Considering a monitor for photo editing? You may wonder if it’s really worth it to step up to a higher-end monitor. You’ll typically see the best monitors called “professional.” These monitors are specifically designed for color accuracy. The short answer is, yes, it’s worth it. Especially now that prices have decreased.
Most displays don’t come close to providing the benefits of a professional monitor. Pro monitors deliver accurate color. After all, why spend time taking beautiful photos, if you don’t have a monitor that can display them?
Monitors designed for photo editing provide a much greater range of colors to work with. Why limit the colors you’re able to work with? Pro monitors offer a host of color-enhancing technologies. This results in more accurate on-screen images. These capabilities are ideal – and often critical – for those whose work depends on image accuracy.
A monitor should be capable of working with onscreen images produced in real life. A less-accurate monitor can’t represent the original image. With a color-limited monitor, the images you edit aren’t really the images you shot (in terms of color). Therefore, changes made to these incorrect colors can make what you’re trying to fix worse.
Until recently, monitors marketed as “professional” only came with a high price tag, putting them out of reach for many. Fortunately, moderately priced, color-critical monitors specs are now readily available.
Monitors offer a head-spinning array of features. When evaluating a pro-level monitor for photo editing your goal is to maximize the accuracy of what you see on-screen. Several key features impact color, performance and image quality.
Chief among these are:
(Below is a summary of what to look for in each of these areas).
The best photo editing monitor works with as much of the color space as possible. Color gamut refers to the complete range of colors visible to the human eye. Using as much of this range as you can makes the color of a photograph, illustration or painting truly beautiful. Since the range of colors produced by digital devices varies, you get different results. This is true across cameras, editing software, monitors and printers.
Color spaces represent defined sets of colors within the infinite color palette. They are derived using abstract mathematical models. Wider color spaces contain more colors; smaller color spaces have fewer colors. The human eye can see around 10 million colors, which is the physical limitation of our color space.
Different digital devices are designed to work within different color spaces. The wider range a device uses, the better it is. In theory, an infinite number of color spaces can be defined. In practice, a handful of color space standards guide digital photo, video, graphic design and color processing technologies.
The CIE color space defines the visible human spectrum. The sRGB and Adobe RGB color spaces are well known digital color spaces used in photo editing. They're defined graphically as triangles within the CIE space.
A few facts about common color spaces:
Here’s a case in point. You capture an image with a camera that uses the Adobe RGB space. You then view the image on a sRGB display. What you see displayed is missing colors. The saturated colors that fall outside of the sRGB gamut will exist as encoded data, but you won’t be able to see them.
Here’s another. Imagine you shoot with a camera set to capture images using the sRGB color space. You then use a general-purpose display that only covers part of this color space. When you view these images they too will be missing colors.
The bottom line: When you view photos on a monitor with a color space that’s smaller than the one with which they were shot, the missing color data will reduce the level of detail. The result will be muddier images and less vivid colors.
Color Space recommendation for a monitor for photo editing: Pro-level monitors for photo editing and other color work include expansive color spaces for outstanding accuracy and vivid color detail. At a minimum you’ll want Full sRGB. Adobe RGB color space monitors are the best for photo editing.
Gamma is a complex term for how vibrant images look on a monitor. Adjusting gamma plays a critical role in getting the best results from your photographic efforts. The term gamma has several meanings. When it comes to digital devices, gamma is defined as the mathematical encoding of brightness (aka “luminance”) into a value for each individual pixel. The goal of gamma is to make a digital image look as vibrant as possible.
Here’s one pro’s viewpoint:
Gamma is an important but seldom understood characteristic of virtually all digital imaging systems. It defines the relationship between a pixel's numerical value and its actual luminance. Without gamma, shades captured by digital cameras wouldn't appear as they did to our eyes (on a standard monitor). It's also referred to as gamma correction, gamma encoding or gamma compression, but these all refer to a similar concept. Understanding how gamma works can improve one's exposure technique, in addition to helping one make the most of image editing.
What’s important to know is display gamma translates into how you see the individual pixels of an image. Monitors use display gamma to adjust the output of an image. Higher display gammas result in darker images with greater contrast.
Experts agree a display gamma of 2.2 delivers the right perceptual relationship between tones. Today, most monitor companies develop displays with a pre-set native 2.2 gamma. Most displays ship with a native display gamma of 2.2. Good pro-grade monitors for photo editing further allow users to easily adjust gamma for fine tuning. The correct term for this is monitor gamma calibration. It’s also called gamma correction. Digital color pros agree that it’s a critical function.
Here’s how one pro puts it: “Gamma correction matters if you have any interest in displaying an image accurately on a computer screen. Gamma correction controls the overall brightness of an image. Images which are not properly corrected can look either bleached out, or too dark… Varying the amount of gamma correction changes not only the brightness, but also the ratios of red to green to blue.”
Examples of typical gamma presets include:
Recommended gamma features in a monitor for photo editing: Gamma determines how vibrant, and lifelike, your images turn out to be. Native 2.2 gamma is a given. Make sure your pro monitor lets you fine tune to other gamma settings. Presets make life even easier.
The best pro-level monitors for photo editing have a hardware-embedded Look up Table (LUT). These tables give a big boost to a monitor’s color capabilities. LUTs deliver on-the-fly adaptability that adds color gradations as needed based on the image(s) displayed. An automatic function, LUTs apply complex color correction calculations to adjust gamma for optimal color mapping.
LUTs are measured in bits. Higher bit levels indicate more powerful color adjustment abilities and a larger color palette. Multi-purpose consumer monitors are typically 8-bit. These general-use monitors provide a usable palette of 16.7 million colors. Pro monitors for photo editing are equipped with a 10-, 12-, or 14-bit LUT. The ultimate in LUT power, a 14-bit look up table delivers 4.39 trillion colors. That’s a whopping 260,000 times more color precision than an average consumer monitor.
Look up tables come in standard (1D) or 3D formats. Monitors with a 3D LUT have greater color abilities than those with a limited 1D LUT. Delivering more finely nuanced hues, 3D LUTs produce smoother, highly blended gradations. Color produced by 3D LUTs is also more vibrant and accurate.
Recommended LUT for a monitor for photo editing: Any LUT is better than none. The most fully-featured pro monitors will include a 14-bit 3D look up table.
Delta E measures how well the human eye perceives a difference in color. For photo editing, it’s a capable tool for knowing how well a monitor achieves true color. Delta E (ΔE - or dE) is the change in visual perception of two given colors. The value ranges from 0 to 100. Numbers less than zero aren’t perceptible to the human eye. A value of 100 indicates colors that are exact opposites.
Delta E numbers are included on monitors designed for photo editing. To meet color critical needs, this number represents how well a color displayed by a monitor correlates to the “perfect” color value. The lower the number, the better the performance.
The human eye has a Delta E of around 1. Any value less than that is essentially invisible. In fact, achieving a “perfect” Delta E in a monitor isn’t even possible. Even the costliest display can’t have a Delta E of zero.
Top-of-the-line displays can claim Delta E of 1 or slightly less. Next are the high-end, high-price displays with a Delta E of <2. Many mid-range monitors for color-conscious use have a Delta E of <3 or <4. More recently, high-spec displays with Delta E of <2 are available at a moderate price point.
Recommended Delta E for a monitor for photo editing: This is a lower-is-better spec. Delta E< 1 comes with a hefty price tag. Many professionals find Delta E <2 perfect for their photo editing needs.
Uniform color across a monitor’s screen is critical for accurate viewing and editing. The greatest factor impacting a monitor’s color uniformity is its viewing angle. The wider the viewing angle, the less image and color degradation as your view moves from the center of the screen.
Outside of a display’s stated viewing angle, images lose contrast. They become blurry, faint, or poorly saturated. Reduced brightness and diminished contrast. For photo editors and other color-conscious users, this image degradation makes it difficult to accurately view, assess and edit images.
The type of panel used in a monitor determines its maximum viewing angle. TN panels provide viewing angles of 170 degrees horizontal and 160 degrees vertical (170º /160º). Premium panel technologies, like IPS panels, provide the widest max viewing of 178-degrees horizontal and vertical (178º/178º). Newer AMVA panels also offer these max viewing angles. IPS panels, however, remain the gold standard for pro-level displays.
Optimal color performance is at the center of the screen. Even the highest quality premium panels suffer from slight color variations across the screen. It’s simply impossible to avoid some variation in luminance across the screen is. Imagine a screen divided into several equivalent sections. Because brightness varies across the screen, the same color will appear slightly different in each of these sections. The best pro monitors for photo editing compensate for this inevitability.
Top pro monitors include a color uniformity compensation function. Color compensation selectively adjusts chromaticity and dims brightness. As a result, the best professional monitors achieve uniformity across the screen. A typical spec identifying uniformity compensation--through brightness adjustments--is notated as Lv<5%. This indicates that variations in luminance will be controlled within 5%. By contrast, general-use monitors vary by as much as 30%.
Screen uniformity recommendation for a monitor for photo editing: Features to improve color accuracy across the screen are a hallmark of pro monitors. Wide 178º/178º viewing angles are a must. You’ll also want an integrated color uniformity function that works within a wide range of color spaces.
The type of panel an LCD monitor is built around affects several important performance characteristics. These include:
Flat screen LCD monitors use: TN, VA or IPS panel technologies. TN panels fall short of the performance needed for a monitor for photo editing. Premium IPS and VA (AMVA) panel technologies deliver wider viewing angles, higher contrast ratios, and better color accuracy. These panels virtually eliminate image distortion and color shifting. They enhance viewing comfort and improve the overall user experience.
IPS displays have been the monitor of choice for color-minded pros. AMVA panels began offering pro-worthy color performance specs. However, for many pro users, IPS monitors still reign supreme in real-world design environments. IPS panels provide the best support for color space monitor technologies. IPS panels deliver higher color depths and contrast ratios, which helps improve color accuracy.
IPS monitors have become less costly and more readily available. Because of this IPS monitors are becoming the monitors of choice for many photography enthusiasts and other hobbyists as well as color-conscious home users. Here's an example of a 27 inch IPS monitor.
Panel tech recommendation for a monitor for photo editing: Mainstream TN monitor color functions are limited. Look for a premium IPS or AMVA panel. Keep in mind that most pros prefer IPS.
Monitor screen surfaces are either matte or glossy. Glossy surfaces deliver crisp, vibrant images. Saturated colors and deep dark tones make glossy screens great for gaming and watching movies. Glossy screens are not great for photo editing, beacause they're reflective. Especially in lighted areas, where they produce mirror-like reflections of anything in front of the display.
Matte screens prevent reflection. This makes them the obvious choice for photo editing. Pros also find they're the best for accurate color calibration. You can see a matte display in a bright room much easier than you can see a glossy display in the same room. If you plan on using the display in a bright room, you should get a monitor with a matte screen.
Screen surface recommendation for a monitor for photo editing: Most pro users have a strong preference for glare-reducing matte surfaces. While glossy screens deliver rich images, many find them to be oversaturated.
Monitor calibration adjustments improve brightness, contrast and color reproduction. Gamma adjustments discussed above are just one example of a way to calibrate a monitor. Many pros consider color calibration critical to digital photography:
No photographer, whether they be amateur or professional, should work with images without having a calibrated monitor. It is a small investment that will ensure that every photograph you share online or send to a photo lab to be printed looks the way you intend it to. It does absolutely no good to create an image that looks beautiful to you and looks horrible to everyone else!8
Consumer and business monitors have minimal functions for maintaining the accuracy of such adjustments. Pro monitors include color space and gamma presets to facilitate easy, accurate adjustments.
The most accurate monitor calibration is achieved using a “colorimeter.” Color measurement accessories and software provide a wide range of features. Colorimeters are placed on the monitor screen to measure and adjust onscreen color. This calibration approach delivers the most accurate depiction of original images.
The best monitors for photo editing are capable of “hardware calibration.” This calibration occurs via software that connects the graphics card to the monitor. With hardware calibration, the colorimeter modifies the monitor’s internal LUT. It stores optimized results in the monitor's display. The result is faster, more accurate results.
Calibration recommendation for a monitor for photo editing: Color space and gamma presets are a good place to start. Adding a colorimeter (aka “puck”) is the pro gold-standard. A monitor with integrated hardware calibration delivers greater accuracy with fewer headaches.
A minimum size of 24 inches is recommended in a monitor for photo editing. 27-inches or more is optimal. The goal is to be able to fully see your work, while having room for toolbars. Adding a secondary screen is also popular. Dual monitor setups let you view an image full-screen on one monitor while accomplishg tasks and executing operations on the other.
Recommended screen size for a monitor for photo editing: Go for the largest screen (and highest resolution) that your workspace and budget will accommodate. Consider adding a second monitor for convenience and productivity.
Screen resolution denotes the number of pixels a monitor can display horizontally and vertically. 4K monitors have a resolution of 3840 pixels horizontally and 2160 pixels vertically (3840 x 2160).
The higher the resolution, the more image data will fit on your screen. With a high-resolution monitor, you’ll be able to see more of what you’re working on, with less scrolling. More pixels also means greater image clarity. Monitors with higher resolutions deliver sharper images.
When it comes to resolution, most pros say the higher the better. For a 24-inch monitor, opt for a 1920 x 1080 FHD resolution. For a 27-inch monitor, it’s a 2560 x 1440 QHD. A 32-inch monitor will optimally have 4K resolution (3840 x 2160) UHD. UltraWide (21:9) 1440p (often curved) monitors are also good options. For screen size, there are some important considerations:
First, don’t assume that resolution correlates with screen size. It doesn’t. The same size screens can have different resolutions. Second, LCD displays should be used at their native resolution. Chose a monitor with the native resolution you're going to be working in. Third, if you’re considering a 4K display, make sure software is compatible. A 4K display can be an awesome tool for photo editing, working well with Photoshop and Illustrator.
Recommended resolution for a monitor for photo editing: As high a resolution as possible, for your chosen monitor size.
Good design elements make working on your monitor easier, more efficient and comfortable. Monitors with a frameless bezel design are ideal for maximizing productivity and creative workspace with a dual- or monitor set up. A swivel mount delivers added setup options. A flat matte finish will greatly reduce reflection for easier calibration and viewing. Ergonomic tilt, swivel, pivot and height adjust capabilities can maximize comfort. Ambient light sensors adjust screen brightness on the fly. Presence sensors automatically dim the backlight when you step away from your workspace. Advanced swap and auto pivot features allow you to rotate the screen 180 degrees, getting a horizontal view of your image.
Look for a variety of output ports like USB, DisplayPort and HDMI. More options mean easy connectivity with the devices you use today plus support for those you’ll use in years to come. USB 3.0 ports deliver device charging, while USB 3.1 Type C ports deliver charging plus audio for simplified setups. The ability to “daisy chain” two or more monitors via DisplayPort delivers added flexibility.
Pro monitors for photo editing produce more accurate color than mainstream monitors. They offer numerous color control features that help you to make the most of your images. If your work, pastime or passion involves viewing and manipulating graphics on a monitor, it's time to see your images more clearly.
Basic screens can’t deliver consistent, color-accurate images. By investing in a display that’s for image editing you’ll gain the color range, calibration capabilities and color management features to view and edit with greater detail and color accuracy. Fortunately, there are more budget-friendly pro monitors than ever before for all your photo editing needs.