How much time do you spend looking at a monitor? A lot. Right? So investing in a high quality monitor makes good sense, even for everyday use. If you work with digital images on a regular basis and want to produce great color you know just how important using a high quality monitor is for getting the best results. NEC’s new LCD 90 series are exceptionally high quality monitors. I hesitated to recommend any LCD monitor – until I used these. Now my NEC monitors are the ones I trust most in my studio.
Will Hollingworth (Senior Manager – Product Development for NEC Display Solutions of America, Inc. www.necdisplay.com) offers a number of insightful answers about NEC and monitors.
JP I hear the average digital photographer spends thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars on cameras and lenses but only a few hundred dollars on monitors. And they spend an average of 15-40% of their time behind the lens and 40-80% of their time in front of a monitor. So, how important is a monitor?
WH It doesn’t make much sense to make a huge investment in camera hardware and then skimp on a monitor of questionable performance … .
The monitor provides your last chance to view and edit images before outputting to print. If you can’t trust what you see on the screen to be an accurate representation of what you will get when you make the print, you will end up wasting a lot of time and expensive print consumables. The new printer inks introduced over the last few years such as the Epson UltraChrome K3 inks have pushed beyond the color gamut limits of traditional display monitors. The only way to accurately softproof the output of these devices is with a wide color gamut display.
Likewise if you are going to be sharing your images online, you basically have no control over how others will view the images. However you need to be confident that they look their best at your end using a properly calibrated monitor.
JP A few people are reluctant to change their CRT based monitor to a newer LCD based one. Can you explain this reluctance and is it still valid?
WH When the end of production of CRT displays was announced several years ago by Sony and Mitsubishi, many color professionals went out and (at great expense) purchased a stockpile of displays out of fear that LCD performance was not going be on par anytime soon. Some of this fear was very legitimate, as LCDs at that time had some pretty serious drawbacks compared to CRTs that made them unsuitable for color critical applications. However now I see a lot of these “brand new and still in the box” CRT displays showing up on eBay, which is a sign that LCD technology has improved to a point that professionals are comfortable enough to let go and make the switch to LCDs.
High quality LCDs now exceed the performance of CRTs in practically every benchmark. Just think of all the screen geometry adjustments and focus problems with CRTs, not to mention the low brightness, size, weight and cost.
People tend to forget that only a few years ago a high quality 21” CRT display would cost between $1500 and $3000 – and that was in yesterday’s dollars. Today for the same money or less, you can get a 30” display, with twice the resolution, 4 times the brightness, and a much wider range of displayable colors.
In the past, very experienced “old school” print technicians and artists were able to “print by numbers” and never trusted what they saw on the monitor, but instead mentally visualized colors by the CMYK values. While having that level of ability is quite amazing and something to be proud of, it is not very practical for most people, especially given the huge variety of new ink and paper combinations. I’ve heard from many such people who were formerly very skeptical of trusting the display color, that the display performance has reached a point where they can now do so with confidence.
JP Has the monitor become the most commonly used device for viewing images today?
WH As traditional media such as TV, magazines, newspapers, catalogs etc. move online, the computer monitor has essentially become the central component with which to view this “new media”.
With online photo sharing sites like Flickr, PBase, and others, many people are skipping the output-to-print entirely.
We are also seeing displays in new applications such as digital signage. For example restaurants are using large monitors instead of overhead printed menus. This allows for very dynamic and captivating content to be created. With LCD displays available in sizes of 82″ diagonal and above, a whole new range of applications is now available that was traditionally limited to static print media. Some galleries and museums are now starting to use displays in addition to, or even in place of, the traditional prints.
JP You know monitors. What are the top things you look for when evaluating them?
WH The first thing I would look at is the type of LCD panel used in the monitor. There are 3 main types used today: TN (Twisted Nematic), VA (Vertical Alignment), and IPS (In Plane Switching). Each technology has its own benefits and drawbacks, and advances are rapidly being made in each category that make evaluating them like hitting a moving target.
The lowest cost panel technology, TN, has excellent response times, making them the monitor of choice for gamers, but of no advantage for Photoshop users. However the lack of color fidelity and poor viewing angles pretty much rules this type of panel out for anyone serious about accurate color reproduction.
VA panels have excellent contrast ratios and much better color reproduction than TN panels. The one big drawback of most VA panels is the color shift when viewing the screen from off-axis, and the shadow area is especially vulnerable to shifts.
IPS panels are generally considered the best overall LCD technology for image quality, viewing angle, and color accuracy, however they are expensive.
Don’t be fooled by Contrast Ratio figures. A lot of consumer displays quote Dynamic Contrast Ratio, which is fine if you are watching DVDs, but useless if you are editing in Photoshop. Also keep in mind that if you are simulating prints, the maximum density on most papers and inks equates to a display contrast ratio of 300:1 or less.
Next I would look at the color gamut of the monitor and see how it fits into my color workflow. If I’m only going to be editing images for the web or newsprint, then I have no real need for a wide color gamut monitor and a traditional sRGB based monitor would be all that is needed. However if I’m shooting in camera RAW and outputting to photo paper with K3 inks, then a wide color gamut display is a definite must. Be wary of the various specifications for color gamut as there is no industry standard method for calculating it, and it is very easy for marketing folks to fudge numbers.
Lastly, “smart monitors” with hardware calibration allow fully automated calibration and maximize the use of the capabilities of the display by configuring all of the internal settings.
JP What separates the NEC LCD2690WUXi2 and LCD3090WQXi monitors from the competition?
WH The NEC LCD 90 series of displays was designed from the ground up for color critical applications. These displays utilize some of the best quality LCD panels available and feature a number of technologies aimed at producing the most accurate and stable colors possible.
Each display monitor is individually characterized during production to generate a correction to compensate for the screen non-uniformity present in all displays. When this correction is applied using a special circuit and 3D table, it provides an extremely uniform screen in both color and luminance.
The displays also have internal sensors that are constantly monitoring the intensity of the internal backlight used to illuminate the LCD panel. This allows the display to compensate for any fluctuations due to temperature changes and aging of the display. This provides more consistent color and allows longer intervals between recalibrating the monitor.
Color corrections and processing are done entirely within the display to a 12 bit LUT (Look Up Table) depth. No corrections are done to the video signal while it is in the 8 bit depth limited by the video link from the PC to the display. This means that corrections can be made without having to worry about the loss of color levels and the introduction of color banding.
We have recently added a new product line called the P series, aimed at the entry level or “semi-pro” market. This has several of the essential features of the 90 series, and uses a wide color gamut S-PVA panel.
JP It’s a challenge to simulate low contrast prints (a contrast ratio of up to 300 to 1) with high contrast monitors (a contrast ratio of up to 800 to 1). So many LCD monitors are too bright for precise prediction of print appearance. One of the things that impresses me most about these new monitors is their ability to restrain the white. How is this achieved?
WH In the fierce market of consumer monitors, many manufactures are driven by specifications, and a higher brightness spec than the competition is considered to be better. However for image editing work there is such a thing as too much brightness. Granted we no longer need to dim our light boxes all the way to try and match a CRT display, but at the same time we don’t want to burn our retinas!
Being able to control the monitor hardware directly during the calibration process and the use of high-bit internal LUTs allows the full color depth to be maintained and optimal configuration of the monitor’s internal settings. After calibration all 256 levels in the grayscale can be individually discerned – a feat that is normally impossible with standard displays.
JP What advantages will users gain by using NECs custom calibration software?
WH The NEC SpectraView II calibration system takes maximum advantage of the display by adjusting the hardware directly, rather than asking the user to make manual adjustments or make any visual judgments during the calibration process.
Since the calibration is automated, there is no guesswork or interaction necessary, other than placing the color sensor and initiating the calibration. Optimal settings for the desired calibration parameters such as luminance, gamma, contrast ratio, and white point are made automatically. Once the calibration is completed, an ICC/ColorSync profile is generated and detailed results of the calibration process are shown and logged.
Having both the monitor and calibration software developed internally within NEC means that we can very closely integrate, and take maximum advantage of, all of the various advanced hardware features to create the best possible calibration result. There are a lot of very advanced controls unique to these displays that may otherwise not be configured correctly using a 3rd party color calibration application.
We have also recently introduced a custom calibrated colorimeter that is specifically matched to achieve the maximum possible color accuracy with our wide color gamut displays.
JP Todays new high resolution, wider-gamut LCDs deliver big improvements in monitor technology. Whats left to improve? And how soon do you think well see these improvements?
WH There is no such thing as the perfect display. Each different technology has its drawbacks and limitations. There are the obvious things like viewing angle, color uniformity, color gamut etc. that will be continually improving as the technology allows.
For photographers, perhaps the most important thing that can’t accurately be simulated on a monitor is output to print sharpening. The display is simply has too low of a resolution when compared to the printer to show at 1:1 size. Also how the paper and ink react as it spreads and dries is not something that can be simulated in Photoshop. However increasing the resolution of the display starts to create problems with the current generations of Operating Systems, in that icons, menus, and fonts do not always scale very well to extremely high resolutions.
The introduction of wide color gamut displays over the last few years has made the lack of color management in the operating system and some applications glaringly obvious. Previously it was possible to get by without any color management on the desktop, in the web browser and most applications. However on a wide gamut display, some desktop icons appear as day-glow, and web pages and video display overly saturated because they are not color managed. While most wide gamut displays offer an “sRGB” mode to simulate a traditional gamut display, ideally this should not be necessary. The OS and application developers are definitely playing catch-up with the display technology. The importance of correctly tagging images with an ICC Profile has also become apparent, even if the image is sRGB based.
The need to increase the video color bit depth beyond the current 8 bit limitation is also becoming evident. Wide color gamut displays are increasingly pushing the limits of the current technology. Over the next couple of years the industry will move towards new video interfaces like DisplayPort, which allows for higher than 8 bit color to be transmitted to the monitor. However it is not just the video interface that must be changed, but everything in the pipeline; from the Operating System, Color Management System, applications, video graphics card and drivers, through to the display monitor – must all be updated to work together.
JP What new technologies are you keeping your eyes on for the future of monitors?
WH There are a lot of exciting display technologies such as e-ink, LED backlight, OLED, pico-projectors, LASER projection, 3D, and widescreen curved displays. A number of these have been “just around the corner” for the last 10 or more years, but costs and limitations of the current technology have prevented them from becoming mainstream. Also many of these technologies do not crossover well for applications such as viewing color critical images.
I frequently hear from people saying they can’t wait to get a 5mm thick 30″ OLED display to edit their photos on. Unfortunately the economies of scale are working against these as cost effective alternatives to the current LCD technologies. If there was a huge demand with people willing to pay $20,000 for such a display, that would realistically only last a year, then manufacturers would be rushing to produce them.