Photography is a growing industry where everyone is competing for equipment and technique. However, very few have given much thought to the monitor panel, which is essential for photo editing and printing. When it comes to ‘professionalism’, a piecemeal mindset is unacceptable. Monitors have a greater influence on the delivery of flawless work than most people can imagine. In that case, how should photographers choose a monitor that can fulfil their demands for photo editing and printing? There are many factors worth considering, but they are all closely tied to the size, resolution, contrast, picture quality and other differences between the different types of monitor panels. The following seven questions provide some guidelines for photographers on how to select the best monitor.
Whether a photographer or a member of the general public, the first thing that comes to mind when choosing a monitor is definitely size. The size of monitors has evolved from 19- and 21-inch monitors to the mainstream 27- and 32-inch monitors nowadays. From the perspective of photographers, using a larger screen to browse images delivers greater visual enjoyment. Furthermore, larger screens also accommodate more windows when using professional image processing software, which also improves work efficiency. That being said, is larger really better when it comes to monitor size? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The optimal distance between the user and the monitor is directly proportional to the monitor size. The ideal distance is generally 1.5 times of the size of the monitor (the diagonal length of the display area). In other words, the larger the monitor, the greater distance is required. If users lean too close to a monitor, the images displayed will appear blurry, which stresses the vision and leads to discomfort. On the other hand, keeping a longer distance than needed will leave the user unable to identify image details or even texts. Therefore, larger is not always better when it comes to choosing a monitor. The ideal monitor size is optimal when browsing and working, so guaranteeing comfort is ideal.
For photographers, 27-inch monitors are the mainstream in the market, and also a highly recommended size. This is for two reasons. First of all, a 27-inch monitor is large enough to offer comfort for work and for browsing images. It also fulfils user demands when using image processing software, thereby improving work efficiency. In addition, when opening two images simultaneously, a 27-inch monitor offers a sufficient display area for image processing and comparisons. Secondly, the optimal user-monitor distance for the 27-inch monitor is 100 cm, which is the distance that most users are accustomed to when using computers for image processing.
The advantage of larger-size monitors is that they allow for a comprehensive display of windows and content, offering greater enjoyment for the user when browsing images. Smaller monitors have a lower native resolution and larger inter-pixel distance, which requires scrolling or dragging to reveal more content and functions.
The liquid-crystal display (LCD) panel is the most important piece of component used in a monitor. The LCD panel directly displays content and colours for users to view. However, different types of LCD panel have different pros and cons, which greatly affect the result and accuracy of the display. In general, twisted nematic (TN), vertical alignment (VA) and in-plane switching (IPS) panels are the most common panel types on the market. The characteristics of these three types of panel are explained in detail in the following paragraphs.
Monitors with IPS panels possess a 178°-wide viewing angle and high colour accuracy, making them the top choice for many professional photographers.
The Twisted Nematic (TN) panel’s most notable advantage is its low manufacturing cost. Thus, TN panels are commonly used in entry-level or mid-level products. Another advantage of the TN panel is its short response time, which is why most affordable monitors designed for professional gamers employ the TN panel. However, the TN panel’s performance in colour, contrast and viewing angle are comparatively weak. In particular, the narrow viewing angle of the TN panel renders different results when viewed from different angles (a phenomenon known as colour shifting), which makes monitors with TN panels less than ideal for image processing.
The greatest advantage of Vertical Alignment (VA) panel is its high white-to-black contrast. In particular, the VA panel offers an outstanding display of black. Furthermore, a native 8-bit VA panel provides a maximum of 16.77 million colours (8 bits per red, green and blue), offering superior colour reproduction and colour transition when compared to a native 6-bit TN panel, which can only display 260,000 colours. However, two of the VA panel’s more significant disadvantages are the slow response time and a viewing angle that’s larger than the TN panel but smaller than the IPS panel.
The In-Plane Switching (IPS) panel is the most widely known LCD panel used in professional image processing monitors. The most notable characteristic of the IPS panel is the 178° viewing angle that ensures consistent colour appearance when viewed from any angle. Hence, it effectively reduces colour shifting, a common problem among TN panels. In addition, some recent IPS panels employed in professional image processing monitors even offer 10-bit colour depth with a colour-rendering ability of 1.07 billion colours, and 99% of Adobe RGB coverage rate that delivers realistic colour reproduction. In short, these are the reasons why the majority of monitors designed for professional image processing are equipped with IPS panels.
High-end professional monitors are generally fitted with 10-bit IPS panels that can generate more than 1 billion colours, offering greater authenticity in colour reproduction.
Resolution refers to the number of ‘dots’ that a monitor can display. When viewed under a macro lens or magnifying glass, LCD monitors are made up of a large number of ‘dots’. All images and text displayed on a monitor are composed of these ‘dots’. Therefore, when a greater number of ‘dots’ is displayed on a fixed surface area, a more detailed image is rendered. When a screen is labelled as Full HD, which should ring a bell for most people, it indicates that the monitor has 1,920 dots (pixels) in width and 1,080 dots (pixels) in height. The result of these two numbers multiplied is 2,073,600 dots, which represents the monitor’s resolution.
A comparison of QHD, UHD, FHD and HD. 4K UHD offers superior detail and authenticity than a Full HD monitor.
PPI is short for ‘pixels per inch’, which refers to how many ‘dots’ exist in an inch. In essence, the definition of PPI is nearly identical to that of resolution, and the only difference is the unit, which is an inch rather than the entire surface area of a monitor. Similarly, a larger PPI indicates that the monitor can display an image in more detail. The equation for calculating PPI is as follows:
PPI = (width resolution ^2 + height resolution ^2 ) ^0.5/monitor size (inch)
This equation indicates that PPI is determined by the size and resolution of a monitor and that a large-sized monitor does not necessarily guarantee a high PPI. For example, imagine two different monitors with the following specifications:
The PPI of a 27-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio, 1920×1080 resolution monitor is 82.
The PPI of a 24-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio, 3840×2160 resolution monitor is 184.
It is not hard to identify which of the two monitors offers a more detailed image. Photographers are recommended to select a professional monitor with at least 100 PPI, which will offer greater accuracy for editing and confirming image details.
Left: The PPI of a 27-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio, 1920×1080 resolution monitor is 82.
Right: The PPI of a 24-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio, 3840×2160 resolution monitor is 184.
PPI refers to the number of ‘dots’ within an inch of a monitor; a monitor with a larger PPI can exhibit more details.
‘Contrast’ is a common word for both photography and monitors. Contrast ratio is defined as the ratio between the luminance of the brightest white and the darkest black that a monitor can display. In general, a higher contrast ratio indicates that the monitor can display a larger luminance range, which delivers more natural and consistent image quality. Two additional factors that require close attention are native contrast ratio and dynamic contrast ratio, which often show up on product specification. What is the difference between native contrast and dynamic contrast ratio? In short, native contrast ratio is determined in the factory by the panel. Manufacturers usually determine the native contrast ratio according to product positioning and the demands of the target audience. After the monitor is produced, a colour analyser is used to measure the maximum and minimum luminance at the centre of the monitor. The quotient of the two values is the native contrast ratio. On the other hand, dynamic contrast ratio refers to using the IC embedded in the monitor to control various relevant settings in accordance with the dynamic content that is being played (e.g. videos or games) and ultimately for enhancing the contrasting effect of the display. For photographers and users who are seeking monitors for image processing and browsing, contrast is a determining factor for purchasing a monitor. Therefore, native contrast ratio should be taken into consideration. The majority of monitors used for image processing have a native contrast ratio of 1000:1. Thus, professionals should employ this rule as their standard, and select a monitor within budget while fulfilling their demands.
Generally, a monitor with a high native ratio also has a high dynamic contrast ratio, which delivers ideal reproduction for browsing, editing or watching videos.
Have you ever walked into a supermarket and noticed that some monitors reflect like a mirror (glossy monitors), whereas others seem to have been glazed with an unpleasant, murky layer (matte finish)? The difference between these two types of monitor arises from different panel surface-processing methods. Although glossy monitors are more ‘visually’ pleasing, they can cause glare or reflections when used under a light source. Currently, there is no way to resolve the glossy monitor’s reflection issue.
Furthermore, glossy monitors are more likely to show fingerprint smudges or accumulate dust, which severely undermines the judgement and work efficiency of users when processing images, when accurate image quality and colour details are of utmost importance. Matte monitors, on the other hand, are made from crystal silicon, which means that matte monitors effectively diffuse ambient light, thereby successfully suppressing glare and reflection. A matte monitor equipped with an IPS panel, which offers a wide viewing angle and high colour-rendering properties, is the best choice for professionals working in image processing or users in search of high-end monitors.
Monitors with a glossy display may seem more aesthetically attractive, but often generate glare, which is highly detrimental for photographers. Monitors with a matte display, which suppress glare and combine the advantages of IPS panels, are an excellent choice for photographers.