The monitor is the element which should be most heavily researched when buying computer equipment for the purposes of photo editing. And without some previous knowledge, it is easy to become lost once you start to investigate all of the technical specifications you may encounter in the course of your research. That is why we will be looking at all of the parameters you should be taking into account when selecting your future monitor for photo editing.
The quality of the monitor is fundamental since it is the element which will allow you to visualize your photos:
- If the monitor is of poor quality, the fidelity of the displayed colors will diminish over time and as a result, the quality of your editing work will become random.
- You will require a monitor which is capable of handling all of the possible colors contained in the images you will be editing.
The choice of monitor should therefore not be taken lightly. Consequently, it is only appropriate that you should study and precisely establish all of a monitor’s technical characteristics. This reasoning is all the more valid since in general the purchase of a monitor is done without being able to observe it in reality (contrary to televisions which can be seen on display in stores).
Without further delay, let’s go over the parameters which characterize a high-quality monitor dedicated to image editing.
Everyone is aware of the fact that with the passage of time, cameras are able to take larger and larger photos. As a result, you will need a display which will allow you to view your images at an appropriate size.
A large display is also more comfortable to work with. As I already mentioned in a previous article, cropping a subject within an image requires pixel precision and it is not uncommon to need to zoom to 100% while editing an image (for portraits, restoring images, etc.). You should also not forget that only a portion of the display is dedicated to displaying the image since you will need to allocate room to all of the windows containing the various tools needed to control the image editing software. If you have an old display and the room for it on your desk, use it as a container for all of the tool windows in order to have an extra large area on your primary display for visualizing your images (obviously this only applies if your image editing software supports multiple displays).
Display size is expressed in inches (1 inch = 2.54 cm) and is measured along the display’s diagonal.
Not all displays have the same display ratio. For example, 21.5 and 27 inch displays have a 16:9 ratio whereas 24 inch displays almost always have a 3:2 ratio. This last ratio will allow you to display your images in full-screen mode without any black bars appearing on the sides of the image.
It is difficult to tell you exactly what size display you should purchase since it depends a lot on the space you have available on your desk (especially in terms of depth), and, of course, on your budget. Please bear in mind however that, in my opinion, a 21.5 inch display is the strict minimum required for any serious attempt at photo editing (otherwise, you might as well buy a laptop with a 15”display). To get a better idea of the display size you will be able to accommodate, do not hesitate to go take a look at the demo models at your local electronics store since it is not easy to get an accurate idea of a display’s bulk or how comfortable it will be to use by simply looking at its technical specifications.
The other advantage of large images is that they provide more image detail. As a result, you will require a display with a high number of pixels.
The resolution corresponds to the number of pixels which make up the display. Therefore, the more pixels a display has and the smaller they are, the more detail it will be able to show.
Consequently, there is a direct correlation between a display’s size and its definition: its resolution. The resolution corresponds to the number of pixels per given unit of surface area (usually expressed in pixels per inch). The ideal thing is to have a large display with high definition.
A display’s definition is expressed in terms of pixels (length x height).
You should be aware of the fact that computer displays with very high definitions are making their way onto the market at the moment (I’m thinking specifically of the iMac 5K display). In practical terms, this means that they are capable of displaying images with 7 times more detail than Full HD models.
To better understand this concept, let’s look for example at an image containing 24 million pixels (6000 x 4000 pixels) displayed at 100% zoom (meaning 1 image pixel per display pixel). In this case, it is possible to display:
- 4.4% of the image with a 15.3 inch display (1366 x 768)
- 6% of the image with a 17.3 inch display (1600 x 900)
- 8.6% of the image with a 21.5 inch display (1920 x 1080)
- 9.6% of the image with a 24 inch display (1920 x 1200)
- 15.4% of the image with a 27 inch display (2560 x 1440)
- 61.4% of the image with a 27 inch 5 K display (5120 x 2880)
A word of caution: something to keep in mind is that with 5K resolution, internet sites and other elements (icons, text) will appear very small. As a result, you will need to go back to a “standard” resolution once you have finished editing your images.
Glossy or matte display panel?
This is a little bit like with photo paper – you have the choice between two completely different display finishes:
- Glossy panels display more contrasted, luminous and more flattering images. The choice of this type of display panel will suit those users who do not – or do not very often – print their photos.
- Matte panels, on the contrary, display duller images which are closer to reality and they also offer the advantage of not reflecting light off of their surface – making them more comfortable to use.
There are other more technical characteristics which some people might want to be aware of in order to know that the display they have chosen has the maximum available elements:
The display of colors is done by mixing Red, Green and Blue. This is called the RGB mode. By combining these 3 colors, it is possible to produce nearly all of the colors visible to the human eye. However, displays are not capable of displaying the totality of the colors of the RGB color space. As a result, more limited color spaces have been created: the sRGB and the Adobe RGB (also called Adobe 1998).
Consequently, there are two types of displays: those that use the sRGB color space (the majority of displays) and those that are able to display the Adobe RGB color space (professional displays, and as a result much more expensive) which are also called large gamut displays.
You should also be aware of the fact that the majority of cameras which are available to the general public do not allow you to take photos using Adobe RGB. Only those marketed to skilled amateurs and professionals have this capability (professional compacts, professional bridge models, professional hybrids and reflex cameras).
Be careful not to get carried away with the idea of using Adobe RGB since to be able to exploit its maximum potential, it will require that all of your related equipment be capable of handling this color space. As a result, the printer or the service that you use to print your photos will also need to be compatible with Adobe RGB.
So, should my monitor have the sRBG or the Adobe 98 color space?
· If you are just starting out in image editing or you only do it occasionally, buying a good quality sRGB monitor would be a good choice;
· if you already have a certain experience in the wonderful world of image editing and you would like to have a better control over color management, you are probably ready to move up to an Adobe 98 compatible display.
By going through the technical data sheets for these displays, you will notice that some manufacturers indicate a percentage of color space. This value corresponds to the colors which the display is capable of reproducing within the given color space (for example 90% sRGB means that the display is capable of reproducing 90% of the colors included in that space).
The type of display panel
These days, there are essentially three display panel technologies: TN, VA/PA and IPS. The IPS technology (In-Plane Switching) is a viable option for photo editing thanks most notably to its very wide viewing angle (nearly 180°) which will allow you to view the images without their colors or contrast levels changing depending on the position from which you are viewing them.
The vast majority of manufacturers are integrating LED back-lighting into their displays – this has the advantage of providing a more homogeneous light than is provided by a CCFL source (neon tubes). Moreover, this system is more energy efficient.
The contrast rate – which is expressed as a fraction – is the ratio between black and white levels. If for example a display has a contrast ration of 1000:1, this means that the white level is 1000 times more luminous than the black level. The higher the contrast rate, the better the display will be at reproducing black and white.
Luminosity or luminance
Luminosity corresponds to the quantity of light (intensity) that the display is capable of emitting. It is expressed in candelas per square meter (cd/m2). The higher this value, the higher you will be able to increase the display’s brightness in order to work in a more luminous environment.
Be careful however that this value is not too high, since contrast and luminosity are intricately related. If for example a display has a low contrast rate, it can be tempting for the manufacturer to increase the display’s luminosity. By being brighter, the whites will be whiter, but the blacks will look more like grays. Therefore, contrary to contrast, do not look for the display with the highest luminosity value.
After all, what’s the point of having a display with a very high level of luminosity since it is strongly discouraged to edit your photos in an excessively bright environment? There are two reasons why this is advised against:
- The darker color tones will appear brighter than they are in reality. You will therefore have a tendency to underexpose your photos which will make them appear too dark later on.
- If you have chosen an excessively bright display, you will be cursing the the reflections which will undoubtedly appear on the display; all the more so if the room you are in has strong lighting.
The average luminosity for normal lighting conditions is around 120 to 140 cd/m2.
Some professional photographers even go so far as to paint the wall against which the screen has been placed a magnificent shade of neutral gray in order to be sure that they will not be influence by the ambient colors of the room in which they are working (my wall is painted aubergine to be honest ).
The high-end screens (Eizo CG247 here) are usually fitted with a shading hood, which avoids being disturbed by glare.
Finally, you should be aware of the fact that high-end displays have an automatic luminosity adjustment which changes the displays luminosity in function of the ambient light. This is both more pleasant for the user as well as being more energy efficient.
There are 4 types of connections commonly found on displays:
VGA: this is the old standard. The signal is analog; it was the norm for cathode ray displays. This type of connection is in the process of being phased out.
DVI: this is the connection designed to replace VGA. The signal can be digital and/or analog. The display quality it provides is better than that provided by VGA.
HDMI: With this type of connection, the signal is 100% digital. It carries both video and audio signals.
Display port: this is the most modern connection standard. Its long-term goal is to replace DVI. There are two variants of this connection standard: Display Port and Mini Display Port (most notably on Apple displays).
Make sure to verify the type of connection required by your graphics card before choosing a display.
There are a number of manufacturers which make “photo quality” displays: Dell, Apple, Iiyama, BenQ (a newcomer to the marketplace). The most reputable brands are Eizo and Nec. It goes without saying that their price is directly related to their level of performance.
So, if you intend on purchasing a display for image editing, all that remains for you to do it to sift through the technical datasheets. There is one last thing I would like to mention: it goes without saying that studying all of these various parameters is useless unless you calibrate your display on a regular basis.
The Perfect Display: 4 monitors for Photo Editing Head-to-Head
Monitors for photographers and graphic designers: Those who want to edit and create photos and graphics in a professional way shouldn’t cut corners when it comes to buying a monitor. Only high-quality displays allow color-accurate image editing in Photoshop and Lightroom. We tested four of the top-models for you.
Only with a high-quality monitor you can edit and create images on a high level. Investing in a color-accurate display will become worthwhile, when creating elaborate prints.
High-tier bargain: Dell’s U2515H allows color-accurate photo editing on a budget.
Budget tip: Color-Accurate Editing for 300$
The monitors in this comparison are mostly aimed at professionals and are thus rather expensive. But even on a tight budget, color accurate editing in the sRGB color space is possible. One example for this is the Dell U2515H. The 25” WQHD monitor covers 100% of the sRGB color space and delivers a clear, sharp, and bright image. Our only gripe: It’s 8-bit color depth limits this monitor in comparison to the other models tested here. Those who can live with that will find a well-rounded and versatile display that makes editing photos on a professional level accessible.
Color Calibration: Getting a Good Image
Professional monitors are usually calibrated reliably right out of the box. Those who want to get the best performance out of their display should calibrate it themselves. In the process, the color and brightness level of the panel are optimized, and even factors like the ambient lighting in your workspace are being taken into consideration. So called Colorimeters like the ColorMonki by X-Rite or the Spyder5Pro by Datacolor (around 130$) are utilized for said process.
UltraWide Monitors: More Space for Your Photos
The 21:9 aspect ratio gives you plenty of screen real-estate to work on several files projects at the same time.
More and more monitors of the UltraWide variety are hitting the market. The aspect ratio of 21:9 is reminiscent of a cinema screen and makes watching movies particularly pleasant. Image editing also benefits from the extra screen real-estate which allows you to edit several images at the same time or compare your edit to the raw image. This is especially true for the 34” models like the LG34UC87 which we tested lately. Most of which have a resolution of 3440 x 1440 px and can display a lot more than 16:9 or 16:10 monitors of the same diagonal measurements. A plus: Contrary to the upcoming 4K monitors(3840 x 2160), even older computers can handle driving most UltraWide monitors.
The BenQ SW2700 delivers top-notch features at a fair price.
With a street price of around 600$, this BenQ is the cheapest contendant in this segment. Still, even on paper, it delivers killer features: The factory calibration already ensures 99% coverage of the Adobe RGB color space. Using a calibration device, these specs can even be increased up to a full 100%. Out of the box, is a bit too bright – once the brightness has been decreased a bit, the SW2700PT rocks a harmonic image with optimum lighting consistency, strong colors and great contrast. Thanks to its 14-Bit LUT, it supports 1,07 billion colors which makes it suitable for pretty much any photo editing task. It connects to your computer via DVI, DisplayPort, HDMI, or Mini-Display Port. Picture-In-Picture is missing, however.
The on-screen menu system is simple and well thought through. The buttons on the bezel, however, feel a bit clumsily executed. Luckily though, the SW2700PT offers a round cable-bound remote. This device allows you to swap between 3 different, user-assignable picture-modes. The integrated D-Pad also makes navigation the onscreen menus much easier. If the remote isn’t needed it can be stowed in the foot of the monitor – a definite plus in the ergonomics department. A nice extra: In the box, you’ll also find anti-reflection shading hood . A rare but welcome addition in this price range. The integrated USB 3.0 hub and the SD-Card reader are also very practical additions. With its combination of great image quality and a comprehensive feature set, the BenQ SW2700PT is worth every penny, especially considering its competitive price.
Pros & Cons
- + Factory-color calibrated
- + Great Ergonomics
- + Included Anti-Reflection Blinds
- + USB-Hub and SD-Card Slot
- + Cable Remote
- – Menu Buttons rather Cumbersome
With the CS270-BK, pros will be hard pressed to find anything that’s missing.
At around 1000$, the CS270BK can be seen as an affordable entry into the Color-Edge series that Eizo has aimed at professionals. The features it lacks compared to its more expensive sibling are thankfully few and far in between: The anti-reflection shield are missing (optionally available for 180$), and an integrated calibration device is also missing against more expensive models. However, it ships with the calibration software and compatible meters are available for as little as 60$. Using the control software or the buttons on the device you can easily switch between different color profiles at the press of a button – a plus for photo editing. Besides that, the CS270BK offers a great image is adjusted at the factory. Its 16-Bit 3D-LUT combined with almost perfect backlighting makes for stunningly natural colors. Even very fine details in the shadows are being reproduced in a very natural manner. Brightness and contrast are also top-notch.
Master in Ergonomics
Despite the missing anti-reflection shading hood, the Eizo monitor delivers great ergonomics: It rotates, is height-adjustable and allows you to pivot the panel. The onscreen menu has also been carried out very straightforward. It only takes minimal effort to set up the display to suit your needs. The only gripe: The integrated USB hub only supports USB 2.0. Despite that, Eizo are staying true to their reputation of being a company making pro-level displays. This panel offers great image quality that will be sufficient for professional work. For its comparatively high price, users are getting a great package allowing color image processing to a high level.
- Pro & Contra
+ Factory-color calibrated
- + Great color cover
- + Hardware calibration option
- + Cable remote control
- – No anti-reflection blinds
- – USB hub only supports USB 2.0
The UltraWide aspect ratio of the 34UC87 proved very practical in our test.
The LG34UC87 is a eye-catcher: With its slightly curved 34” panel in the cinema-esque 21:9 aspect ratio, the display has a “Wow-factor” before even turning it on. Plugging in a PC or Mac amplifies this impression even further. With its 3440 x 1440 resolution, this monitor can display much more than the others in this test. This can come in handy with Photoshop as you can display a series of tools as well as several versions of the same photo, on a single screen. For those worrying that the slight curvature will affect photo editing can rest assured that that isn’t the case. The LG34UC87 delivers saturated colors and decent contrast. It covers 98% of the Adobe RGB color space. The only downside is slight backlight bleeding that occurs on the edges of the screen when dark images are being displayed. As soon as other, brighter elements fill the screen, these aren’t noticeable anymore.
In terms of ergonomics, the LG panel loses some points. It’s neither rotatable, nor can you pivot the display. It can be adjusted in height and tilted slightly. A practical feature on the other hand is the picture-in-picture function that allows you to drive the display from two separate devices at a resolution of 1770 x 1440 for both each half of the screen. Navigating the onscreen menus with the tiny joystick might be awkward at first, however, it works a treat once you get used to it. The LG 34UC87 is definitely interesting, if there are more things you’re looking to do with it besides image editing. It is predestined for video editing. Not only do movies look excellent on it, it also offers plenty of screen real-estate for your timeline and tools while editing video.
Pros & Cons
- + UltraWide aspect ratio offers plenty of space
- + Sharp and clear WQHD resolution
- + Connect up to 2 devices
- + Great for movies and video editing
- – Limited ergonomics
- – Backlight bleeding in dark scenes
The PW272W justifies its price tag with amazing performance.
Besides their Spectraview-Reference series, the monitor experts at NEC are also offering a second line of products aimed at professionals: The PA series. The PA272W is the current 27” model of the series. Upon first boot-up, it is clear to see that these monitors are made for professionals. It delivers a homogenous, color-accurate, and clear picture with great brightness and contrast. The Spectraview II software that you can download form their website also offers hardware calibration. For that you will need an external hardware calibration device. Out of the box however, this panel impressed us with amazing color-reproduction and close-to-perfect illumination. Brightness can be adjusted in Candela using the onscreen menu, which always gives great results. Those planning to use the monitor on-location will love that brightness goes up to over 350 cm/m2 which is plenty for bright environments.
Features for professionals
The NEC PA272W allows you to connect up to two computers via USB and via the menu the three USB ports can be assigned to different computers. Practical: A second device can be displayed by means of a picture-in-picture function. The six buttons allow easy configuration of the panel to suit your needs. More in-depth adjustments can be made in the advanced menu that allows you to adjust the RGB channels individually. Ergonomically, the NEC display also offers everything you could ask for: A stable and rotatable foot, panel tilt, height-adjustment, and pivoting. The only thing missing is anti-reflection Shading Hood that NEC only ships with the Spectraview models. The NEC PA272W delivers amazing performance regardless of that and is our recommendation for Photoshop professionals.
Pros & Cons
+ Great picture right out of the box
+ Comprehensive settings menu
+ Intelligent USB hub
+ Stunning brightness
+ Hardware calibration option
– No anti-reflection Shading Hood
A bad monitor can ruin your best efforts when it comes to photo editing. Especially when the colors on a print end up looking nothing like what you saw on your display. If so, a new monitor should be the next investment.
In the recent years, a lot has changed on the pro-monitor market – especially in terms of size: While 24” monitors dominated the market for a while, 27” displays are on their way to take that throne. The most obvious advantage is that additional screen real-estate allows you to display more and see more details. Resolution also plays an important role here. The resolution of 1920 x 1080 that was popular in 24” panels is now being replaced by WQHD at 2560 x 1400 pixels which means 1,5 million more pixels. This of course means more and crisper detail, but also that more windows can be displayed at the same time. This is especially for photo editing since you can view both our edited version and the raw file side-by-side. You can also display more toolbars in Photoshop and other programs without sacrificing real-estate for editing. All in all, WQHD panels are making photo editing more comfortable.
The Right Panel
Besides resolution, the technology used in a panel is also significant since TN panels are generally unsuited for image editing tasks – mainly because their viewing angles are sub-par. All displays in our test feature IPS panels that guarantees great viewing angles and, in combination with professional LED backlighting, a bright and evenly lit picture.
Another important factor is the size of the Lookup Table or LUT. In short, it defines how many different colors a monitor can display. Most standard monitors offer an 8-Bit LUT which means 16,7 million colors. While this is enough for most computer-related tasks, professional photo editing demands more than that. Most monitors in our test thus feature a 10-Bit LUT, or wide color gamut. These monitors can show over a billion different colors. Even more advanced pro-level monitors even have a 16-Bit 3D LUT that, in combination with the proper GPU, can even display the subtlest nuances in the darkest of shadows. Those looking for a monitor to create professional print media will find those particularly useful. Remember however, that this broad color palette is only supported when connecting to the PC or MAC via DisplayPort. HDMI does not support that many colors.
Another important factor is the color space that a display supports. All monitors in our test are covering 100% of the sRGB color space which is important for web graphics and simple print jobs. Images created for web usage are being displayed 100% color-accurate. The Adobe RGB color space which is important in several professional sectors is also covered by least 95% in all the monitors tested. Most cheaper IPS monitors only score a 70-80% match. If you convert your RAW files into the Adobe RGB color space or shoot in said color space directly on your camera, you’ll be able to edit your photos with great color-accuracy on a professional monitors . To improve color reproduction even further, you should calibrate your monitor on a regular basis (see #3 in our gallery above).
Ergonomics and Additional Features
Apart from what’s on the inside, ergonomics are also an important factor when choosing a new display. If a display can’t be set up in the way most comfortable for you, good image quality won’t be of that much use. This is why we paid close attention to how well the ergonomics are carried out in different displays and check whether panels are height-adjustable, tiltable, and whether they offer pivoting. Especially for editing portraits pivoting is of interest since it allows you to tilt the display a full 90 degrees. Of all the contestants, the LG 34UC87 is the only one no offering said feature. Its UltraWide aspect ratio would make it hard to realize, anyway.
The controls also play a big part in our review. If adjusting the settings is too complicated we will deduct points. Handy extras will score a product bonus points: A wired remote, an SD-Card reader, or an integrated USB hub are all welcome extras, although not absolutely necessary for image editing. Some displays could score with the addition of anti-reflection blinds which block out reflections from the environment. When reviewing displays, we of course take all these extras into consideration and reward them in our test score accordingly.