The importance of using good displays

Introduction

I saw a thread in one of the Sony groups where people were posting their desktops. It was the usual mix of machines, Windows and OSX, desktops and laptops, nothing out of the norm for photographers except for one little discrepancy. What struck me as odd was the focus on power over quality.

You may think I am talking about Mac vs PC but hopefully the title was a giveaway. When it comes to post processing photos, one of the most important considerations is the display because ultimately you are editing colour and to edit colour, you have to know that colour is accurate. The irony is that people select their cameras because of the relatively minor differences in colour, they complain that some lenses offer differences in colour, and they complain that the white balances of a camera has a big impact.

These same people pick powerhouse computers and then put the cheapest 4K display they can find, or a curved wide-screen display because it “looks really cool”. The impact of these displays is quickly evident in simple things like the brightness of their photos.

There are two key things to consider when looking at colour correct displays:

1. The display itself
2. The calibration of the display

I’m not going to cover specific monitors today, if I do this article will be outdated within a few months, let alone years and I don’t intend updating it.

Selecting a display

There are about 50 articles on the best monitors for photo editing at the time of writing, with recommendations on what to buy, as mentioned above, this will change month by month so I won’t cover it, but I will cover the basics.

Forget about resolution, go colour correct before resolution. Yes, you read correctly, it’s a common mistake I see people make. Unfortunately colour correct and high resolution don’t come cheaply, so if you can’t afford a 4K colour correct display, don’t buy a 4K display that isn’t colour correct, buy a non-4K that is. You don’t need to buy a Eizo to get a colour correct display, most photographers I know can’t afford Eizo, but brands like BenQ provide colour accurate monitors you can get for a reasonable price, by Eizo standards. Buying a good non-4K 27″ display is going to set you back $600, something like a SW2700 although this price will come down as time goes on and 4K display become cheaper. Jumping to the 4K version of the same display (SW271) nearly doubles the price to $1100.

sw271-14-bit-3d

Image from BenQ website

Secondly, size isn’t always as important as you think. We all like to think that putting a massive 36″ wide-screen on our desk will look awesome, but when you start editing photos, it actually doesn’t make that much of a difference. I was set on the 32″ but when I had the 32″ and 27″ 4K displays side by side editing on both (before I purchased they had in store demos of both setup with Photoshop) and I found the 27″ was actually better to edit on, for me at least. It’s not to say that applies to everyone, but

Don’t buy curved panels. They are designed for gaming and other applications, not photography. There is a reason they don’t make curved photography panels, it comes down to simple things like making straight lines look curved.

Calibrating a display

Yes, even a good display requires calibration. Some display will come with calibration built-in, but for most you will have to buy a calibration tool.

You can pick up a decent low-end colour calibration tool for around $129 (Spyder Express) at the time of writing, there is no excuse not to calibrate. If you can’t afford a colour calibration tool, select a cheaper display. The colour calibration process (when complete) will show you how much of a difference your colour calibration makes when it completes and you can compare them, in many cases it’s a substantial difference, like moving the white balance temperature slider by about 500 Kelvin. That’s a big difference to pictures when you look at the difference side by side, so if you think calibration isn’t impacting your photos, try putting two of the same photo side by side with one adjusted by 500 and ask yourself if you are prepared to take that risk.

sw271-hardware-calibration

Image from BenQ website

It’s important to remember that not all calibrators are created equal. Some calibration tools allow you to adjust monitor brightness as well (if the monitor supports it). Brightness can have a big impact on your photos. If you have ever seen someone constantly posting under exposed photos on Facebook, this is normally as a result of the monitor brightness being set too high, so they have the distorted impression their photos are correctly exposed when they are not.

What about all in ones like the iMac

It really depends on the all in one device you are looking at. Apple’s iMac, particularly the newer 5K versions aren’t terrible and with a calibration device you will be okay, but it’s not going to a match a dedicated photo display.

Before buying, I’d recommend checking specs and reviews of the display to make sure you are getting something that is suitable. If it’s cheap, chances are it isn’t photo grade, there are no price miracles in photo displays, you get what you pay for.

What would I recommend?

In simple terms, I’d recommend the best you can afford. If that’s Eizo, then get it, if its BenQ, then go for that, but whatever you get, make sure you don’t make the mistake of buying a bad display because you want 4K.

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