Computer LCD Monitors for Photography

Samsung 214tw LCD Computer Monitor

This article is part 1 of a series — read part 2, Calibrating and Profiling Your Monitor, here.

How do you choose the best LCD monitor for your computer? Do you know that there are three distinct types of LCD technology — of widely different quality? Do you have any idea which one is in your current monitor — the one you’re looking at right now? Probably not.

My Application

I’m a photographer and my most critical use of a monitor is with Photoshop. Other users with different needs may have requirements quite unlike mine. I’ll try to make clear the advantages and disadvantages of each type and how they might affect different users but be aware that this article is directed mainly at photographers and other visual artists.

Viewing angle is the characteristic that really drove me into this research: With my old monitor, moving my head up or down a slight amount drastically affected the brightness of the on-screen image. Thus I could never be confident of what a print was going to look like. I got tired of having to hold my head “just so” in order to be (almost) certain of what was going to come out of the printer. If you make prints, a good monitor will pay for itself with the money you save on inkjet paper and ink.

The Big Three

There are three general types of LCD technology used in monitors:

  • TN (Twisted Nematic)
  • IPS (In-Plane Switching)
  • VA (Vertical Alignment)

If you’re thinking you’ve never heard of any of them, you’re not alone. Manufacturers and retailers don’t go out of their way to tell you which technology they’re using. You have to do some digging to learn which one any given monitor uses.

The Short Version

The really short version of this article is as follows:

TN monitors are the cheapest, most common and lowest quality, particularly for photographers: Fairly limited color gamut (range) and limited viewing angles. (They do have faster response time than the other two options, so they’re good for playing computer games.)

IPS monitors offer the broadest color gamut and widest viewing angles, but also the slowest response times.

VA monitors fall in between TN and IPS in most, but not all, regards: Their color gamut, viewing angles and pixel response times are better than TN but not quite as good as IPS. Fortunately, they tend to be very close to IPS and… they offer better contrast ratios than either TN or IPS. Most VA monitors you’ll find are either MVA (Multidomain Vertical Alignment) or PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment) so you’ll see these acronyms a lot.

The monitors that are included with general-use computers are almost all TN technology. That’s probably the kind of monitor you’re using now. Yes, in general the rule of “the more you pay the better you get” applies, but a high quality 19-inch MVA monitor might cost the same as a mediocre 24-inch TN. I’d choose quality over size, but it’s your call in the end. And don’t get hung up about specifications too much. Take viewing angle — what you want for photography isn’t so much a wide viewing angle as really consistent appearance over a fairly limited viewing angle. TN monitors won’t do this but even the cheapest IPS and VA monitors have wide and consistent enough viewing angles.

Dos and Don’ts

  • DON’T: Listen to fanboys who’ll tell you "VA sucks, IPS rulz" (or vice versa).
  • DON’T: Listen to anyone who tells you “XYX is a good brand” or “such-and-such makes crappy monitors”. Brand name means nothing because most of them make good monitors and poor ones and — here’s a surprise — most of them don’t even make the LCD panels that go into their monitors.
  • DON’T: Trust end-user reviews (on reputation web sites). Few end-users have the expertise and none that I know of have the test equipment to do thorough monitor tests.
  • DO: Find out what kind of LCD panel (TN, IPS or MVA/PVA) is used in a monitor before you buy.
  • DO: Read a variety of reviews by professional sources. TFT Central has the most thorough I’ve found.

How Do You Know What Technology is Inside?

As I mentioned earlier, manufacturers and retailers don’t go out of their way to tell you what technology is inside their monitors. Fortunately, the people at TFT Central keep track for you. This link will let you find out:

TFT Central – Panel Search Database

Just enter the make and model of a monitor and this database will show you what’s inside. To get a great monitor on a budget, click on the Geeks.com logo in the left hand panel of this page and look at their monitor specials, then plug each model number you like into the TFT Central database to find out what kind of LCD panel it’s built on. You’ll find there are some great bargains to be had (and some unpleasant surprises to be avoided).

You’ll also find that each type of technology, besides having its own acronym, has spawned a small tribe of “offspring” acronyms (PVA, MVA, S-PVA, S-IPS), each of which represents a variation that offers — or claims to offer — improvements over earlier versions: The words “Advanced”, “Improved”, “Premium” and “Super” figure prominently in these new acronyms. But is “advanced” better than “improved”, or “super” better than “premium”? Only the marketing people know for certain (actually, they don’t, but that’s another story….)

Look for the basic initials (TN, IPS, MVA or PVA) within the extended acronym and you’ll usually know which technology you’re dealing with.

The Photographer’s Choice: IPS or MVA/PVA

My choice came down to the slightly wider color gamut of IPS versus the slightly better contrast ratio of VA. (The pixel response rate is mainly of interest to gamers and the difference between the viewing angles of VA and IPS isn’t big enough to worry about.) I decided VA suited my needs and bought a widescreen Samsung S-PVA monitor, which I’m thrilled with. Your mileage may vary.

There are three approaches you can use to narrow down your selection: Go out and look at monitors (if you can find a place that actually has multiple high-end monitors on display – good luck!); Ask for recommendations from people you know and trust (and have a look at what they’re using if they’re local); Seek out and read on-line reviews. If you look for reviews be sure to read only professional reviews, not the “reviews” from consumer rating sites: Most buyers don’t know enough or have the testing equipment to properly evaluate monitors. You get a lot of comments like “Looks great!” with no real information. Be suspicious of reviews, even on mainstream commercial sites, that don’t identify the monitor technology (TN, MVA, PVA, IPS). As mentioned previously, TFT Central has the most thorough reviews I’ve found — their comprehensive reports make even the professional reviews of Macworld and PC World look quite inadequate — but they’re a relatively small operation and can’t cover as many models as one would like. Consumer Reports’ guide to monitors is useless.

From a purely theoretical standpoint, I leaned toward contrast ratio rather than color because I shoot mostly nature photography, which often has huge contrast ratios and a significant range of acceptable color in this genre: Who can say what exact color that fall foliage, for example, really was? The area in which color accuracy is most critical (except possibly for some scientific work) is skin tones. The human visual system very sensitive to variations in skin tone and people find inaccuracies in this area particularly annoying. If I were a portrait shooter who used controlled studio lighting (which tames contrast ratios) I might favor IPS.

And before you start agonizing too much over your decision, know that if you’re upgrading from a TN monitor virtually any IPS or VA monitor will knock your socks off!

A good source for information on LCD monitors is the previously-mentioned web site, TFT Central. Using their TFT Selector and entering your size, price and other requirements, you may find the decision is made for you ;-)

Executive Summary:

  • There are three basic kinds of LCD monitor technology: TN, IPS and VA
  • VA monitors come in two general flavors: MVA and PVA
  • Photographers and graphics professionals need to use IPS, MVA or PVA monitors
  • Manufacturers rarely reveal which technology is used in a monitor
  • Brand name tells you nothing about how good a monitor is
  • Find out what’s really in a monitor (before you buy) through the TFT Central Panel Search Database
  • Avoid amateur (end-user) reviews
  • Read a variety of professional reviews

Details for Geeks

Stop here! Most people don’t need to read below this point! But if you really want details on the variations of each technology and its advantages (or disadvantages), the next section will give you the low-down. If the monitor you’re considering uses an acronym you haven’t seen so far in this article, you may find it here…

TN – Twisted Nematic

Twisted Nematic uses a substance called a nematic liquid crystal confined between two plates of polarized glass. What makes a TN display work is the way these liquid crystals can be affected (actually twisted) by electrical current and the way this twist in the crystals affects polarized light.

ADVANTAGES:
Low manufacturing costs, cheap retail prices
Fast pixel response times

DISADVANTAGES
Limited viewing angles (especially in the vertical direction)
Lower contrast levels means blacks are not as dark as VA based panels
Smaller color gamut

VARIATIONS (and I’m not going to detail each one!)

STN (Super Twist Nematic), CSTN (Color STN), DSTN (Double layer STN or Dual-scan STN), FRSTN (Fast Response STN), FSTN (Film-compensated STN, Formulated STN or Filtered STN), FFSTN (double Film STN), MSTN (Monochrome STN), CTN (Compensated Twisted Nematic)

IPS – In-Plane Switching

IPS was developed to improve on the narrow viewing angles and limited color reproduction of TN technology, with the trade-off of slower response time. Color reproduction is almost as good as CRTs (the old, bulky, picture-tube style monitors), but the dynamic range (contrast) is lower.

S-IPS (Super-IPS) — Improved pixel refresh speed.

H-IPS (High aperture ratio IPS) — A further development of IPS technology, with claimed reduction in backlight bleed (good) but slightly narrower viewing angle (bad).

AS-IPS (Advanced Super IPS) — Improved contrast ratio over S-IPS: second only to some S-PVA screens.

A-TW-IPS (Advanced True White IPS) — A custom S-IPS panel with a “True White” color filter intended to make white look more natural. Developed specifically for displays targeted toward photographers and graphic artists.

VA – Vertical Alignment

There are basically two flavors of Vertical Alignment displays, MVA (Multi-domain Vertical Alignment), developed by Fujitsu, and PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment), developed by Samsung. Each one has a variety of sub-categories (that may well have grown by the time you read this!) and each subsequent variety claims to offer improvements over earlier versions. PVA is supposed to have the best contrast levels.

MVA (Multi-domain Vertical Alignment)

P-MVA (Premium MVA) — Improved pixel response time, allegedly poorer color

A-MVA (Advanced MVA) — Unknown “improvement” over standard MVA

S-MVA (Super MVA) — Unknown “improvement” over standard MVA

PVA (Patterned Vertical Alignment) Improved viewing angle and contrast over basic VA.

S-PVA (Super PVA) — Improved pixel response speed and viewing angle. Best contrast ratios currently available.

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7 Responses to Computer LCD Monitors for Photography

  1. cog says:

    excuse me, sir? My brain is full now. May I go home?

  2. Klaus says:

    Good and interesting explanation. It’s very true that it is dificult to get good information about screens. Another very useful site for information about this type of hardware is http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/monitors/
    They have roundups, test and buyers guides with excelent information. I got a year ago, for not much money, a Philips 200WP7ES, with an S-IPS panel, and I am very happy with it. I just read on xbitlabs that it is no more in production, and that they are hardly good screens on the market in an mid-price range.
    Best regards – Klaus

  3. MichaellaS says:

    tks for the effort you put in here I appreciate it!

  4. StR says:

    Mark, – great summary. Thank you, I’ve been looking for one like this for a while.
    I wish the tables at tftcentral.co.uk would also contain links to the reviews about those panels and monitors…
    As some monitors with good parameters listed there can have other problems (color shift, etc.). I haven’t seen a good discussion on those problems.

  5. Matthew Heaney says:

    What Samsung monitor did you buy? I’m agonizing over

    Samsung F2380
    Dell 2209WA
    NEC MultiSync P221W-BK

    Any thoughts?

  6. George Hazelton says:

    Thanks for the lucid explanations. I’m using a 19″ Dell CRT and, from what I’ve seen of LCD monitors that I could afford I think I’ll drive that ol’ Dell into the ground! It’s impossible to get any intelligent info from the folk at Best Buy, et al; I find myself “educating” them why the latest eye-popping game machine monitor isn’t any good for photo editing.

  7. CJC says:

    Thanks for taking the time to help other photographers.
    Our occupation has become very complex because of the tremendous and rapid changes in technology. In the old days, Kodak and other firms actually answered the telephone and had sales reps visit studios with their latest offerings.