I have had a lot of photographers reach out to me recently to ask about what monitor I recommend. 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.
TLDR Top 5 Things Photographers Should Look For In A Computer Monitor
As photographers shop for a monitor they should make sure the description CLEARLY states all of the following:
|1. Large physical size||24″ barely usable, 27″ sweet spot, 32″ if you can afford it|
|2. High Resolution||1920×1080 barely usable, 2560×1440 sweet spot, 3840×2160 or higher if you have good eyes|
|3. Good Panel||Panel type of “IPS”|
|4. Digital Connection||Thunderbolt, HDMI, and/or DisplayPort|
|5. Good Color||8-bit 100% sRGB minimum, 10-bit (8-bit + FRC) 100% sRGB better, 10-bit 99-100% Adobe RGB if you use Photoshop significantly|
#1 – 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:
- 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.
- 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.
#2 – 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.
- 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.
- 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 computer monitor with a maximum resolution of 1920×1080 (also called “Full HD” or 1080p) will work but is definitely the low bar for editing photos. The cost of high resolution computer monitors has come down enough that most photographers should raise that bar to 2560×1440 (also called Quad HD, 1440p, or 2K).
A computer monitor with a maximum resolution of 2560×1440 is the sweet spot for most photographers. It is the best combination of performance, detail in your images, and reasonably sized buttons and labels in the software used to edit photos. The problem is it is getting harder to find monitors at this sweet spot resolution.
A computer monitor with a maximum resolution of 3840×2160 (also called 4K) works really well and is likely to be the only option to get everything you want at the high end. With the market moving to 4K monitors, Apple and Microsoft have worked hard to make the text and buttons scale so that they aren’t too small to read and use.
#3 – Good LCD Panel
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:
- 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 should 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.
- 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.
Photographers should make sure as they shop for monitors that the description CLEARLY states the panel type is “IPS”. It is fine if there are additions like “AHVA IPS” in the panel type. If the panel type isn’t stated clearly in the description, don’t buy it.
I have found it difficult to narrow searches on Amazon to only IPS panels. There is no filter option on the left side for panel type and a search like “IPS 2560×1440 computer monitor” turn up a lot of monitors that are not IPS panel types. Be careful to validate the description of the monitor has all 5 attributes you want if you shop on Amazon.
#4 – Good Digital 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:
- Thunderbolt 4. With Thunderbolt 4 common on both PC and Mac, this is an excellent digital connection option to your monitor. There aren’t a lot of monitors that support Thunderbolt 4 yet, but if you find one in your budget that does that is a big bonus.
- 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.
- 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 portsMany PCs come with Thunderbolt 4 as well, but you are still more likely to have the traditional DisplayPort connector on a desktop. For a while I recommended making sure that a monitor had that traditional DisplayPort connector because it said something about the quality of the monitor. DisplayPort is still the superior digital connection over HDMI, but far less an issue with HDMI 2.0.
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 use one of the three digital connections.
#5 – Good Color
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.
There are two things that indicate the monitor is capable of good color representation while editing photos:
- Colorspace Coverage: Minimum 100% sRGB, better 99-100% Adobe RGB
- Panel Bit Depth: Minimum 8-bit, better emulated 10-bit (8-bit + FRC), best 10-bit native (or higher)
I recommend photographers edit their images in the Adobe RGB color space. The closer a monitor gets to supporting the full Adobe RGB color space the truer the colors will be while editing, with the downside being a significant increase in cost.
NOTE: If you only edit in Lightroom Classic, rarely or never in Photoshop, you will not see wide-gamut colors. Even if the computer and monitor both support 10-bit (see below for more details). Photographers who do nearly all of their work in Lightroom Classic will have the best editing experience with an emulated 10-bit (8-bit + FRC) panel that covers 100% sRGB but there is no value in spending more money on higher quality wide-gamut monitors.
While advanced photographers (i.e. extensive use of Photoshop) will benefit from investing in a monitor that can represent 99-100% Adobe RGB, I advise photographers just getting into color managed workflows to take an intermediate step with a monitor that supports 100% sRGB and at least 70% of Adobe RGB. That is the bare minimum, don’t go any smaller on the color space coverage.
Yes, this means that as you edit in Adobe RGB you aren’t going to see all of the colors. I have been editing photos on a monitor that covers 100% sRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB for several years and it works really well. I can even soft-proof my prints in Lightroom Classic and get a really good representation of what the print will look like.
Of course it would be better to make that investment in a screen that covers as much of Adobe RGB as possible. The problem is the cost difference (and lack of support in Lightroom) is so large I think it a reasonable step for a photographer getting their first good monitor to go with a less expensive 100% sRGB monitor. With the cost savings invest in a colorimeter and learn to calibrate your monitor.
Color space is also not the only factor. It is also important to look at the bit depth the panel supports. It is possible to get a monitor that supports a really big color space (100% Adobe RGB) but struggles to show smooth gradients (may show banding when it isn’t there) because of a low panel bit depth. Should be impossible to buy a monitor with less than an 8-bit panel today, but it is better to have less color space coverage and make sure the monitor emulates 10-bit/channel with FRC.
The sweet spot for most photographers getting their first good monitor is 10-bit (8-bit + FRC) 100% sRGB. If you can afford a monitor that is 10-bit (8-bit + FRC) and 99-100% Adobe RGB, or even 10-bit native 100% Adobe RGB, all the better.
Does Lightroom Classic Support 10-bit/channel (30-bit) Color?
While Lightroom Classic has long supported the massive ProPhoto RGB color space and does 16-bit math as you edit your images, it only sends 8-bit/channel (24-bit color) to the monitor. This is true regardless of the computer and monitor both supporting 10-bit/channel (32-bit) color.
Editing your raw images in Lightroom Classic still benefits from all of the colors captured by your camera. Lightroom Classic uses dithering to do an amazing job of approximating wide-gamut colors while only sending 8-bit color to the monitor, but Lightroom Classic will not take full advantage of true wide-gamut monitors.
There has been a feature request to enable 10-bit/channel color display in Lightroom Classic since 2011. Over the past few years most computers and consumer grade graphics cards support 10-bit/channel (30-bit) colors. Many monitors are also covering wide-gamut color spaces. As of mid-2023 Lightroom Classic won’t take advantage of those wide-gamut options. If you would like that, click on the link above and vote for the feature.
Until it is supported, the only way to actually see the full benefit of a wide-gamut monitor is to use a 30-bit workflow centered around Photoshop.
How Bright Should A Monitor Be For Photo Editing?
Most photographers will want to calibrate their monitor’s brightness to 120 cd/m2.
Brightness of a monitor is measured in candela per square meter, or cd/m2. Sometimes the brightness measurement is also called “nit”. The two terms are considered to be synonymous.
If photographers shop for monitors that have all five of the things on the list above, all of them will be able to do at least 250 cd/m2 and provide controls to lower the brightness for soft proofing.
The actual brightness level photographers will use should be set using a colorimeter and will vary depending on the ambient light in the room and how the edited photos will be used. As mentioned, most photographers will want to calibrate to 120 cd/m2 but I have seen advice that some paper types may mean lowering the brightness down to 90 cd/m2 for soft proofing to be accurate.
Besides HDR monitors (see below), the minimum brightness of a monitor is likely more important than the maximum brightness. The ability to lower the brightness was a problem in older 24″ iMac screens. They could only be dimmed to 250 cd/m2, a level far to bright for soft proofing. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to find out ahead of time if a monitor has that issue as it isn’t a specification most people care about.
Do Photographers Need An HDR Monitor?
Photographers can make sure their images look good without an HDR monitor.
The five things listed above are more important than HDR for most photographers. That isn’t to say that HDR is a negative, it isn’t. At least not HDR that is REAL. There are two primary downsides to HDR.
- Cost. It is prohibitively expensive to get a monitor that actually does HDR. I have said it twice now, “actually” does “REAL” HDR. Unfortunately we live in a world where marketing tells us little lies and HDR in monitors is one of those. There is a scale of HDR certification levels called “DisplayHDR” where 5 of the 8 levels mean that the monitor is only capable of accepting HDR information without rejecting the signal. Those monitors can’t actually show HDR content.
A true HDR monitor needs to either have an OLED panel or something called “full-array local dimming” (FALD). If one of those two things aren’t mentioned in the specifications the monitor can’t truly show HDR content.
Another dead giveaway that the monitor can’t actually show HDR content is the maximum brightness. It takes a lot more brightness to show HDR content. If the maximum brightness of the monitor is not at least 1,000 cd/m2 it is very unlikely to support true HDR content.
- Nobody Else Has True HDR. Of course this won’t always be the case. As it always goes with technology, the costs of HDR will come down and the day is coming when everyone has HDR. For now though, images edited for HDR monitors (different than using HDR techniques for editing images) won’t be something nearly anyone else can enjoy.
Should Photographers Use A Curved Monitor?
Most photographers are better off making sure their monitor can show accurate colors than getting one that is curved.
A curved monitor is more of a preference than a technical specification. Though finding all of the technical specifications photographers need that is also curved is likely to be a challenge. The idea is that an ultra-wide curved monitoring makes the visual experience more immersive. For gaming it seems to do just that. I am not convinced it is as good for photographers.
I have heard from photographers who love their curved monitor. They all said it took a bit to get used to it, but once they did they really liked it. If that’s you, great. I don’t see a curved monitor as being something worth paying for and a problem if it means sacrificing any of the five listed above.
Does Monitor Refresh Rate Matter For Photographers?
Most photographers will have a better editing experience with a 10-bit panel and a slower refresh rate.
While the refresh rate of a monitor may be the difference between life and death in that first person shooter, it likely means some compromise for photo editing. Gamers want bright, high contrast, high refresh rate monitors – that is the exact opposite of what photographers want for photo editing.
Sure, most of those things can be changed in the monitor as you go from gaming to photo editing, but high refresh monitors tend to have 8-bit panels with no support to emulate 10-bit (FRC). As mentioned above, that means they are more likely to show banding that isn’t actually in the image.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on things here, but for now photographers need likely need to decide how important gaming is versus the detail and color accuracy needed for editing photos.
How To Find The Details About A Monitor
Some websites do a better job of communicating the details about a monitor than others. If you are thinking about buying a monitor but aren’t sure from the description on the website if it meets the criteria above, head over to https://www.displayspecifications.com and search for it there.
If you can’t find your monitor there, don’t buy it. If you find it there, you will have the information needed to make sure it meets the criteria.
Recommended Computer Monitors For Photographers
So what is my current recommendation? Head over to the Budget Gear section of this site, specifically the Computer Monitor page that is updated regularly.