One of the most frequently asked questions from our readers and friends is related to picking a good monitor for photography needs. It seems like the market is over-saturated with all kinds of choices, whether you visit a local store or browse through an online catalog. There are all kinds of monitors for different budgets and some models might leave you wondering why they are so expensive compared to others. Since there is no simple answer to this question, I decided to write a quick article on choosing the best monitor for professional photography needs.
Currently, there are three main types of monitors that are being offered by manufacturers:
- CRT – the oldest type of monitor that has been almost completely phased out and replaced by newer LCD/LED technologies.
- LCD – currently the most popular and the most widespread monitor type.
- LED – future technology that will replace LCD.
I won’t talk much about the above, since you can find a lot of useful information on the Internet that explains the differences. Basically, CRT monitors are almost dead and we are currently in between LCD and LED technologies. LED (OLED) is a new technology and although it will eventually replace the current LCD technology, it is still in its early stages of development and there are not many good products out there for professional photography needs.
Therefore, I will concentrate on LCD monitors and talk about different technologies used in LCD panels, after which I will provide some suggestions on what you should consider for potential investment.
Most people do not know the fact that there are at least four different types of LCD technologies that differ substantially in the way they reproduce colors and tones. Accurate color reproduction is extremely important for every photographer and one needs to have a thorough understanding of these technologies before investing in a monitor, especially if it will be used for professional work.
1) Four LCD Monitor Technologies
When it comes to monitors, they are primarily manufactured in four distinct panel types:
- TN (Twisted Nematic) – the most popular and the cheapest type used today by almost all manufacturers. These monitors are great for watching movies and playing games, because they have fast refresh rates. But they have very limited viewing angles and in most cases, cannot accurately reproduce colors. In addition, these monitors can only represent 6-bits of color (they use dithering to display all colors) and therefore they are only capable of displaying a very limited gamut of colors.
- IPS (In-Plane Switching) – compared to TN, IPS monitors are true 8-bit (full color reproduction with no dithering), have much wider viewing angles and are capable of accurately reproducing a much bigger color gamut. Some of the older generation IPS monitors suffered from low response times, but most of the latest models offer reasonably good response times/refresh rates as well. IPS monitors are expensive and they are primarily used for professional photography and design. Many of the high-end Apple screens, including the new iPad use IPS displays.
- MVA (Multi-domain Vertical Alignment) – sits between TN and IPS, offering good viewing angles and fast refresh rates, better brightness and color reproduction than TN, but definitely worse than IPS. Similar to IPS, MVA monitors are also 8-bit.
- PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment) – an alternative version of MVA, but with a higher contrast ratio. The latest “S-PVA” offers excellent viewing angles, fast response times, 8-bit color gamut and very good color reproduction.
2) What are you using today?
So, do you know what type of monitor you are currently using? If you bought your monitor for less than $300, you are most likely using a TN panel. It is very easy to find out if you have one of those – just stand up about a foot above the screen and look at your monitor from the top and see how much of the picture is visible. If you can barely see the screen content, you have a TN monitor. If you can still see everything but some of the brightness is gone, you might have an MVA or PVA monitor. Either way, I highly recommend checking your monitor against TFT Central’s monitor database to identify the type of monitor you are using. For example, when I typed “214T” for Samsung SyncMaster 214T that I used as a secondary monitor in a dual monitor setup a while ago (it is now kaput, replaced by the Dell U2410), it returned “21” Samsung S-PVA (LTM213U6)”, which means that it is a PVA monitor.
Why is this important? Because if you have a TN or a very old MVA/PVA panel, you need to consider replacing it with an 8-bit IPS or S-PVA/P-MVA/S-MVA monitor (depending on your budget). If you are thinking about buying a new monitor for your photography needs, definitely skip all TN monitors and first consider IPS and then PVA/MVA.
3) Does the brand matter?
No, it doesn’t. While there are some brands such as Eizo that specialize on high-end monitors, most other brands that dominate the LCD market such as Samsung, ViewSonic/Sony, Hitachi and NEC offer all kinds of different displays from TN to high-end IPS models. No matter what brand you look at, the first thing you need to do is pay attention to the type of technology that is used on the monitor. If you cannot find it, simply go to the same monitor database link that I provided above and perform a search. Also try searching for the detailed monitor specifications on the manufacturer’s website and try Google as well.
4) What to look for in a monitor
Here are some of the things you should look for in a good monitor for photography:
- Minimum 8-bit colors
- Preferably IPS for best color accuracy and reproduction
- Widescreen instead of square (because most DSLR cameras produce widescreen images)
- Large monitor size of 21 inches and above (preferably 24 inches and higher at 1920×1200 resolution and above)
- Wide-viewing angles
- Good black depth
- Extended color gamut
- Good uniformity with minimum or nonexistent color tinting and shifting
- Minimum of 1 DVI (digital) connector
- Fairly good response time (if it will be used for videography as well)
There are many other things that could be important for you, such as additional USB ports or connectors, so feel free to add more to the above list based on your requirements.
It is tough to make specific recommendations, because they vary based on your budget and your needs. I decided to divide my recommendations to three groups:
a) High Budget ($1,000 and above) – for those who are looking for the best on the market.
b) Medium Budget ($500 to $1,000) – for those with medium budgets, looking for a solid performer and a good price/performance ratio.
c) Low Budget (under $500) – for low-budget PVA/MVA monitors and sizes lower or equal to 24 inches.
4.1) High Budget
The best monitors in the industry today, without a doubt, are Eizo’s ColorEdge and FlexScan monitors. Eizo’s monitors have the most color gamut, superb color accuracy and top-of-the-line overall performance. Expect to pay more than $1,000 for their smallest monitors and $4,000+ for the large models. Some of Apple’s cinema displays are also worth noting and they are also superb when it comes to color reproduction and accuracy. B&H carries most of the Eizo monitors with accessories. A good 24″ Eizo monitor like the ColorEdge CG246-BK is over USD $2,200, so it is by no means cheap.
4.2) Medium Budget
For medium budget monitors, I recommend looking at 24″-27″ monitors by Dell, HP, NEC and Asus. My first choice would be Dell UltraSharp U2713H (product link) – it is the cheapest 27″ professional monitor on the market that costs less than $800. If 27″ is too big for you or you want something a little more affordable, then take a look at Dell U2413 (product link), Dell U2412M, HP ZR2440w and Asus PA249Q have all been getting great reviews from a lot of websites. I personally own two Dell U2413 monitors (and two older U2410 monitors) and I decided to go with these after doing some extensive research. These 24″ IPS monitors have short response time, superb color reproduction and 102% color gamut with factory-calibrated presets. I bought both from B&H at around $500 when they had a promotion, so it is definitely the cheapest in the pro category and sits between low and medium budget. These monitors work great for my professional photography needs, so I highly recommend them! B&H also carries some of the higher-end medium budget monitors from Dell, NEC and HP. The Dell U2413 is listed at $435 (as of 06/19/2014), but its price sometimes drops down a little during holidays, when Dell has special promotions.
4.3) Low Budget
When it comes to low budget monitors, you will have to compromise size for a good panel type. Therefore, I recommend to look for sizes of 21″ or lower, as long as the panel is good. There are some monitors at this price range that have IPS panels, so definitely look at those first. There are too many to list, but the brands that have some solid performers are: Dell, Samsung, NEC, HP, ViewSonic and Asus. A good 23″ IPS panel that is less than $300 is Asus PB238Q monitor. Other great 23″ IPS alternatives are NEC EA234WMI at $269 and Viewsonic VP2365-LED at $259. All three are good e-IPS monitors (e-IPS stands for “economic IPS”).
If you are having a difficulty finding a particular monitor for your needs, I recommend checking out TFT Central’s monitor selector tool, which always picks the best monitors based on their extensive research.
5) Monitor Purchase Guide
Ever since I published this article, I received a lot of feedback from our readers, so I decided to create a very easy to use monitor purchase guide. I went through a number of different monitors offered by different manufacturers and picked the best ones based on features, color reproduction and price. Obviously, most of the monitors I recommend are IPS panels that are designed for photography work. I constantly update both this article and my purchase guide whenever something new comes out.
Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below!
Last Updated on 06/19/2014.