Best Monitors for Photo Editing : Is it REALLY that important?

IPS monitors for photo editing
Three IPS Panel Monitors: a Viewsonic, an HP DreamColor, and an Eizo with hood and colorimeter.

Is the monitor really that important?

The quick answer: YES, absolutely.

IF YOU CAN’T SEE THE COLOR AND TONAL DIFFERENCES on your monitor, then you can’t make good post-processing decisions and adjustments to your digital negatives. It’s that simple. You can’t adjust your curves to give your print smooth tonal transitions or to distinguish subtle shadow detail if you can’t see those transitions and details to begin with.  In order to make optimal adjustments to your digital negatives, you must be able to see as much of your color gamut as possible and the color must be accurate and reliable.

Monitor Technology : IPS vs. TN

 

TN Monitor

TN stands for Twisted Nematic, which is by far the most popular and wide-spread screen technology. If you have a standard or even higher-end “gaming” LCD monitor for your PC, this is what you have (the same is not true for some Macs). TN screens initially gained popularity because of their low energy consumption, but also because of their quick response time, which is important in reducing ghosting and producing smooth motion for gaming and video. Most TN monitors these days advertise response times of 2-6ms , though they are not always measured in the same way, so comparison is difficult. They are also very bright and are being made with increasingly high resolution, so they appeal to most average consumers. They’re also the cheapest monitors on the market.

More importantly for photographers, though, is that TN monitors use 6-bit color technology, and therefore can’t display the full 24-bit color range (16.7 million colors) that video cards can produce (and that the monitor manufacturers usually claim they can produce). Instead, they attempt to simulate the full range of colors by interpolation of other colors, which they do with limited success. Many TN monitors (non-LED) display less than 30% of the NTSC color gamut, and the color that they do display is only accurate when viewed head-on, so the appearance of color shifts when viewed from and angle is dramatic, and problematic around the edges in any circumstances. Improvements are continually being made in TN technology, but they have a long way to go.

IPS panel monitors, on the other hand, have a different set of advantages and disadvantages. IPS stands for In-Plane Switching, although modern IPS panels actually make use of a variety of improved technologies, such as S-IPS,  H-IPS,  AS-IPS, and E-IPS. Engineering details aside, the main advantages to IPS panels is that they are truly 8-bit technology (or 10-bit), with many IPS monitors producing 125% or more of the number of colors in the NTSC gamut. Second, the colors do not shift when viewed from different angles; most remain accurate well past 170 degrees. But of course, there are disadvantages as well, though they are also improving. Initially, the IPS technology was much slower than TN, with response rates of 20-50ms. This made it unusable for video and gaming. S-IPS and a variety of “turbo” technologies have now improved that rate, and 14ms and faster speeds are common, making them very suitable for video, though still somewhat less desirable for gaming.

IPS monitors have been much more expensive as well, though the gap is beginning to narrow.  Even a year ago, the most common IPS monitors (Mac Cinema Displays) cost three times as much as similarly sized TN screens, but now 23″ IPS monitors can be found for as little as $300. Professional graphic arts monitors using IPS and other less common technologies still cost thousands of dollars, though.

S-PVA is another excellent but less common technology. Like IPS, S-PVA panels use at least 8-bit technology, have very good gamut coverage, and colors do not shift when viewed off angle.

Standard Gamut vs. Extended Gamut

colorspace gamut comparisons

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Photo editing monitors can be broken down into two main categories: Standard Gamut (sRGB) and Wide or Extended Gamut. Standard gamut monitors generally attempt to display all of the colors in the sRGB color space, while extended or wide gamut monitors attempt display a larger gamut, such as that found in the AdobeRGB color space.

Most people immediately assume that “more colors = better” and decide that they need an extended gamut display. However, the matter is slightly more complicated than that.

Although extended gamut displays work wonderfully for their specific purpose with programs that support them, they are generally not great for general purpose use. Keep in mind that photos on the internet are virtually all sRGB, and more importantly, our browsers display them as sRGB. When a program’s sRGB output is displayed on a wider gamut monitor, though, the colors can go wild! They frequently shift and become over-saturated, others may look washed out. To deal with this, most wide gamut monitors have separate profiles for different uses, and you need to switch between them depending on what you’re doing, or, if properly set up, a color managed operating system can sometimes switch for you. (Color management is too complex and beyond the scope of an article like this, but a quick Google search will help)

And if you only publish to the web or publish through online printers who only accept sRGB jpgs (as many wedding and portrait photographers do), then there is little advantage to using a wide gamut monitor anyway, since your output is ultimately going to be sRGB.

However, if you do fine art printing at a high quality lab that can accept your files in a wide gamut format (Adobe1998 or ProPhotoRGB) or if you print on a professional quality inkjet printer in your own digital darkroom, it’s worth the effort to use an extended gamut monitor. If you have a workstation that is dedicated to photo editing (or a similar project with the need for wide gamut display), making the decision to get a wide gamut monitor should be even easier.

Which Monitor Should I Get?

The answer, of course, depends on your budget. You can spend anywhere from $300 to $3000 or more.  In this case, however, it is a safe bet that even the cheapest options will be dramatically better than what you’re currently using (if you’re using a standard TN desktop workstation screen).

Entry-Level IPS Monitors

Viewsonic IPS Monitor

Though I wouldn’t call it “frameless”, exactly, the Viewsonic IPS screens are high quality and attractive.

On the low end of the price spectrum, Viewsonic has been reliably produced IPS monitors for a few years now. In October 2012, Viewsonic announced 3 new slick-looking IPS panel monitors: the VX2370Smh-LED 23″ and VX2770Smh-LED 27″ models for $159.99 and $242.70, which are available now, and a 22″ model that should be in stores before 2013.  These new monitors have very nice, consistent color, and also have a “frameless” design that makes them a little easier to use in a multi-monitor setup. $164 is a great price for the 23″ monitor; only two years ago, their 23″ model was over $300. All three have HDMI inputs.

Asus is also now producing a couple of affordable lines of IPS monitors. The VS series includes the ASUS VS239H-P a nice looking 23″ full HD panel with a price tag of $143.01, and a smaller 22″ model (the VS229H-P) costs only $133.99. The PB series is a bit more expensive, but offers 100% coverage of the sRGB gamut. The 23″ PB238Q currently costs $203.50 and also features display-port, HDMI, and DVI connectors, and a USB hub (sRGB coverage of the VS model is not provided by Asus).

Long known for making excellent high-end graphics displays, DELL has also ventured into the entry-level market recently. The Ultrasharp U2312 and U2412 (23 and 24″) are good quality e-IPS displays, costing Price Not Found and Price Not Found . The U2312 covers approximately 95.8% of the sRGB gamut, which is good, but clearly not quite as good as the ASUS PB series.

Mid-Range IPS Monitors

If you can afford to spend a bit more money, the options open up tremendously, and the potential for enhanced performance also increases.

The new DELL U2410 is an an impressive monitor for the price. At only $540, it provides 100% sRGB coverage and 96% of AdobeRGB, with 12-bit internal processing… not to mention built in card readers, USB ports, etc.  Early production models of this monitor had some dithering problems that have since been corrected with updated firmware, so they should not be a problem. Because this is a true extended-gamut monitor, operating systems prior to Windows 7 (that don’t manage your color) will make this monitor difficult to use. (Some users of this monitor complain of a pink-green shift across the screen. It’s unclear whether this is true with the newer updates of this model, as many people also claim that there is no banding or color shift. This may be a case in which you’ll have to order and replace with another unit if you have problems).

A popular option. Slightly less expensive when NOT purchased directly from Apple.

Another very popular option is the Apple 24″ Cinema Display. Apple Cinema Displays have been  standard workhorses of the graphic art trade for years, and they’re one of the reasons that Macs have kept such a strong hold on the industry. They’re more expensive than some similarly performing models (around $880 for a 24″), but have a reputation for quality. Some people have reported problems with reflections on the glossy screen surface.

Professional Editing IPS Monitors

If high performance is more important to you than sticking to a tight budget, there are a few monitors that fit the bill.

The HP DreamColor LP2480zx is probably the nicest monitor that I’ve ever had the opportunity to use. It is a 10-bit monitor, covering a full 100% of the AdobeRGB color space. The difference between this monitor and the Apple Cinema Display that I’m more familiar with is clear from the first moment that I used it; I could actually see more in photos than I had previously realized was there. This does come at a price, though… about $1850.

Similarly, the Eizo ColorEdge CG241W (and related monitors such as the CG243W, etc.) is a stellar performer. If you’d like to read a full comparison between an older Eizo monitor and an Apple Cinema Display, let me direct your attention to the Luminous Landscape article that first drew my attention to Eizo monitors, here: The Eizo ColorEdge CG301W vs. The Apple 30″ Cinemadisplay. Again, the performance comes at a cost… especially if you opt for the 30 inch versions of these monitors, but even at 24″, the cost is substantial at $1900.

There are, of course, numerous other excellent monitors out there. In fact, I haven’t even mentioned the offerings from major companies like Samsung (though I left them out on purpose) and LaCie. I’ve listed some additional monitors in the table below, but I hope that everyone reading this will add their experience and input as well. I hope that this helps!

[Since there are more monitors than I can reasonably test myself, I’ve listed monitors with which I’ve had personal experience, for which I’ve heard good recommendations from reliable sources, or about which I’ve read multiple convincingly good reviews. If your favorite monitor has been left out, feel free to email me or reply to this thread with relevant info. -JMG]

BrandModelPriceScreen Size / Aspect RatioResolutionPixel Pitch
(Smaller is Better)
Panel TypeResponse Time / Contrast RatiosRGB or Extended GamutLUT Bit Depth% of sRGB Gamut Coverage% of Adobe1998 RGB Gamut Coverage
Apple27" Thunderbolt DisplayPrice Not Found
27"2560 x 1440.233mmIPS12 ms
1000:1
sRGB8-bit per color76% (tested)
DellUltrasharp U2410Price Not Found
24"
16:10
1920 x 1200.27mmIPS6 ms
1000:1
Extended100%96%
DellUltrasharp U2711Price Not Found27"
16:9
2560 x 1440.233mmIPS6 ms
1000:1
Extended100%96%
DellUltrasharp U3011Price Not Found
EizoFlexScan SX2462WPrice Not Found24"1920x1200.270mmIPS with overdrive5ms grey-to-grey
850:1
Extended12-bit per color100%98%
EIZOColorEdge CG241WPrice Not Found24"
16:10
1920 x 1200.27mmVA with overdrive6ms
850:1
Extended12-bit per color98%95%
EIZOColorEdge CG245W$280224"
16:10
1920 x 1200.27mmIPS with overdrive5ms
850:1
Extended12-bit per color100%98%
EIZOColorEdge CG243WPrice Not Found24"
16:10
1920 x 1200.27mmIPS with overdrive5ms
850:1
Extended12-bit per color100%98%
HPDreamColor LP2480zxPrice Not Found
24"
16:10
1920x1200.270mmIPS6 ms grey-to-grey
1000:1
Extended12-bit per color100%100%
HPLP2475wPrice Not Found24"
16:10
1920 x 1200.27mmIPS5ms
1000:1
sRGB8-bitnot providednot provided
HPZR22wPrice Not Found21.5"
16:9
1920 x 1080.2475mmS-IPS8ms
1000:1
sRGB8-bitnot providednot provided
HPZR24wPrice Not Found24"
16:10
1920 x 1200.27mmS-IPS7ms
1000:1
sRGB8-bit97%not provided
HPZR30wPrice Not Found30"
16:10
2560 x 1600.251S-IPS7ms
1000:1
Extended10-bit100+%111% (tested)
LaCie324i$113924"
16:10
1920 x 1200.27mmP-IPS6 ms
1000:1
Extended10-bitnot provided98%
NECLCD3090WQXi-BKPrice Not Found30"2560 x 1600.251IPS6ms grey to grey
1000:1
Extended12-bit100%98%
NECP221WPrice Not Found22"1680 x 1050.2828ms grey to grey
1000:1
Extended10-bitnot provided96%
NECLCD2490WUXi2-BKPrice Not Found24"
16:10
1920 x 1200.27mmIPS8ms grey to grey
1000:1
sRGB12-bit97%75%
NECPA271WPrice Not Found
27"
16:9
2560 x 1440.233mmIPS7ms grey to greyExtended14-bit100%97.1%
NECPA241WPrice Not Found
24"1920 x 1200.27mmIPS8ms grey to grey
1000:1
Extended14-bit100%98%
NECPA231wPrice Not Found23"1920 x 1080.265IPS8ms grey to grey
1000:1
Extended14-bit--
ViewsonicVP2365wbPrice Not Found23"1920x1080.265IPS14 ms
1000:1
sRGB8-bit--

Additional Necessities

If you’re going to spend the money to get a good quality display, you’ll also need a color calibration system for it. In fact, this is true no matter what monitor you’re using… but it would be especially wasteful not to calibrate a high quality display. These can be quite inexpensive, and there are a variety of choices. Most high-end monitors are bundled with a colorimeter already. The Spyder models range in price from about $85 to a couple hundred, as do the models from X-rite, like the ColorMunki ($500) and Eye-One LT ($150).

It also makes sense to create color profiles for your camera using something like an X-Rite Color checker. It can dramatically improve the color accuracy of your photos, and is quite simple (see the videos here).

Additionally, you should keep in mind that some of these monitors use 10-bit or higher technology, and require specific graphics cards, and in some cases, the DisplayPort connector must be used rather than the standard digital output or HDMI. If you expect to use 10-bit or higher display technology, check with the monitor manufacturer to see what graphics cards are supported.

[If you’d like further information about building a computer specifically for Photo Editing, please see my article on Choosing the Best Computer for Photo Editing – JMG]

90 Comments

  • LeeC says:

    ” the main advantages to IPS panels is that they are truly 8-bit technology (or 10-bit)”

    Considering that line is simply wrong, I find it hard to trust the rest of the article. I suggest some more research and then some correct information be added. 6-bit + FRC is very common, and that… is most definitely not *truly 8-bit technology*

    • Hi Lee,

      You may have noticed the publication date on this article, which currently shows July of 2011. In fact, that was the date of the last major update; it was originally published in July of 2010, when IPS/PVA monitors were relatively rare. Technologies have changed since then, and while it’s true that IPS panels are 8-bit (as are P-IPS, S-IPS, and H-IPS, generally speaking… some can be 10-bit) e-IPS (not E-IPS) panels are indeed 6-bit + FRC. At the time this was published, e-IPS panels had not gained the widespread production (developed only in 2009-10) that they enjoy today, and I’ve only made a few minor updates to products in this article since then, not to the bulk of the text. I’ve heard (but not confirmed) that some S-IPS monitors are now 6-bit, too.

      In any case, higher-end IPS panels are still indeed mostly 8 or 10-bit, but it’s also true that there are now some TN panels that are 8-bit, or so I’ve read. As with most technology related articles, if you wait long enough, even my articles will get outdated. 😉 I’ll consider updating it, if I find the time.

      – Matt

  • John levey says:

    Hi Mathew.
    I have an Asus PB238Q monitor. Can I calibrate it with a Spider 4 Express.
    I am new to all this.
    Many thanks

  • David George says:

    Any chance you will be updating this anytime soon?

    I still love my HP LP2475 (discontinued). I want to replace my Dell 2007FP. Have toyed with getting a refurbished 2475W on eBay (about $240). I am unimpressed with the reviews of the newer HPs. The NEC is out of my range.

    • Hi David,

      I’ve been meaning to update this for months (I’ve made some minor changes, but it does need an overhaul), but it’s a very tedious process… there’s a lot of data to sort through, and a lot of information to gather. Right now, the Seattle summer has just begun, and it might last a few more weeks. When the rainy weather returns, it will be a lot easier for me to spend the time sitting in front of my computer :)

      – Matthew

      • David George says:

        I hear you! I look forward to any updates. I’m on the fence as to what to do and seem to change my mind every week :),

  • Francisco says:

    Very nice article. Iam now looking at buying on of the following, but a bit confused by your statemenst:
    “…offers 100% coverage of the sRGB gamut. The 23″ PB238Q…”
    “… The U2312 covers approximately 95.8% of the sRGB gamut, which is good, but clearly not quite as good as the ASUS PB series….”

    Looking at Dell´s homepage, the U2312 covers 82% of NTSC and that is much more than sRGB (72% of NTSC)
    Is this correct?
    Also, will any of these two be much better than the entry level Viewsonic or Asus VS series you mentioned?

    Thanks,
    Francisco

  • Jerry says:

    I see that the Eizo ColorEdge CG301W is no longer available! Do you have a recommendation for a equivalent monitor from Eizo?

  • hlinton says:

    Do you have any thoughts/comments regarding the HP ZR2740w, 27″ LED monitor? I was in the process of getting the NEC monitor that you like but ran into a wall with the supplier and the price went from 700 CHF to over 1000 CHF in the past month! If all else fails I can get a decent deal on the Apple ThunderBolt display. Is there a difference between that and the Cinema Display with regard to photos? Thanks.

  • Joseph says:

    What do you think of ”led tv” vs ”led Monitor” for video editing .. such as Samsung UE22F5400 LED 22″ Full HD Smart TV vs Asus VS239HR..?

  • Hello,

    I wondered what your thoughts were on the Dell U2711? The Dell I can get in Australia for about $700.00. I have about $1000.00 that I would like to spend on a monitor. I have read so many reviews and I understand that the Eizo and NEC are the best monitors on the market for photographers.

    Cheers :-)

  • Richard Porst says:

    Hi Matthew, why did you intentionally leave out Samsung products?

    • Hi Richard,

      When I originally wrote this article, a few years ago, I had just had a particularly bad experience with a Samsung monitor (it had developed a yellow line across the screen). More generally, I’ve also been unhappy with their color reproduction.

      I am in the process of updating this article now (I do every several months), and I may include some Samsung monitors this time around.

      – Matthew

      • Richard Porst says:

        Hi Matthew, thanks for the heads up on this. I’m new to all this tech stuff. Give me a darkroom and I’m comfortable.

  • David George says:

    Thanks for the informative review.

    One point that you do not cover is IPS versus S-IPS.

    I currently use an HP LP2475w (no longer available), which I really love, as my primary screen. I use a Dell 2007FP as my 2nd screen.

    I’d like to get an additional 24″ and move the LP2475 to the 2nd screen spot. (I need a larger 2nd screen.)

    The HP LP2475w is an IPS screen as is the Dell U2410 (another I’ve considered)

    My understanding is that the HP ZR24w (reviewed above)has been replaced by the HP ZR2440w. I believe both of these are S-IPS. Isn’t that lesser technology than IPS?

    I’m also wary based on the price; the HP ZR2440w is under $400; I paid over $500 for the LP2475w.

    My primary concern is image quality for mostly photo but also some video editing. I use an Xrite calibration device as needed.

    I’m wondering whether I should go with the Dell to get true IPS at a decent price point or bite the bullet and get the NEC MultiSync PA241W-BK 24, which is $750 @ B&H right now.

    I tend to keep technology for a long time and my system is in use 18 hours a day since I work at home.

    My overwhelming concern is quality.

    Any advice would be most appreciated.,

    Thanks.

    dg

     

    • Hi David,

      Sorry for the delay; it’s been a busy month.

      S-IPS is actually an improved IPS technology (super-IPS) which generally has a faster response time and there may be less color shift at strong angle. But it depends on what you’re comparing it to: IPS, e-IPS, P-IPS, AH-IPS, etc.

      s-IPS was one of the earlier improved IPS technologies, but for me, it hasn’t been very useful to compare the IPS types. I generally look for color gamut coverage instead, for specific monitors I’m comparing.

      As it happens, though, the HP ZR2440w is an e-IPS (enhanced IPS), and reviews are showing that the new monitor is better than the ZR24w (except on the input lag).

      I have to say, though, that NEC makes my favorite monitors right now. I see that the price at B&H is still $750, which is a great deal for that monitor, and it is a true, wide gamut panel. If quality is your over riding concern, and you can manage a wide gamut, that’s the way that I’d go (the LP2475 was an sRBG gamut).

      – Matthew

      • David George says:

        Thanks for the reply, Matthew. Keeping track of the different IPS designations is difficult.

        I’m still leery about the HP ZR2440w; the PA241W-BK 24 is definitely my top choice.

        And thanks for clarifying the gamut of the LP2475; some reviews refer to that as “wide gamut.” I have been very satisfied with it overall.

        I may hang fire and see what HP comes out with next: I still don’t think they have really matched the LP2475 in terms of quality.

        dg

        • My mistake; the LP2475 is, indeed, a wide gamut monitor (98.1% of Adobe1998). It’s the ZR2440 and ZR24w that are standard gamut.

          – Matt

          • David George says:

            Thanks for clarifying.

            I was considering some of comparable Dells, e.g., the U2410 or U2412, but with the 2412 in particular I think they’re scrimping on quality to get a lower price point. I use a Dell 2007FP as my 2nd screen and one of the things I have always preferred about the HP LP2475 is that it is a lot brighter.

            dg

  • Tuli says:

    Are there problems using NEC PA241W for video because of the 8milisec response time (“ghosting…)?
    and the lack of HDMI connection?

    Is Spectraview enough for calibrating the monitor or something else is needed?

    Thanks

    • A display-port connection is as good as an HDMI, so that’s not a problem.

      I don’t work with video (at least, not much), so I can’t say anything about the response time. I suspect that some ghosting will be an issue until you’re down in the 2-3ms range, but you’re not going to find that with IPS monitors yet. It’s really the old IPS monitors that were in quite slow (20ms+) that had major problems.

      I haven’t ever had to rely on Spectraview, but you probably can… that is what it’s designed for. I’ve always had an external colorimeter that I’m more familiar with, but the spectraview sensors will certainly get the job done.

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