts instead go for the X-Rite i1 Display Pro, which is a similar offering. There are also more professional offerings like the Minolta CS-200, which costs thousands of dollars.
Before buying anything I recommend checking your local photography store to see if it has rental calibration equipment. This can save your hundreds of dollars.
Upgrading your monitor will not improve your photography, but it’s mandatory for anyone who wants to take the art beyond the level of weekend amusement. Once you’ve come to understand how to take good photos you’ll need a display that can properly show the results of your hard work. Quality monitors are expensive, but console yourself with the fact they often last – s good one can serve you for a decade.
What do you look for in a monitor?