Beyond Super Mario - Monitors for Photographers

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This is the closest I could get to a photograph that shows "Sigh..."

No apologies.  For non-photographers, this posting is probably a major yawn.  BUT, if you're a photographer, there is stuff in here that you ought to know (and probably don't).

Not so long ago, I bought a new, high-end monitor.  I can say, now, that my relationship with my monitor is agreeable, if not perfect.  Some of my early experiences were, however, heart-stopping, and not because of the breath-taking quality.  And that lead me to ask questions in several forums, and that led to my being asked to give a talk on...Monitors

Having prepared that presentation, I have at my fingertips some easily understood information which I think can be very useful to serious photographers. 

As you might guess, there are several technologies for creating monitor screens.  I have selected the four dominant technologies; their differences are discernible, if you know what to look for, and a knowledge of these differences can be useful.

Monitor Calibration

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Spyder2Express Monitor Calibration Device

First, off-topic, but useful is the issue of calibration.  Serious photographers learn very quickly that your monitor can drive you nuts.  What you see on the screen does not seem to match what should have come out of your camera.  And what comes out of the printer doesn't match any of those.

Granted, some photography doesn't really need a really fussy approach to colour.  The guys who photograph rock concerts have all sorts of latitude.  So do people with camera phones.

But some people want to create images where colour is really important, and portrait photographers would be among those.

So the first thing to know about monitors is that there is hardware, not really expensive, that can be used to calibrate your monitor so that the colours you see are more or less the colours that your camera saw.

Periodically, you fit the calibrator over your monitor, and it runs a check, compariing what you monitor shows, with what it should show.  And at the end of the check, it installs a little bit of software that will work with colour-aware programs like Photoshop.

I personally use a Datacolour Spyder2Express, which is several years old, and which changed my life. 

But the technical part does not stop with calibration.

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DSC_7572 - Eppiphane - The Big Money Concert

If you are photographing rock concerts, colour accuracy may not be that important.

TN Panel Technology

Most low cost monitors, and ALL laptops use a screen technology called Twisted Nematic.  This is the lowest cost technology, with response times which make it good for games.  BUT TN panels cannot, strictly speaking, truly display the 16.7 million colours that form the range of 24 bit colours that digital photography is built on.

And, worst of all, even after you have calibrated your monitor (with the Spyder2Express, for example) the colour and brightness of a TN technology display changes with any change in your viewing angle. 

Try it with your laptop.  Look at the screen.  Tilt it slightly.  What a change!  Now which angle of tilt is it that shows the calibrated colours?

If you're going to edit your photos on your laptop screen, stop reading now.

MVA Panel Technology

I'm going to dwell on Multidomain Vertical Alignment Technology long enough to mention that from a working point-of-view, it's better than TN technology and will cost you more. 

However, there are problems with brightness which can be serious.  If you have an MVA monitor, you may find that you are brightening your images to a point which your friends, using other monitors, don't like.

PVA Panel Technology

Patterned Vertical Alignment technology is reasonable in cost, although still twice the cost of TN technology.  It can come very close to accurately displaying the whole range of 24 bit colours, and is a great deal more tolerant of variation in viewing angle. 

I have an S-PVA monitor, and its pretty good.  Some clients find that there is a colour shift if they view the screen off-axis, but for day-to-day workflow, I am very happy.

Again, there can be moderate problems with brightness.

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With portraits, particularly if you are not relying on dramatic colour and shadow, colour accuracy is very important.

IPS Technology

In-Plane Switching panels are the best.  They're also the most expensive.  They allow wide viewing angles, great colour rendition and very good response times.

Apple's 27" display is an IPS, so if you have the bucks, that's one very good reason to go Mac.

It's interesting to note that Apple uses IPS technology in the iPad.  That's why the images are so stunning.  If you're unimpressed, pick up an iPad and carry it over to the nearest netbook.  Load up your favourite web site and compare the images.

What makes it interesting, though, is that there is no sign that Apple is planning to use IPS technology in its laptops.  Man, I would love a laptop with an IPS screen!

So How Do You Use This Information?

First of all, if you are not using high-end colour-aware programs like Photoshop, BE VERY WARY about buying a high-end monitor.  Unfortunately, many high-end monitors display colours which most computer operating systems cannot handle (Mac, Windows, Linux).  Unless the program being used is colour-aware, like Photoshop, the reds are rendered in an ugly super-saturated way.

(My guess is that the Apple 27" screen, while IPS technology, is not a wide-gamut monitor, so it has great colour for every program.)

However, if you are really keen on good colour and do use colour-aware programs like Photoshop, do what you can to find an PVA or IPS monitor.  You will pay more.  You won't find them at Best Buy.  (Oh.  And use Firefox for your browser, because it can be configured to be colour-aware.)

If you are looking at a monitor and you can't find out what the technology is, assume the worst.  If the response time is less than 6ms it's probably TN.  If you can't move slightly from one position to another without a major colour shift, it's probably TN.  And if it's available at Future Shop, it's probably TN.

If you want to explore the web for more detailed information, use IPS or PVA for your search terms.  These will land you on the sites that are decidely technical.  If you just search for "Monitors for Photographers" or something like that, you may miss the best sites.

Posted December 07, 2010 at 12:16 am.