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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.