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The First Step to Better Photography: Choosing an ‘Excellent’ Monitor

As a photography enthusiast or even a professional photographer, aside from having suitable camera lenses, excellent photography skills, a clear train of thought and a unique ‘photographer’s eye’, what other key factor is indispensable? The answer is: a monitor. The ‘monitor’ mentioned in this article is the one you place on your work table for viewing, selecting and editing photographs. The quality of the monitor is critical for the final appearance of the images, but its quality can vary substantially. In general, we are used to browsing photos on our camera screen immediately after snapping a picture. In spite of this, we will still upload the captured images to a computer, then select the images we would like to keep and edit them later on a large monitor. Have you ever thought about this? Can the monitor reflect the exposure and colour of a retouched image in the way you expected? They usually don't. This is an aspect that most photography enthusiasts neglect. How many people actually give a thought to the specifications and colour accuracy of their monitor? The answer shouldn’t be difficult to guess.

The quality of a monitor is not just about its value for money, its price, its appearance or how saturated the images the monitor can display. To identify a monitor with excellent quality, consumers need to do some research on the specifications, materials and technology involved. Do not worry if you are not a tech whiz. Finding a good monitor is not as difficult as you imagine. Simply remember the following guidelines, and you should have no trouble finding a monitor that suits your needs.

If you browse an E-commerce platform online, or visit an electronics retail outlet, the first thing you will notice are monitors of different sizes. The numbers 23-, 24-, 27-, 28- and 29-inch seem to scream for your attention. But what do these numbers mean? Monitor size represents the dimensions of a monitor, and it is usually measured in inches. The size of a monitor is the diagonal length of its display area, and converts from centimetres into inches (1 in = 2.54 cm). Large wide-format monitors are the current trend in the market, (e.g. 27-inch monitors; 16:9). Other than offering a bigger screen space, large wide-format monitors deliver more detail, which is especially important for photographers, who edit images on a regular basis. In addition, these monitors can accommodate more windows and tool bars simultaneously when using editing software such as Photoshop, Lightroom, VEGAS and iMovie. Hence, work efficiency can be improved.

To measure the size of a monitor, simply convert the diagonal length of the display area to inches. The monitors that are the current trend in the market for image processing are predominantly 27-inch monitors with a 16:9 aspect ratio.

Resolution is another factor that is often misunderstood by photographers when picking out monitors. A monitor’s resolution refers to the number of pixels it can display. Any image, picture or text we see on monitors is made up of a dense pack of pixels. For different monitors of the same size, ones with higher resolutions (more pixels) are able to display more detail and more realistic images, and offer more content.

Resolution refers to the number of 'pixels' contained in the display. A 4K display means 3,840 pixels in length and 2,160 pixels in width, four times the detail of a Full HD.

Monitor size and resolution are two completely different entities. The former refers to the dimensions of a monitor, whereas the latter refers to how many pixels are displayed. A common misconception is that larger monitors have a higher resolution. Unfortunately, this is not correct. Imagine comparing a 25-inch monitor with Full HD resolution (1920×1080) and a 23-inch monitor that has 4K resolution (3840×2160). The 23-inch monitor with 4K resolution (eight million pixels displayed on the 23-inch monitor) will definitely offer more detail. Although the 25-inch monitor is bigger, it has a lower resolution (only two million pixels displayed on a 25-inch monitor), which means that the displayed image will be pixelated. Thus, a large monitor also requires a higher resolution to satisfy both visual effect and image quality.

Pixel per inch (PPI), or the pixel density, represents the number of pixels contained in 1 square inch of area.

Have you ever experienced this? You and a friend or client are discussing a photo on a monitor, but find that the colours are different from different angles? This phenomenon is caused by a narrow viewing angle. The majority of monitors used for image processing incorporate an IPS panel. Compared to the TN panels used in mainstream products, or monitors using VA panels, the greatest advantage of the IPS panel is the 178° viewing angle that does not exhibit colour shifting from different viewing angles. Additionally, IPS panels deliver better colour ranges and accuracy. From a photography enthusiast and imaging professional’s perspective, the monitor using an IPS panel is the right choice.

The biggest flaw of a TN panel is the phenomenon of colour cast from the narrow viewing angle. It is ill-suited for a photographer’s work. The IPS panel contains a wide 178° viewing angle and high colour accuracy, a first-choice for many professional photographers.

There is usually an option in camera menu to switch between Adobe RGB and sRGB, and these are referred as colour space. Colour space is also known as colour gamut, the range of colours that can be displayed. In general, Adobe RGB has a wider colour spectrum compared to sRGB (by 35%). From the perspective of a photographer, a monitor that is capable of presenting more colours is a plus. However, besides selecting Adobe RGB on the camera, the output device, such as the monitor, must also support Adobe RGB. A monitor that supports Adobe RGB provides more accurate colour details. The Adobe RGB colour gamut is able to cover the CMYK colour space used in printing, and allows users to preview the colour of the printed image on the monitor without actual print out.

Adobe RGB has a wider gamut than sRGB, and covers the blue-green colour in the CMYK gamut, which sRGB is unable to accommodate.

The monitor supports Adobe RGB, and in turn can display richer colours more akin to the colours in nature.

Since colour has such significance for photographers, an IPS monitor is the correct choice, right? Yes, but…! Any monitor will experience brightness decay and colour shift after being used for a while. When these issues are ignored, they will not only lead to loss in image quality, but will also exhibit severe colour shift when compared to hard-copy prints. Therefore, users are recommended to conduct monitor calibration at least once every six months. Some photographers who hold strict standards for colour may even calibrate their monitor every month to ensure that the colours displayed are always accurate.

There are two types of calibration: software calibration and hardware calibration. Compared to software calibration, which is limited to adjusting RGB values in the graphics card, hardware calibration calibrates the monitor by storing data directly into 3D-LUT inside the monitor. The advantages of hardware calibration include delivering more accurate colours and retaining the maximum number of colour steps on the monitor to maintain colour continuity and prevent contours.

Monitor calibration is very important to imaging purpose workers, it is the only way to ensure that the colours displayed are always accurate.

Monitor calibration is something that needs to be studied. Not all photography enthusiasts or even professional photographers have a detailed understanding of it. Do not worry if you know nothing about monitor calibration. Some professional monitors designed for imaging purposes have undergone colour calibration before hitting the shelves, and some of these monitors are delivered with a colour calibration report, which is a bonus for photographers who know little about colour calibration. In addition, users are recommended to purchase monitors with Delta E≤2 in terms of colour accuracy. The smaller value entails a more faithful reproduction of colours, and this is critical for photographers, who are highly sensitive to colours.

BenQ professional monitors are colour calibrated before hitting the shelves, and are released with the colour calibration report.

The previous paragraphs include the basic criteria for selecting a monitor suitable for imaging purposes. However, there are several additional features to keep an eye out for. These features offer additional bonuses for your work.

1. Shading hood:

Do you often find yourself becoming agitated when you can't see properly when your monitor is placed directly under a light source or when the sun is shining directly on your monitor? This is where a shading hood comes in handy. Much like a lens hood, a monitor shading hood blocks scattered ambient light to prevent it from affecting the image displayed on the monitor and ensuring consistent brightness and colours.

A shading hood blocks scattered ambient light to prevent it from affecting the image displayed on the monitor.

2. Adjustable height and pivot:

For photographers, who often have to enlarge images to confirm details for editing, a monitor with rapid adjustment to height, swivel and pivot is crucial. For example, when a group of people look at an image on a single monitor at the same time, having a monitor with rapid height and swivel adjustment features helps users to adjust the optimal monitor position in the shortest amount of time. A pivot adjustment feature allows photographers to quickly adjust the monitor to a vertical position, which utilises the whole screen space when editing portrait photos.

A monitor with rapid adjustment to height, swivel and pivot, which utilises the whole screen space when editing portrait photos

3. Versatile switching between colour gamuts:

As previously mentioned, Adobe RGB and sRGB are the two most commonly used colour gamuts for photographers. Although Adobe RGB is generally the preferred option, sRGB is often used when the retouched image is only being posted online. When you need to process two images taken by different photographers and they have different colour gamuts, a monitor capable of switching between different colour gamuts will allow users to preview and compare immediately. This will benefit the workflow afterwards.

A monitor made for photographers that can display images in two gamut models.

4. Hotkey Puck:

In addition to being equipped with all of the features mentioned previously, an excellent professional monitor with a hotkey that enables the user to make rapid changes in parameters is a big plus. Time is the photographer’s greatest asset. Therefore, having the means to rapidly adjust monitor settings or switch between modes will definitely boost a photographer’s work efficiency.

The monitor is equipped with a Hotkey Puck to facilitate editing and improve productivity.

The tips mentioned above offer photography enthusiasts and professional photographers advice and a basic understanding of how to select a suitable monitor for their workflow. At this point, it is clear that there are many factors for consumers to consider when selecting a monitor. As the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the detail’. Although none of this info is profound and complex, taking time to understand it and upgrading your monitor will double your efficiency at work.

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