When it comes to computer monitors, you’re nothing if not spoiled for choice. Screens of all shapes and sizes are available to suit almost any budget. If that’s the good news, the problem is knowing how to choose between the various technologies and options. 4K or QHD? IPS and VA. sRGB versus Adobe RGB. Look-up tables, colour channels and GPUs. It can all be absolutely overwhelming.
But what, exactly, makes up the best monitor for photo editing? Before we dive into our top choices, here are our answers to the most common questions from photographers when it comes to choosing a display for editing images.
Does monitor size matter?
You might think a bigger screen is simply a better screen. But that isn’t necessarily so for image editing. You also want pixels and a lot of them. A large LCD monitor with a low resolution won’t allow you to see the full detail of the images you’re processing. On the other hand, a small monitor with a super-high res can be suboptimal, too.
We’d recommend either 27 inches and 1440p resolution (2,560 by 1,440 pixels and also known as QHD) or 32 inches at 4K (3,840 by 2,160 pixels). Larger 40-inch-plus 4K monitors are also available and often aren’t expensive. But the larger panel size offers few advantages for image editing. On the contrary, such screens are often based on HDTV panels and while they look large and punchy, they typically aren’t great when it comes to colour accuracy.
Do I need a 4K monitor?
The simple answer is no. But not only does 4K offer several advantages, it’s no longer terribly costly. The most obvious benefit is desktop space. More pixels make for more working space, though bear in mind 4K on smaller screens below 30 inches may force you to increase scaling and lose some of that benefit.
The other obvious upside is the ability to view images at – or at least closer to – their full resolution. Admittedly, everything from an average smartphone to a top-end DSLR can far exceed 4K in terms of resolution these days. But you’ll get a much more accurate idea of the detail and sharpness of a very high resolution photo with a 4K monitor.
Which screen technology: TN, VA or IPS?
TN, VA and IPS are the three most broadly available LCD panel technologies. Each has its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. But only one is optimal for photo editing. Put simply, that’s IPS. Most significantly, IPS offers the best colour accuracy. IPS also has better viewing angles, which in practice means it maintains that accuracy regardless of whether you’re viewing the panel dead on. The next best choice for image editing is VA. It’s not quite as accurate as IPS, but does offer better colour fidelity than TN.
sRGB or Adobe RGB?
All good screens suitable for image editing will support both the sRGB and the Adobe RGB colour spaces. In that sense, you don’t have to choose. You’ll have access to both. But which should you use? Certainly, sRGB is simpler. It’s the default colour space for digital devices and makes for a simpler workflow.
Adobe RGB theoretically offers more colours and greater saturation which can be particularly relevant for printing. However, without full end-to-end support for Adobe RGB, the result can actually be duller colours. Short, answer? If in any doubt, stick with sRGB.
Which graphics card do I need?
Strictly speaking, for full precision image editing with 10 bits colour per channel, you’ll need a professional class graphics card, which means either Nvidia Quadro or AMD Radeon Pro. In practice, you’ll also need full end-to-end 10-bit support, including from your monitor, to achieve that. Thus, for all but the most advanced photographers, a non-professional Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon board will be fine.
As for what level of performance you need, the likes of Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite does utilise some GPU acceleration via the graphics card. But your mileage will vary according to the plugins and filters you use. Meanwhile, high end graphics cards are very pricey. So for most, the best bang-for-buck is probably in a mid-range board, for instance an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 from Nvidia’s last-gen ‘Pascal’ series of graphics cards.
What is a 10-bit display?
Bit depth in the context of computer displays and image processing refers, ultimately, to the range or depth of colours on offer, in this case from each of the primary red, green and blue (RGB) colour channels. Put simply, the more bits per channel, the more colours a screen can display. Do the maths, and you end up with just over a billion colours from 10 bits per channel. Which is a lot.
In practice, it’s not always that simple. Many monitors that claim 10-bit colour support do not do so natively. Instead, the use a technique known as dithering to increase the native 8-bit capability of the panel (or 16.7 million colours) to simulate 10-bit colour courtesy of introducing noisy transitions between colours. But 10-bit via dithering does not truly deliver the full one billion colours of a native 10-bit panel.
What about monitor LUTs?
The term LUT or look-up table in the context of image editing and screens can be confusing. That’s because look-up tables are used not only internally in image and video editing software to map colour spaces. Look-up tables also essentially do the same job in a monitor, mapping the video input signal to the real-world capabilities of the screen’s LCD panel.
Confusingly, an LUT with greater precision than the panel itself is required. For image editing, a 10-bit LUT and an 8-bit panel would be a minimum ideal specification. But 12-bit and 14-bit LUTs will give smoother tonal transitions, particularly in low-light images, even with an 8-bit LCD panel.
What makes up the best monitor for photo editing?
A good computer monitor enables you to view your photos in all their glory, and edit them accurately to avoid disappointment when you share or print them. But what makes for a ‘good’ monitor?
Size really is important and our preference is for 27-inch screens. They give generous viewing proportions without being overly large for the typical distance at which you’ll use them.
There’s a lot to be said for buying a UHD (Ultra High Definition) display. It’ll enable you to see more of your images when zooming in to check details, and to view the 4k movies that can be captured with a growing number of cameras as nature (or at least technology) intended.
All of our top five choices below have 10-bit colour depth, theoretically enabling good coverage of both the sRGB and extended Adobe RGB colour spaces, when driven from a compatible graphics card.
They’re also all based on IPS (In-Plane Switching) display technology, which is the best choice for photo editing and viewing, in terms of colour accuracy as well as viewing angle width.
Indeed, all of the screens on our best monitors list claim 178-degree viewing angle coverage in both vertical and horizontal planes.
The stands supplied with all of our chosen monitors enable tilt, height and pivot adjustments, supporting both portrait and landscape orientation viewing. Apart from the LG monitor, they all enable swivel adjustments as well.