14 Sep 2015

Monitors for photographers and retouchers

No Comments Equipment, Retouch

A monitor for photo editing is a completely different structure than an ordinary display for office or home use. I will try to explain below what a photography monitor is, why you won’t find any in offers of companies such as Dell, Samsung, LG and the like as well as which models are suitable for photo editing. It’s going to be quite a long text, but this topic cannot be briefly summarized. Moreover, the text also includes a list of all monitors appropriate for retouch, together with the differences between them – I believe that such a list may be useful in making the decision.

If you plan to buy a monitor for photo editing any time in the future, this text may prove very helpful. If you deal with photography and reckon that you don’t need such a monitor, you should read this all the more…

Last significant update: 20.03.2016

Table of contents:

This entry touches upon the following issues:

CRT and LCD: Was it all better in the past?

In the past, we used cathode-ray tube screens – the big and heavy ones with small diagonals (15″ was a standard and 21″ was considered as very big). In theory, the workspace was larger than in equivalent monitors with proportions of 16:10, but there was not enough room for palettes on the sides. It was possible to buy a good monitor at a really low price. The range was considerable because a model suitable for graphic design and photography was also good for playing games and most other applications. Then came the time of LCD and everything changed.

LCD technology had a lot of disadvantages. Four main types of matrices were distinguished: TN, IPS, VA and PVA. The cheapest screens were based on TN, which showed colors in a very poor manner and their viewing angles were virtually terrible. However, they didn’t demonstrate visible input lags while displaying quick action, so they were quite good for playing games (most monitors and nearly all laptop displays are still based on TN). One popular VA matrix at a certain time was MVA – a kind of combination of TN and IPS, but it was replaced by new-generation TN and has been virtually out of use for a long time. Better devices used PVA and IPS matrices. With the former, hues (mainly those of grey and black) changed a bit when you viewed them at an angle, while with the latter, black was never “truly black” and had a “silvering” effect in a room with insufficient lighting. Another drawback of IPS was unclear image, which seemed “coarse” (you were able to spot lines between the pixels; this makes white look a bit dirty). In both cases, input lags were much longer than for TN. One of the previous IPS versions was E-IPS, but don’t confuse it with e-IPS as the latter is a low-budget version installed in cheaper devices. The latest generation of IPS is called AH-IPS; another equally good matrix type similar to that one is PLS.

Beside the abovementioned LCD disadvantages, I should also mention two more (quite serious) drawbacks. First, each LCD monitor had its native resolution; in nearly every other resolution, the image was much worse. Second, you were able to find dead pixels on the matrix (unlike on CRT monitors).

Those were just the most basic problems, absent from cathode-ray tube monitors. As time went by, they managed to alleviate or even eliminate some of the drawbacks, but the beginnings were tough and cheap monitors are still poor.

As a result, many categories of monitors based on various matrices were created. Players cared mainly about speed, while office work was supposed not to make the eyes tired and to be possible for many hours spent in 300-lux lighting (in many countries this level is required by OHS provisions, so the backlight in many monitors was too strong for home use even when set to a minimum value). Finally, photographers wanted, among others, perfect uniformity and the best possible color reproduction in the Adobe RGB space – and it all required developing advanced solutions.

Consequently, making good monitors wasn’t too profitable and virtually no company decided to go for it: junk was mass-produced instead and standard recipients agreed because they got thin, light and energy-saving monitors. Sadly, photographers, designers and graphic designers weren’t able to work with such equipment, so they still used CRTs.

However, two companies – Eizo and NEC – decided to create monitors for professional applications as well as for more demanding amateurs. Actually, several producers gave it a try at the beginning, but only those two have survived. Unfortunately, developing appropriate solutions ate up enormous sums of money, which translated into the price of the product itself. There was a time when LCD photography monitors cost well over $7000… Luckily, it’s over now (well, you can find a 4K monitor at that price :)).

Though supermarkets still sell terrible-quality monitors for the masses, photography monitors have been meticulously perfected and are now much better than those in the times of CRTs. The diagonal – and thus the resolution – has dramatically increased. Moreover, screen proportions have changed to panoramic, which are definitely more practical for work with many palettes. Those qualities can actually be offered by all companies, but for retouch, other features have enormous significance – and it’s only Eizo and NEC that care about them. Other producers try to be active in the professional monitor area; sadly, those are mainly marketing activities. The result is monitors such as Dell U2413, which are better than typical supermarket monitors, but have nothing in common with photographic applications. What is worse, models with the same designations can actually be different monitors, produced in different factories and having different parameters. Sadly, such screens are often recommended on photography forums by people who have never worked with a real photography monitor. This creates numerous myths and a lot of frustration when it turns out that a given monitor is completely unsuitable for the tasks it was supposed to do.

Characterization of photography monitors

Photography monitors display a gamut close to that of Adobe RGB (that is, color saturation can be much higher, like on professional prints). If a monitor has 3D LUT, you can narrow the gamut if you need to. The gamut depends on the way that the matrix is backlit, not on the matrix itself. PR people tempt us with various numbers, but you can easily ignore them all. What’s the use of a wide gamut in some models if it’s completely incompatible with Adobe RGB, in which you work with photos?

AdobeRGB-vs-sRGB_936px

GB-r LED backlight gives you a wide gamut and is much better for the eyes than white LED (W-LED), which isn’t actually white, but usually blue with yellow luminophore. Monitors with such backlight often verge on cool colors and may make the eyes tired. It also happens that diode backlight blinks (especially when set to low values) – some people spot it immediately, others never notice. It wasn’t a problem in the times of fluorescent lamps, but today diodes are used nearly everywhere, which is problematic with equipment designed by accountants. Monitors which you can find on my list below as recommended for photography work don’t have such flaws.

The backlight in a photography monitor must be as uniform as possible: it’s inadmissible for some fragments of the screen to be lighter than others (a common phenomenon in a huge number of monitors). You make corrections (brightness included!) on the basis of what you see, don’t you? The same concerns white point uniformity: when you retouch a beauty shot and the bottom left fragment of the screen displays warmer colors than does the top left one, you will want to correct that, even though you shouldn’t. Displaying two shots next to each other makes no sense in such situation. You may get totally confused when you zoom in. And now imagine that a graphic or retouch studio works using such monitors and its employees switch projects with one another… Or take a more down-to-earth event: you have just edited a photo and are about to begin editing the second one in this series, so you display it next to the finished one and make your corrections. You switch the photos (the one previously shown on the left is now on the right and vice versa) and… they look identical as before on a photography monitor, but not on an amateur one. It stems from the abovementioned lack of uniformity. This is what made me crazy and was the final reason behind changing my monitor for a good one.

Color reproduction
Let me use an example here: you’re calibrating a standard monitor and a photography monitor. You put them next to each other and display the same image on them, but it looks different: the colors verge on different hues and the contrast varies. The cheaper monitor also has poorer color saturation and doesn’t show gentle tonal transitions or details in the shadows. Moreover, when you move a portrait across the screen, skin color changes depending on the exact position on the monitor. Add to that some weird discolorations on black and white photos. To put it simple, you just don’t know for sure what you’re doing when editing a photo on something like that – what the user sees is far from the actual state. Finally, you must remember that we want a photo to look correct, not “cool”.

Looking at the photos I took in the past, I can clearly see their many imperfections. Beside incorrect brightness, skin color and contrast, they have a lot of yellow, red and green discolorations on the skin – my previous screens were simply unable to show them, but they would all be visible on professional prints (don’t confuse professional prints with photos from minilabs as the latter have a terrible quality compared with the former).

Is it worth investing in a good monitor?

Of course it is. Actually, you must do it. If someone tells you that any model by Dell, Samsung, LG or another company except Eizo or NEC is fully suitable for retouch, they lie – or their requirements are low (and likely to change sooner or later; after all, most people prefer to progress instead of running round in circles). It’s a bit like with TV sets: one person is satisfied with an LCD with the black color looking like grey and the image devoid of any details, while another one chooses a calibrated plasma device with perfect black and the image full of details. I shouldn’t have to add that if you not only watch movies, but also make them, the inability to see those details may be an even bigger problem. The situation is similar in photography.

In the past, I reckoned that IPS and PVA monitors by other companies for approx. 600 USD were good for photo editing (those days, however, it was impossible to buy a photography monitor for such sum, while today you can do it). Now I know that my knowledge was simply embarrassing and I had no idea of how much I kept losing and how few details I was able to see, let alone the fact that the final photo looked totally different than it should have. I had to edit all photos once again afterwards. This is something that everyone must discover at their own pace – and it concerns taking photos, too. Some people will stick to doing trashy photo shoots, while others will decide to progress and try to win more demanding clients, who will pay rates many times higher.

A common argument is that a given person doesn’t need a good monitor because their clients see no difference anyway. The question is: does that person prefer not to progress any more and to stay on their current level, working for clients with such low requirements? With a similar attitude, any change would be somewhat difficult: you shouldn’t expect a client to choose a photographer whose requirements concerning photos are lower than their own.

A photo can be retouched and produced in a minilab or professionally printed. Even a daltonist could see the difference between the two: a professional print is more detailed, has no unplanned discolorations and shows much more saturated colors wherever they are needed. However, if you want the final effect to look the way you have planned and not to be pure chance, you have to edit the photo on a photography monitor, which is able to show what will come out of the printer. Minilabs make it all worse because the result is achieved more or less by accident anyway, but a good monitor reduces the number of variables.

But most people will see my photos on a cheap monitor anyway…

This is probably the most popular (and at the same time the most senseless) argument supporting the opinion that you don’t need a good screen for Internet editing.

Come on, if you retouch a photo on a serious monitor which displays it the way it actually looks like, you can be sure you edit it correctly! It doesn’t matter at all that someone else will see it in a different way! If you edit a photo using some trash, another user will still see it in a totally different way than you do, but the distortions from his monitor will be combined with those from yours. If someone believes that such a combination will actually result in a great photo, I guess no arguments will convince them.

A monitor for a photographer: which one to choose?

A monitor for photo editing is one by Eizo or NEC – no doubt about it. Other producers offer NO graphic monitor and providing different information in leaflets won’t change it (true, there were more producers in the past, but only two have remained. They have recently been joined by Benq, which is trying its hand at it, but we need a few years to pass in order to see if it’s able to maintain its parameters).

An IPS matrix itself doesn’t mean at all that a given monitor is suitable for photo editing or graphic design. No matter how good the matrix is, it won’t help unless controlled using equally good electronics. Phrases like “this monitor is good because its matrix is the same as the one in a NEC that costs $1100” make no sense: that monitor won’t be comparable to the professional one in any aspect. Electronics is very important! Take the DUE system: it’s responsible for correcting uniformity and produces truly great results (you can easily see that if you turn DUE off for a while via the monitor’s OSD).

Your dilemma will be the choice of a specific model. My advice is: simply buy the most expensive one and at the same time the best one you can afford. Think twice: do you really want to save on this very piece of equipment? A monitor will work for you for a very long time: you will change the computer (and the camera) several times, while the monitor will still work great. There isn’t much logic in buying lenses for $1000 or more, while saving on a monitor, on which the final photos depend.

Eizo

In 2012, Eizo really stirred things up on the market. When everyone already thought that LCD technology wouldn’t allow for any significant progress in quality and that we needed to wait for OLED to see some revolution… CX240 appeared.

ColorEdge_CX241_press

Putting that one next to any other screen made one’s jaw drop and caused disbelief: deep black, no silvering effect, clear image without coarseness typical of IPS, a wide gamut, hardware calibration, a built-in auto-correct sensor and a satin matrix combining the advantages of matt and glossy matrices, but without their drawbacks. That monitor displayed photos which looked like professional prints. Moreover, it cost approx. $1600 instead of $5000 (and today it’s even cheaper). Reviewers unanimously agreed that it was a revolution, not an evolution. Unfortunately, a certain flaw followed which damaged that reputation and though the defect was eliminated, the bad opinion can still be heard. What was it? One problem of monitors produced in March 2013 was backlight bleeding in one of the corners (i.e. black was clearly brighter there, especially if room lighting was insufficient; this phenomenon is generally a standard and is much more intense, but not in that class of monitors). The defect was rectified and CX240 monitors produced later had equal quality and were very good in every aspect. My CX (precisely from the March batch) was sent back and replaced by CG246. This is the same monitor as CX240 in terms of structure, but it has to meet even stricter standards concerning uniformity and possesses a built-in fully-fledged colorimeter; moreover, the set includes ColorNavigator calibration software and a hood. The monitor allows you to do soft proofing, which means you can use it to simulate virtually everything smoothly and on the spot, be it iPad image or anything else. Thus, even if you think CX is not enough, you can go for even better CG. I was really satisfied with it, but who wouldn’t be?

Of course, cheaper models do exist. Eizo CS230 is a screen for less demanding people satisfied with a narrow gamut (often also called a normal gamut or a standard gamut), which means you can do retouch for the Internet and minilab prints. In the past, they also sold SX2262W – an older (which doesn’t equal worse) model, as well as SX2462W (at very good prices), but the production has already ended. Its current counterpart is CS240 – a completely different structure than CS230. It has a wide gamut and could be called a cheaper, quite significantly simplified version of CX.

Eizo EV is a home-and-office model, with all consequences of that fact: it’s not suitable for the applications we’re discussing here. Foris, in turn, is something designed for players, especially professional ones, because others will be gladder of EV.

NEC

An advantage of monitors by this company is a free-of-charge program called MultiProfiler, which allows you to do something like sensorless hardware calibration. This sounds incredible, but is surprisingly good if the monitor is new. However, if it has already worked for many hours, it will finally have to be calibrated using the standard method.

nec

In 2014, only the SV series of NEC monitors had hardware calibration in Europe, but now even the cheaper PA series includes suitable free-of-charge software.

NEC offers several monitor series: PA, SV and SV Reference. They’re all the same in terms of hardware, but SV and SV Reference meet stricter standards and this is precisely what we want here. In UHD monitors, SV is available only in the Reference version, which gives us two models instead of three.

In the current generation of NEC monitors, P means a standard gamut (sRGB) and PA denotes a wide one (close to Adobe RGB).

Sadly, NEC has no direct counterparts of Eizo CX241 or CG247, so if I were to buy a photography-dedicated 24″ monitor, I would definitely prefer to get an Eizo. The differences between bigger screens are no longer that significant, so the choice may be hard, while the biggest monitors (more than 27″) with standard resolutions are offered only by NEC.


A list of photography monitors

Below you can find the most important part of the text – a list of monitors I recommend for photography work. It begins with cheap models, which may be suitable for amateur editing, but don’t ever treat them as something designed for photos because they are very far from that. Actually, I don’t recommend them, but sometimes the budget prevails and you cannot do anything but spend even more money: you buy something cheaper first and replace it in the future. Every subsequent monitor on the list is better than the previous one. Remember that for professional prints, you have to invest in monitors with a color space close to that of Adobe RGB (which additionally covers nearly the entire CMYK color model) and not sRGB as the latter is sufficient only for Internet editing and minilabs.

Monitors with standard resolutions

22″ – 24″:

NEC P232W | 23″ | 16:9 | 1920 x 1080 | e-IPS | matt | sRGB | Backlight: W-LED |
It deserves attention only as an absolute minimum for photography. It has e-IPS, i.e. a low-budget version of IPS matrix. If you’re considering it, then you’re probably only beginning your work and don’t have a calibrator yet, so you can set everything using MultiProfiler. If you have a calibrator or plan to buy one, then I recommend paying more and getting Eizo CS230 because the price difference is small (though it increases if we add ColorNavigator purchase). 16:9 proportions are a great disadvantage to many people as they are definitely less comfortable for work than 16:10. NEC’s P242W, a more expensive model, is absent from the list since individual monitors differ a lot in quality. Thus, it’s hard to recommend it wholeheartedly: you just don’t know what you get.

Eizo CS230 | 23″ | 16:9 | 1920 x 1080 | IPS | matt | sRGB | Backlight: W-LED |
This one also has 16:9 proportions, so if you don’t mind and edit photos only for the Internet or minilabs, you will be rather satisfied (but if you can spend a bigger sum, pay more to get a CX and you will be delighted because the difference is enormous). After buying ColorNavigator (not included in the set), you can use hardware calibration. That’s why you should consider paying more to get at least CS240, which has CN included in the set, so the price difference becomes barely noticeable. CS230 has only a 6-bit matrix, but with FRC, so the image looks like an 8-bit one (with some exceptions, but those are mainly test images).

*Eizo SX2262W | 22″ | 16:10 | 1920 x 1200 | PVA | matt | Adobe RGB | Backlight: fluorescent lamps |
An incredibly universal monitor based on PVA matrix, which is an advantage for home use when compared with ordinary IPS. Its dot pitch is smaller than in 24″ matrices and that constitutes an advantage to many people. When it comes to hardware, this SX is the same as older CGs (i.e. fully professional Color Edge series). This doesn’t mean an identical monitor, of course: it doesn’t have to meet equally strict uniformity standards, the set doesn’t include a hood and hardware calibration is blocked (it’s only possible using service methods). Even though, you get a fantastic monitor for the price you pay. 24″ SX2462W is a totally different structure – only the names are similar.
*This monitor is no longer available.

Eizo CS240 | 24″ | 16:10 | 1920 x 1200 | PLS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
A new model in the offer – it has nothing in common with Eizo CS230! This is a totally different monitor. It has a very good quality-price ratio; it can be viewed as the successor of (already withdrawn) Eizo SX2462W and as a competitor of NEC PA242W. The CS240 model is very often described as a simplified version of CX241, without an auto-correct sensor and with a stand from less advanced series, but there are more differences between them. The matrix is completely different, the electronics inside is less rich and black is not that good (the silvering effect typical of all IPS monitors is visible). The matrix has 8 bits and 2FRC. Pay more and buy CX241 if you can afford it, but if you cannot, CS240 is a good choice. I have a big problem trying to assess it in relation to NEC PA242W.

*NEC PA241W | 24″ | 16:10 | 1920 x 1200 | IPS | matt | Adobe RGB | Backlight: fluorescent lamps |
A very good monitor in terms of the quality-price ratio, but you can already buy its successor (described below), so PA241W is increasingly harder to obtain and prices vary dramatically between shops. If you are to buy it for a price similar to that of the current model, it makes no sense – it’s better to pay a bit more and get PA242W; however, if you manage to find it for a much lower price, it’s certainly worth having. As befits a PA NEC, it has MultiProfiler, while hardware calibration is available only after buying SpectraViewII software.
*This monitor is currently virtually unavailable.

NEC PA242W | 24″ | 16:10 | 1920 x 1200 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
This NEC monitor is something between Eizo SX2462W (which is no longer produced) and CX241. Sadly, the silvering effect is still visible and black is brighter than on Eizo monitors. If you don’t have a calibrator, MultiProfiler is an advantage again. Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay more and get a CX. This NEC model also has versions which meet stricter standards, i.e. SV242 and SV242 Reference, but they are more expensive. I wouldn’t buy them, but get an Eizo CX or a CG instead, hence the absence of NEC SV242 from this list.

Eizo CX241 | 24″ | 16:10 | 1920 x 1200 | PLS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
A successor of CX240. According to initial information, it was expected to be worse than its predecessor due to a different matrix, but that proved untrue: the matrix is still PLS (moreover, it has been upgraded). A nearly perfect monitor: fantastic black, clear image resembling professional prints and no silvering effect on black owing to a quarter-wave plate. ColorNavigator, the hardware calibration software, is included in the set (with the previous model, you had to pay an additional sum for it). It doesn’t have a fan, either (the previous model did, and it was a bit disturbing). If I were to buy a 24″ monitor with standard resolution today, I would buy precisely Eizo CX241. The only better models are CG247 and no longer produced CG246, but the differences between them don’t matter much in photography.

Eizo CG247 | 24″ | 16:10 | 1920 x 1200 | PLS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
It’s the same as CX241 in terms of hardware, but it meets even stricter standards as confirmed by a certificate issued by a factory in which it was manufactured and carefully tested and its parameters measured (the results are printed and attached). The set includes items which you normally have to buy separately, so the price difference between CX241 and CG decreases a bit. You get a dedicated hood and a very good built-in colorimeter, which can not only make automatic corrections, but also conduct full calibration including the first one (you don’t have to buy an additional sensor or order the first calibration). ColorNavigator, the hardware calibration software, is also included in the set, as is standard for every CG.

27″:

The quality of 24″ monitors is better e.g. in terms of uniformity, but the difference is definitely not big enough to prevent one from considering 27″ monitors at all. Quite the contrary: the undeniable advantages of 27″ monitors are a smaller dot pitch and a higher resolution, which means bigger workspace and that may be more important than the quality of black etc. When working with a 24″ screen, I display Photoshop palettes on an auxiliary monitor, while a 27″ screen accommodates nearly everything.

Eizo CS270 | 16:9 | 2560 x 1440 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
It’s a bigger version of Eizo CS230 – it doesn’t have an auto-correct sensor, either, and the image it produces is characteristic for IPS matrices. It has a very good quality-price ratio (before its premiere, producers didn’t offer a good 27″ monitor at such price). ColorNavigator software is included, so you may do hardware calibration without additional costs (except a calibrator, of course). Personally, I’d certainly prefer paying more in order to get a CX271 (it’s approx. 20% more expensive), but if it’s impossible for you and your budget is very limited, CS270 is a good option.

NEC PA272W | 16:9 | 2560 x 1440 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
At first, the price of this monitor seems to be very attractive, but this is the PA series, in which screen uniformity varies – you make the purchase on your own responsibility. Better PA272W monitors are sold as SV272 and I think they’re worth paying more.

NEC SV272 | 16:9 | 2560 x 1440 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
Technically it’s precisely the same as PA, but it meets stricter standards and supports hardware calibration without any problems. Like every NEC monitor in the PA, SV and SV Reference series, this one also supports MultiProfiler software. Its warranty is usually 5 years instead of 3 (as for PA).

Eizo CX271 | 16:9 | 2560 x 1440 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
A direct successor of CX270, with ColorNavigator included. It differs significantly from CX270 – it’s better in every aspect. Actually, only their names and sizes are similar. CX271 has a built-in auto-correct sensor, which controls brightness and white point, making corrections as necessary. It’s all done automatically and the monitor doesn’t even have to be turned on (the stand-by mode is enough).

NEC SV272 Reference |16:9 | 2560 x 1440 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
The best 27″ monitor in NEC’s offer, chosen from those PA272W and SV272 models which meet the strictest standards. Like ordinary (not Reference) SV272, it allows for smooth hardware calibration. Its set includes a hood and a 5-year warranty.

Eizo CG277  |16:9 | 2560 x 1440 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
This is CX271 with unblocked soft proofing, a hood in the set and a very good built-in colorimeter, so you need nothing more to do full calibration. Moreover, CG controls itself and runs calibration again without the user’s action if it’s necessary. I think that it’s more justified to spend an additional sum and get a CG when 27″ monitors are concerned than with 24″ screens because big monitors aren’t in principle as uniform as smaller ones, while CG has to meet very strict requirements in this respect. However, even CX will be sufficient for most users’ photo work.

30″

Eizo doesn’t offer 30″ monitors any more (except the 4K model, whose price is on a totally different level), but NEC does. In this size, the horizontal dimension of the workspace has the same number of pixels as in 27″ screens, but you get additional 160 pixels in the vertical one (which means 16:10 instead of 16:9 proportions). The dot pitch is a bit bigger than in 27″ monitors, but smaller than in 24″ screens. Still, if I were to choose between 27 and 30 inches, I would get a larger screen. Sadly, the prices are also much higher.

NEC PA302W | 16:10 | 2560 x 1600 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
You could think that it’s very hard to control uniformity in 30″ monitors, but it’s completely all right in this model (of course, this is the PA series, so NEC doesn’t guarantee that your monitor will have qualities identical to those of another user’s screen). Black is worse than in the 24″ CX and the silvering effect is present (unlike in the 24″ CX), but the size is often more important than parameters. The monitor supports MultiProfiler and has a 3-year warranty.

NEC SV302 | 16:10 | 2560 x 1600 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED |
As with every SV Reference, this one is identical to the PA model in terms of hardware, so it has the same flaws and advantages, but meets stricter uniformity standards, has a better and longer warranty (5 years), officially supports hardware calibration and includes a hood.


UHD and 4K monitors

Professional 4K monitors are slowly appearing on the market. Their feature is a significantly higher resolution: an UHD screen has 4 times more pixels than an FHD one. However, UHD monitors won’t replace current models for a long time to come; instead, they will be sold as separate product lines and their prices will be much higher than those of their equivalents with normal resolutions. Every monitor on the list below is an MST one, but can also be plugged as SST (I will explain this below in the paragraph on graphics cards).

rozdzielczosci-680x359

I made the picture above to show you the differences among workspaces in particular resolutions. One UHD screen accommodates as many pixels as do four standard 16:9 monitors (i.e. four Eizo CS230 monitors, for instance). The screenshot below, in turn, demonstrates the layout of my Photoshop on a UHD monitor:

Zrzut-ekranu-2015-10-21-o-16.21.20

A photo from a 12MP matrix is displayed in its full size (100%) – nearly the entire frame fits on the screen.

Zrzut-ekranu-2015-10-21-o-16.36.56

Displaying two photos next to each other together with palettes and the navigator window is also more comfortable than ever before.

24″

NEC EA244UHD | 23.8” | 16:9 | 3840 x 2160 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: GB-r LED
The EA series has never been designed with photography work in mind, but this model has a totally different structure than its counterpart with a standard resolution. It offers many features of graphic (not office) monitors, so it should be compared with PA instead of EA models. Hardware calibration is officially supported, but the set doesn’t include relevant software – and MultiProfiler doesn’t work with this monitor. I’d personally recommend a more advanced model to a person expecting a photography monitor. However, NEC doesn’t currently offer 24″ PA or SV monitors, only much bigger screens. Such a high resolution on a small screen like this one makes the image unbelievably sharp.

Eizo CG248–4K | 23.8” | 16:9 | 3840 x 2160 | PLS | satin | Adobe RGB |
Despite the 4K symbol, this monitor has an UHD matrix (it’s the same with all TV sets marked with 4K, so I guess everyone has already got used to this naming convention). This is a high-resolution counterpart of CG247, in which there isn’t much to correct – precisely except resolution. Thus, CG248 has all of its advantages; I can hardly imagine that someone could be dissatisfied with it – except the size, of course: nowadays, 24″ is a very small diagonal after all, especially in UHD screens, for which 30″ should become a standard. The image is as sharp as on NEC EA244UHD, but its quality is much better.

27″ and more

NEC EA275UHD | 27″ | 16:9 | 3840 x 2160 | AH-IPS | satin | sRGB | Backlight: W-LED
It’s not just a bigger version of EA244UHD – it’s a totally different monitor (unfortunately, it’s a bit worse, but that’s why its price is the same despite the bigger size). Its sRGB gamut is sufficient for photo editing for the Internet, but not for professional prints. You can use hardware calibration using SpectraViewII software, but you have to buy it separately. If you need a monitor for home (and office) use, this one is a great choice – it offers a fantastic quality-price ratio (taking the resolution into account). If you also buy SpectraViewII, it will be quite good for photo editing as well.

NEC PA 322UHD |31.5″ | 16:9 | 3840 x 2160 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: W-LED
The biggest screen on the whole list. In theory, it’s only 0.4″ bigger than Eizo CG318, but the difference is more visible than you could expect due to different proportions. It’s the PA series, but the model is absolutely great. I’m sure that most photographers will be satisfied with the uniformity it offers: the monitors I have used had a uniformity reaching that of the best monitors which exist, but individual monitors may vary a bit. Still, this is a completely different class than PA monitors with standard resolution, which were quite far from the quality demonstrated by SV Reference.

NEC SpectraView Reference 322UHD |31.5″ | 16:9 | 3840 x 2160 | AH-IPS | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: W-LED
It’s the same monitor as PA 322UHD described above, but it was additionally tested in the factory, its warranty is better and the set includes a hood. I’d find it hard to choose between CG318–4K and this 322UHD. I certainly cannot say that one of them is better than the other. Their size and proportions differ a lot: NEC is much higher. You have to make a choice on the basis of your own preferences. If you need a monitor also for cinema/TV movie montage, CG will be better for you. Considering the work with photos, I reckon that NEC’s size is a great advantage.

CG318–4K | 31.1” | 16:8 | 4096 x 2160 | satin | Adobe RGB | Backlight: W-LED

The only monitor on this list which really has 4K and not UHD, hence its resolution (4096 x 2160 instead of 3840 x 2160). This gives you additional (albeit small) workspace to the side, hence the rather non-standard proportions (16:8 instead of 16:9). I’d consider it an advantage with videos (you can play a movie in an original resolution and still have some space for basic icons), but not necessarily with photos because a wider screen means a much lower screen despite the same number of pixels in the vertical dimension. Actually, everything in this monitor has perfect quality: its backlight is very uniform despite its big surface and it has great contrast, a built-in calibrator, a 5-year warranty as well as ColorNavigator software and a hood in the set. The housing design has been changed, too: professional monitors have always had a charm of a blackened brick, but this one is different. Unfortunately, nothing is for free – it’s the most expensive screen on this list.


The lack of any model by producers such as Dell, Samsung, Asus, LG and the like on the list isn’t a coincidence. The explanation is simple: even their best monitors are for office and home use. For some reason, people keep recommending them for photography work, but after many years of using them by myself, I haven’t the faintest notion why they do so. The only advantage of those monitors is their price, but it won’t suddenly make them suitable for applications for which they are not designed at all. Buying them is like throwing money down the drain because you will finally have to make another purchase in order to get something truly suitable for photo editing.

Apple monitors in photography

A built-in iMac monitor has nothing in common with those made for photography work (it’s the same with Apple Cinema Display and Apple Thunderbolt Display). This concerns all models, including iMac 5k. Of course, many people use iMacs, for example to preview photos straight from the camera in photo studios, but nearly everything is suitable for such applications because it’s better than a built-in LCD display of the camera. You can also meet people who use iMacs for retouch, but it’s the same as using Dell screens – if someone knew how much they kept losing in comparison with a photography monitor, they would never conceive of working with iMac because the image it displays is totally different than the actual appearance of a given photo, especially if that photo is meant to be professionally printed.

Sadly, most people don’t know how big the differences are because they have never had an opportunity to work with professional equipment. iMac screens aren’t linear at all and you can do only software calibration. They’re unevenly backlit, the backlight itself has poor quality and the gamut is close only to sRGB. In iMacs with late-2015 retina, the gamut is wider – it’s close to DCI-P3, which is still far from Adobe RGB, and it cannot be cut to sRGB due to the lack of 3D-LUT. You cannot change basic parameters or work in a vertical position (the latter is often very useful in the studio). Moreover, there are problems with stains appearing in the corners of the screen with time; this flaw has been present for years and it’s evident that Apple has no idea how to cope with it, so it only keeps replacing faulty screens on the basis of a guarantee.

The only screen by this company that meets the requirements for photography monitors is Retina in MacBook Pro, which is exceptionally linear and incomparably better than retinas in iMacs. Still, it also depends on the individual computer you receive. Moreover, this is an sRGB display, so it’s just right for Internet editing and minilab prints, but it cannot show full colors of professional prints. Finally, it’s hard to compare a 15″ laptop screen with regular monitors which have much bigger diagonals – the comfort of work is different, after all. The remaining laptops by Apple have totally different displays, absolutely unsuitable for photography work.

There was a time I used a MacBook Pro with a 15″ Retina screen without an external monitor. Though I had used Eizo CG246 before, I was able to work with MBPr. It would be sufficient for Internet applications, but the small matrix size is definitely an unfavorable feature in everyday use. The lack of the possibility to preview photos in Adobe RGB is a big defect during the preparation of photos for doing professional prints.

Used monitors

If you want to buy a used monitor, do so only after testing it by yourself. Cheap such equipment is, it’s rarely worth its price: why would you buy something that doesn’t fulfill its function? It makes no sense to look at the hour meter – it was probably appropriately corrected after exceeding the limit (it’s not a big problem to do so). Such scrap is most often referred to as a “post-leasing monitor”.

It certainly makes sense to buy a used monitor – you just need to have knowledge of monitors. If you don’t possess experience in this area, you have little chance of buying something good. When you’re about to buy a used photography monitor, begin by checking the condition of the outer side of the matrix (dead pixels, chafes etc.). Then inspect backlight condition: if you increase the power of fluorescent lamps and they stop becoming brighter at some point, it’s a bad sign. In general, 50% brightness should burn out the eyes, but I know that many people work like this on a daily basis against the rules of calibration and logic – I hope you’re not one of those people. If the above setting results in brightness of approx. 80 cd/m2, which is what you want for work, it makes no sense to buy that screen because you will have to throw it away soon. Display white background to see backlight uniformity and display black in a dark room to control backlight bleeding, which means bright patches on a dark screen (don’t be too stressed out about it, though; leaking black is a standard – it just shouldn’t be visible in normal conditions). Actually, it would be best if you could use a sensor to check the monitor, calibrate it and see the results. This can be done within a few minutes, so it shouldn’t be a big problem for the seller. Just remember to ask them to turn on the monitor earlier because it must heat up to maintain parameters. If it doesn’t maintain them even after heating up and, for example, RGB weights change now and again or the backlight fluctuates between 80 and 90 nits, it’s another sign that the monitor is no longer suitable for work.

There is one more problem with buying used monitors: newer models (of CX type) aren’t available on the resale market (and probably won’t be for a long time to come), while previous models produce much worse image after all.

Calibration

Depending on the model, a monitor can support hardware or software calibration. In either case, you need a calibrator (a colorimeter or a spectrophotometer).

Hardware calibration is done in more professional monitors and is better because all changes are introduced in the LUT of the monitor. Thus, you obtain correct color reproduction and lose nothing along the way. With software calibration, changes are introduced in the LUT of the graphics card. This means that if something deviates from the norm, it cannot be corrected without losses and is cut out. Consequently, tonal transitions are no longer so smooth. The worse the monitor, the more you lose. Moreover, some producers consider as hardware calibration already the possibility of changing backlight power (which is available in every monitor), RGB weights or other basic parameters. That’s another reason for ignoring leaflet content.

When you work with colors, calibration is a must. The cheapest decent calibrator is Spyder4, sold i.a. as EasyPix 2 in a black housing (Spyder3, which was sold as EasyPix in a grey housing, is trash suitable only for recycling). Recently, they have also released a new model – Spyder5. However, the one I recommend wholeheartedly is i1 Display Pro colorimeter – a bit more expensive, but much better (do not confuse it with i1 Display 2, which is hopeless). Other solutions are more expensive, but not always better. i1 Pro2 is great (and many times more expensive), but ColorMunki (sold in several versions) is worse for screen calibration than i1 Display Pro (especially if you use native software). Calibration is always done for specific lighting conditions! You can read about adjusting room lighting to retouch in my other article (here). If lighting is incorrect, simply forget correct retouching.

Remember not to calibrate a monitor immediately after turning it on – you have to wait a while until its work stabilizes. Good new-generation models need a bit less than 10 minutes, while worse ones require even half an hour. You don’t have to run calibration on your own: there are people who provide such services and really know their job.

Remote calibration (you send the monitor via a shipping company and get it back together with color profiles) is an option which you should carefully consider. You may have some mess in the system or any problems may appear: you won’t even spot them, but the profile won’t be loaded correctly. If you choose calibration at home, a professional employee will mend everything during one visit. It’s also possible to send a monitor together with the computer for calibration, but I will always recommend calibrating the monitor in the location where the computer will be used.

A good monitor maintains parameters for at least one year and screens with an external auto-correct sensor (such as CX240) should do well for two-three years without the need to repeat calibration.

PS. In theory, calibration for photography work means selecting the D50 white point (5000 K), but for viewing photos in daylight and most other applications, it’s better to set D65, which is the Internet standard, too.

Which graphics card to use? 30 Hz, 60 Hz, SST, MST or…

The graphics card in your computer doesn’t matter. It should have a digital output (DisplayPort, DV or possibly HDMI) and that’s it. If the resolution of your monitor is higher than 1920 x 1200, you need DisplayPort or DVI dual link (and a dual link cable – the one with all the pins). Although Photoshop uses GPU support, it does so only with certain filters, so retouch is virtually unaffected.

The situation is a bit different with UHD monitors. If you have one screen (and not three), the efficiency should be sufficient even with an integrated graphics card. Actually, many of us have several monitors whose total number of pixels is similar to that of an UHD monitor. However, there is a very big difference between working in native resolution and working with the scaling turned on – the later influences efficiency to a much greater extent than resolution itself.

Another important issue is refresh rate: many old cards allow for no more than 30 Hz instead of 60 Hz. It doesn’t influence image quality at all, but has an impact on its fluency. Many people are irritated by flicker, while others cannot see a big difference. Personally, I reckon that films should be made at no less than 60 FPS because I’m disturbed if the image shakes as the camera moves. However, 30 Hz should be fluent enough for retouch itself.

Another issue is the connection of an UHD monitor: it can be SST or MST. The former requires connecting two cables to the graphics card and the system will then see one monitor as two (of course, the image will be displayed correctly). Moreover, SST allows for only 30 Hz. MST is better: you can get 60 Hz and the system sees one screen.

I should also mention the issue of using 10 instead of 8 bits per channel, which concerns both UHD and HD monitors. If you want to take full advantage of a 10-bit matrix, it’s not enough just to connect the monitor. You need Windows, nVidia Quadro or AMD Fire graphics card and software which supports it (Photoshop does). Macs with El Capitan system support 10-bit matrices as well. Currently I think it’s too much fuss: it’s complicated and you gain little. Ordinary graphics cards (GeForce, Radeon, Iris, IntelHD etc.) support 10 bits per channel in DirectX, not OpenGL, so it’s useless for retouch. As I have just mentioned, it presently makes no sense to care about it.

Summary

If you own good photographic equipment, it’s just wrong to save on a monitor. You can even meet people who claim that the monitor is the most important element in the whole set because the final effect depends on it – and this complies with my own experience. If you want a very good screen which is perfect for photography work, go for Eizo CX241 or a better/bigger one and enjoy your great purchase. Anything less advanced than this model means a compromise.

I leave it to you to choose between NEC and Eizo because it’s a matter of individual preference. All Eizo monitors are under a 5-year warranty, hardware calibration is very simple, CS230 and CX241 models have auto-correct sensors and CG models are equipped with a built-in calibrator. In turn, NEC offers free-of-charge MultiProfiler software (for PA and more advanced models), which makes everything considerably easier for people who don’t own a calibrator yet. Moreover, soft proofing is possible also in less advanced models (although it’s more useful in DTP than in photography). The cheapest monitor model suitable for photography work (but in a very limited way – you absolutely cannot treat it as a photography monitor) is produced precisely by NEC. The advantage is even more visible when you compare the cheapest UHD monitors. Eizo currently offers no model which could compete with NEC EA275UHD.

The list of monitors in this entry will be updated if new models worth attention appear on the market.
Last significant update: 20.03.2016


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I have taken beauty and fashion shots for a few years. I publish the results of my work on this blog together with photo shoot descriptions, setups, backstage photos and everything that is significant while photographing. I try to diversify the equipment I use during my photo shoots.
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