5 Things Photographers Need In A Computer Monitor

In Buying Guide by Jeff Harmon4 Comments

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I have had a lot of photographers reach out to me recently to ask about what monitor I recommend here in mid-2020.  Some photographers have used my Photo Taco computer buying guides to buy a new computer and need a monitor to go with it.  Other photographers are just wanting to upgrade their monitor for various reasons.

When there are a lot of photographers asking the same question I write up a guide for the Photo Taco website and sometimes I do a podcast on the topic too.  So let’s get into my advice on what a photographer should look for in a monitor.

First Thing Photographers Need In A Computer Monitor – Large Physical Size

Most people are used to shopping for TVs by physical dimensions.  We are used to saying that we are looking for an 85” big screen TV for example.  Or these days, it may be a TV that is over 100”!  Speaking of TVs, I get asked the question about them being a good option for photographers to use for editing as well.  Most of the time they ask because photographers are looking at the costs and see that they can buy a much larger TV for less money than a computer monitor.

TVs certainly can be used for photo editing.  It used to be that connecting a computer to a TV was a little bit challenging but with HDMI connections on most computers today (or easily added) that isn’t really a big problem.  There are two downsides to using a TV as a monitor for photo editing:

  1. Harder to see fine details. The pixels that make up the screen are much larger on a TV than those on a computer monitor.  Even on a 4K TV the pixel size can be a problem in seeing some of the really fine details we are looking for as we edit photos.  I am talking about zooming in 1:1 or more in Lightroom to tune sharpness and noise reduction for example.  It can be done on a TV for sure, but having the pixels smaller and closer together on a computer monitor gives better information on those super-fine details.
  2. Automatic image “enhancement”. The second downside, and this is a bigger one that the pixel size, is the “automatic” things a lot of TVs do to make things look good.  Most of them automatically sharpen, brighten, increase contrast and saturation without any ability to turn that off.  You may have different modes the TV can go into where these automatic things work a little differently, but most of them don’t have a way to turn this effect off and that leads to inaccurate edits of your photos.

As to the size of a computer monitor for photo editing, obviously the bigger the better.  The bare minimum size of monitor photographers should use to edit photos is 24”.  The sweet spot is 27”.  If you can afford it (and find them – I have had a hard time finding them) then 32” is a really nice size for photographers to edit photos.

There are computer monitors larger than 32” but they are outrageously expensive and so large it may be a challenge having a workspace that will work for you to edit your photos.

Second Thing Photographers Need In A Computer Monitor – High Resolution

Going hand-in-hand with the physical size of the monitor is the resolution of the monitor.  This is measured in pixels and because we measure the monitor size in pixels we can compare things with a pixels per inch or PPI.

It seems obvious that with photographers wanting to see as much detail as possible while editing their photos they would want as high a resolution as possible, but I am going to advise photographers that super-high PPI can have downsides.

  1. Performance.  Your computer has to draw all those pixels.  The more of them there are, the more work your computer has to do.  Lightroom in particular can really be challenged for performance with 4K or higher computer monitor resolutions, but this is pretty true across the board.  Gamers will quickly tell you how much harder it is to have their games run at 4K vs 1080p.
  2. The size of the buttons and labels.  As your monitor resolution goes up, the size of buttons and labels goes down.  They get smaller making them harder to read and use.  Let’s say that a slider in Lightroom is 16 pixels tall.  I picked that number because I happen to know that the slider control in Lightroom is actually 16 pixels tall.  When your computer is showing you that slider on a Full HD 1080p computer monitor that slider is about 1.5% of the screen.  When you go up to 2K (QHD, 2560×1440 or 1440p) the size of that control drops to taking up 1.1% of the screen, about 25% smaller.  When you go up to UHD 4K (2160p) that slider now takes up  0.7% of the screen, about half the size of how it would look on a 1080p monitor that is the same size.  Both Windows and Mac have been trying to make this work better by inflating the size of the buttons and text.

A 1080p computer monitor will work, but is not ideal as a resolution for computer monitors photographers use for editing photos unless you can’t afford anything larger than a 24” monitor.  In that case you will want 1080p.

A computer monitor with a 2K resolution is the sweet spot for photographers.  At 2K it is the best combination of performance, details in your images, and having reasonably sized buttons and labels in the software used to edit photos.

A computer monitor with a 4K resolution can work really well, though my experience with them is that the size of the buttons and labels becomes so small I end up having the computer scale the output so that I get what looks like a 2K resolution.  Both Mac and Windows support this, Apple and Microsoft have actually specifically focused on making MacOS and Windows deal with this better since 4K computer monitors are so popular and available at a reasonable price here in 2020.  However, with scaling the resolution down using the computer you really lose some of the fine detail because the monitor isn’t really showing you the screen at the native resolution it was built for.

Third Thing Photographers Need In A Computer Monitor – IPS

For many years computer monitors have mostly used LCD screens.  Thank goodness we have moved out of the CRT days where we had computer monitors that were huge and heavy.  There are some computer monitors that have OLED screens, but we will ignore those in this episode as they are more expensive and just not very available to most photographers.

There are basically two types of panels that go into LCD screens: 

  1. TN (Twisted Nematic).  TN panels can look really good when you are positioned with the right viewing angle, but if you get higher, lower, left or right from that viewing angle the colors start looking washed out and the contrast goes down.  Photographers want to make sure they avoid buying a computer monitor that has a TN panel so that their photo edits aren’t ruined because they sat themselves at a viewing angle that wasn’t perfect.
  2. IPS (In-Plane Switching).  IPS panels don’t have this issue with the viewing angle.  IPS panels look pretty much the same no matter your viewing angle.  They have a downside in being slower to refresh than TN panels, but photographers are mostly dealing with static images and don’t need a really high refresh rate.

As photographers are shopping for a computer monitor they should make sure the words “IPS” are in the search and that the monitor CLEARLY STATES that the LCD screen has an IPS panel (or IPS technology).

Fourth Thing Photographers Need In A Computer Monitor – HDMI or DisplayPort Connection

The way photographers connect their computer to their monitor is another thing to make sure of to get the best possible image quality.  Here in 2020 you connect your computer to your monitor in one of two ways:

  1. HDMI.  HDMI can be a really good way to connect your computer to your monitor.  It can also be a challenge in that there are many versions of HDMI and some of them max out at 1080p Full HD resolutions.  Photographers want HDMI 2.0.  That version of HDMI has to be supported by the graphics of the computer (GPU or Intel), the cable used to go from the computer to the monitor, and by the monitor.  If you buy a 2K or 4K monitor here in 2020 you can feel confident that the HDMI port of the monitor is a version that supports that resolution, but photographers should check the description to see that it says HDMI 1.4 for 2K and HDMI 2.0 for 4K. 

    Photographers should also make sure an HDMI cable they are buying supports HDMI 1.4 or 2.0.  My preference is this 4K HDMI cable or this USB-C (Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3.1) to HDMI cable.
  2. DisplayPort.  DisplayPort as a connection can have multiple looks and names.  Macs have long supported DisplayPort in their Thunderbolt ports, including today in Thunderbolt 3 ports.  PCs mostly don’t have Thunderbolt ports, but many have the more traditional DisplayPort connector.  For a while I recommended making sure that a monitor had that more traditional DisplayPort connector because it said something about the quality of the monitor.  If it had DisplayPort as a connection option, it was a good computer monitor for photographers.  Today this is less important as HDMI 2.0 is a great way to connect your computer to your monitor.

    Here is my preference on a traditional DisplayPort cable or this USB-C (Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3.1) to DisplayPort cable

Photographers must stay away from VGA as a connection type.  I don’t expect you will run into that much today, but thought I should mention it.  Same goes for DVI.  DVI used to be the best option photographers had to connect their computers to a monitor, DVI-D (Dual Link) in particular did a great job, but this connection type is outdated now and photographers should stick with HDMI or DisplayPort today.

Fifth Thing Photographers Need In A Computer Monitor – Color

This one is not as “must have” as the first four in the list.  This is more of a nice-to-have, but if you can find one in your budget that says it has 100% sRGB color space there will be an advantage for photographers.

We tend to obsess over color, and rightfully so.  We want our images to have good color.  We don’t want people to have alien skin tones or for that sunset to look drab/overcooked.  The better photographers can do of making sure they can get the best color possible in their images, the more likely it is that the image will look good for your clients or others you share the image with.

Two things then to look for with regard to color in a computer monitor for photographers:

  1. 100% sRGB Color Space.  There are bigger color spaces, and photographers usually want to work in those bigger color spaces as they edit photos, but getting a computer monitor that can produce a color space larger than sRGB is going to be expensive and overkill for most photographers.  Having a computer monitor that produces 100% of the sRGB color space on the other hand is something worth paying for if you can find one in your budget.
  2. 10-bit Color. The other thing to look for is a computer monitor that supports 10-bit color.  With 10-bit color you will be able to see smoother gradients.  Most monitors are 8-bit which means each color channel can show 256 different shades of that color.  With 10-bit that jumps up to 1024 different shades of that color channel.

The computer monitor doesn’t have to have these two features, but if you can find one that says it has those I would choose it over one that doesn’t even if it was a little bit more money.

Sixth Thing Photographers Need In A Computer Monitor – Flat Screen

It sounds better to have a top 5 list instead of a top 6 list, but this one is also more of an opinion than a purely technical thing photographers need in a computer monitor.  There are a number of computer monitors today that are curved.  The idea is to make the visual experience a more immersive one for games.  How can a photographer judge something like lens distortion if they are using a curved monitor?

I know I have heard from some photographers who love their curved display.  If that’s you, then great.  This is a tool and more of a preference thing, but I recommend photographers stick with flat computer monitors.

Mid-May 2020 Computer Monitor For Photographers

So what is my current recommendation? Here are a couple of choices that check all of the boxes I outlined above and would be an EXCELLENT choice as a computer monitor for photographers.

BenQ PD2700Q 27 inch QHD 1440p IPS Monitor | 100% sRGB ($300) or the 32 inch version ($490)

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  4. Thanks for a great blog post. I read it a couple of times and ordered a 100% sRGB monitor since everything I do is for the web. In another blog post you wrote that editing should be done in Adobe RGB but that makes no sense if you edit on a sRGB monitor, right?

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