What Makes a Good Monitor?

By Tom Hauenstein

While on the road for the Great Output Seminar tour, I’m often asked which monitors I recommend. I usually respond with two questions. First: What is the ratio of time spent behind the camera compared to the amount of time spent behind the monitor? The most conservative answer has been 60 percent behind the monitor, 40 percent behind the camera. More commonly, photographers respond that the split is closer to 15 percent behind the camera, 85 percent behind the monitor. Next, I ask: How much money did you spend on your camera and lenses compared to how much you spent on your monitor? Some photographers spend $3,000 to $40,000 on camera equipment, but only around $500 on their monitors.

There are two major reasons to invest in a better monitor. First, it is most likely where you spend most of your time. Second, the monitor is the primary tool to view and edit your files.

The three major factors to consider in selecting a monitor are color gamut, bit depth, and calibration ability. Depending on the nature of your work, other factors to consider might include viewing angle, contrast range, and refresh rate (for video work).

The new RGB-LED technology in LaCie’s new 700 series of 14-bit monitors enables them to achieve significantly larger color gamuts. The 20-in. model (720) can achieve 114% of Adobe RGB and the 24- and 30-inch models (724 and 730) can achieve 123% of Adobe 1998.

Color Gamut: When it comes to color gamut, bigger is better. The monitor’s spec sheet should tell you what percentage of the sRGB, Adobe 1998, or NTSC (similar to Adobe 1998) color space it can display. If your entire workflow exists in sRGB, then a monitor that hits 100% of this color gamut is best. If you primarily work in Adobe 1998, then a monitor that displays 100% of this color space is recommended. If you use ProPhoto as your color space, then the largest color gamut that technology allows is your best option.

Bit Depth: The more bit depth a monitor has, the more accurately it will render your 16-bit files. A 10-bit monitor is the bare minimum to consider with today’s technology. Higher bit depth improves smoothness in transitions and gradients, whereas a lower bit depth might make them appear banded.

Calibration Ability: It is imperative that you can adjust three parts of your monitor’s appearance: brightness, contrast and white point. You should be able to adjust how bright a monitor is according to the ambient light of your studio. A good starting point for the brightness of LCDs is 120 candelas/m2. Adjusting the contrast helps the monitor achieve a desired gamma setting. Today’s standard is Gamma 2.2, and I recommend this setting. The final calibration is white point. You must be able to adjust the individual red, green and blue channels to create custom white points. A preset white point of 6500K may in fact be 6300K or 6800K. You cannot always trust these preset options. They may not be accurate to begin with, or they may have shifted over time.

The two monitor manufacturers I recommend are Eizo and LaCie. Prices range from $950 to $5,000 depending on size and model. I understand these are not inexpensive options, but since a large portion of your work is performed on the monitor, it is a sound investment.

Tom Hauenstein is LexJet’s technical director and the instructor of the Great Output Seminar. He can be reached at tom.hauenstein@lexjet.com or by calling 800-453-9538.

This article is reprinted with permission from Great Output, LexJet’s bi-monthly publication for professional photographers who want to learn more about printing, displaying, and selling their images.

If you are interested in getting a new monitor, you can contact Tom Hauenstein or a LexJet account specialist at 800-453-9538 and they can assist you in finding the best solution for your needs.

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Comments (4)

A few important points about this article.

>The new RGB-LED technology in LaCie’s new 700 series of 14-bit monitors enables them to achieve significantly larger color gamuts.

The bit depth has no bearing on the gamut! High bit depth is useful in terms of avoiding banding that can result using only 8-bits on the graphic card. 14 bits provides more colors that could be displayed, but not a larger gamut. You could have a 14 bit grayscale display!

>Color Gamut: When it comes to color gamut, bigger is better. The monitor’s spec sheet should tell you what percentage of the sRGB, Adobe 1998, or NTSC (similar to Adobe 1998) color space it can display.

Using percentages like this are not useful! Its marketing hype due to ambiguity in what NTSC is being quoted. The color gamut used for NTSC video has no bearing on the original NTSC (1953) specification which was pretty large and at the time, not possible to produce. Its even larger than Adobe RGB (1998) gamut. BTW, bigger isn't necessarily better. We still have to deal with 16.7 million color definitions. The colorimetric space between two values is larger (the deltaE values are higher) between two values in a wide gamut space versus a narrower gamut space. If you're working with mostly sRGB like imagery, you'll actually be able to see and edit colors more precisely with a smaller gamut display.

>Bit Depth: The more bit depth a monitor has, the more accurately it will render your 16-bit files.

Not so. The bit depth here has nothing to do with the bit depth of the document you're editing. This text implies the displays are able to use the 16-bits within the document which isn't correct.

>Calibration Ability: A good starting point for the brightness of LCDs is 120 candelas/m2.

Again, not so despite so many color management manufacturers who state this or that value as a starting point for calibration of luminance. The target is based upon the viewing conditions of the print next to the display. What's the luminance of the light box? If its higher or lower than the target calibration (measurable or perceivable), the print and display will not match. On my GTI light booth, I have the digital dimmer set to 50%, yet my NEC display is calibrated at 150cd/m2 to result in a visual match. Trial and error.

>A preset white point of 6500K may in fact be 6300K or 6800K. You cannot always trust these preset options. They may not be accurate to begin with, or they may have shifted over time.

Pet Peeve: Its a bad idea to use Kelvin when discussing color temp UNLESS you're specifically referring to the black body radiator, a theoretical object. A display isn't black body radiator so its far less ambiguous to talk in terms of standard illuminant which is an exact color (not a range of colors which 6500K or 6300K is, its a CCT value or many possible colors). Accurate is a marketing buzz word. The right white point is that which produces a visual match to the viewing conditions for the print by the display, just like the target calibration for luminance.

A few important points about Andrew Rodney’s Important Points..

The point of this article is to provide the photographer with simple conclusive information to help them understand the importance of investing in a color critical monitor. Because of that, the level of scientific information has been reduced. However, I would like to address each one of his points individually; as he did mine.

“The bit depth has no bearing on color gamut!” While Andrew is the digital dog, and knows much more than I do, I am not quite sure he is the English Dog. He made that comment in response to the following sentence, “The new RGB-LED technology in LaCie’s new 700 series of 14-bit monitors enables them to achieve significantly larger color gamuts.” The sentence clearly is saying that the RGB-LED technology is what enables the monitors to achieve the larger color gamut, not the bit-depth. Prepositional phrases are only modifiers like adjectives and adverbs and therefore can be removed from the sentence without damaging the basic structure. If you did that with my original statement then it would read as so… “The new RGB-LED technology enables them to achieve significantly larger color gamuts” Now it can be easily seen that the subject of this sentence is the RGB-LED technology that is performing the verb (enables), not the bit-depth statistic. I agree that bit-depth does not affect color gamut, and that is why I did not write that.

Color Gamut: Percentages of color space like this can, in fact, be very useful. Andrew himself states that if you work with sRGB images and the color gamut of your display is much larger than this, than you will not be able to see and edit as many colors as you would with a smaller gamut display. Therefore the sRGB shooter could see these percentages and know not to pick a monitor with a color gamut any higher than 100% sRGB. Bigger is better is not the most accurate statement on my part, I apologize. I would change that to selecting a monitor that is as close to 100% of the color space that you shoot in or work with is better. Therefore, if you shoot sRGB then I would get a monitor that exhibits as close to 100% sRGB as possible; no more no less. The same holds true for Adobe 1998 shooters. The larger color space of the new RGB-LED technology should appeal to those using larger color spaces such as ProPhoto or Melissa RGB (Lightroom).

Bit Depth: It is true that the displays do not use the 16-bits within the document. However I am trying to convey the conclusion that a monitor with a more bit-depth is better than less. All displays are 8 bit, but LUT’s can be programmed to a higher bit depth such as 10, 12, or 14. This programming will make gradients appear smoothly on-screen, like they are in the file. Thus making the images on screen render more accurate to the file, regardless of what bit depth your image is in.

Calibration Ability: Again, I agree that this needs to be fine tuned to match the lighting used to evaluate prints. I also used trial and error to find the perfect brightness to match my Judge II viewing booth. I started at 120cd/m2 but had to increase it to about 135 cd/m2 to match the light I use. Starting point, to me, does not mean ending point, and therefore implies the need to adjust to your viewing conditions. Due to space limitation I did not expand on that, but that is exactly what I teach during the Great Output tour.

White Point: It is true that D65 is a better option than 6500K since the D65 is an exact color and 6500K can describe a multitude of colors. The LaCie software, and Color-Eyes software from integrated color (my favorite) allow you to select D65. Some more simplistic softwares such as Eye-One Match 3 and most monitor settings only allow you to select Kelvin temperatures, not specific colors unfortunately. I certainly agree that the white point of the monitor and the white point of your evaluation light should be the same, which is another point I stress on the tour.

In conclusion, the purpose of the article was to make photographers understand the importance of a quality monitor that is properly calibrated and profiled. A 400 page novel could be written on the subject and still not cover everything. Andrew Rodney is one of the most educated people that we have in industry and should be considered a fantastic resource for your digital questions. While he felt the need to disagree and/or clarify some of the specifics of this article (albeit sometimes incorrectly and mostly without purpose), I am sure he would agree that by investing in a good monitor and properly calibrating and profiling it you are making a necessary step towards achieving a sound color workflow.

> The sentence clearly is saying that the RGB-LED technology is what enables the monitors to achieve the larger color gamut, not the bit-depth.

The backlight isn't what provides the increased gamut but the overall design of the primaries. There are several wide gamut CCFL displays. If you want to discuss what LED brings to the party, do so.

>Percentages of color space like this can, in fact, be very useful.

Its what the percentage is based upon that wasn't properly defined. Another confusing point about this value is that it does not say what portion of the 2 gamuts being defined overlap, so its possible to have a very large % gamut area, but only have a smaller portion of it actually covering the reference gamut you're comparing.

NEC quote 2 sets of figures: "Percent Area" and "Percent Coverage".

The "Percent Area" is the area in CIE xy of the display gamut vs the reference gamut, with no consideration of how much of the gamuts actually overlap. Values can be greater than 100%.

The "Percent Coverage" is the overlapping area of the 2 gamuts expressed as a percent of the total area of the reference gamut. The maximum possible value for this is 100%.

>simplistic softwares such as Eye-One Match 3 and most monitor settings only allow you to select Kelvin temperatures, not specific colors unfortunately.

Sure i1 Match provides Standard Illuminants.

>All displays are 8 bit, but LUT’s can be programmed to a higher bit depth such as 10, 12, or 14

Now I suggest you re-examine that sentence. The LUTs are implemented in the displays (not the graphic card) so how can all displays be 8-bit?

>Thus making the images on screen render more accurate to the file, regardless of what bit depth your image is in.

Its not more accurate simply due to the bit depth. As I said above, accurate is a buzz word. Accurate in terms of what? If the display out of the box is not calibrated, but providing more bits, its accurate in what way? Define accuracy. Is smoother gradients more accurate? If so, say so.

>I certainly agree that the white point of the monitor and the white point of your evaluation light should be the same, which is another point I stress on the tour.

I don't because very often, you don't get a match. Try calibrating to D50 and let me know if you get a match to a D50 viewing booth. More times than not, there is a disconnect in the values in order to produce a match. The reference media is vastly different.

Scott Murray:

Andrew, Andrew, Andrew,
Nobody's attacking you. Chill out.

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