In various articles written on this blog we already had the chance to see how important is the management of the “color chain”, that means all those techniques, actions and devices which allow us to have our image displayed correctly, regardless of the medium used.
Surely every chain is as strong as its weakest link, and for this reason it is essential that all the devices that fall within our color chain have to be up to the situation.
One of the most crucial components is doubtlessly our monitor, since it is actually the tool based on which we make our decisions in terms of post-production, and, regardless of whether our final output will be a print or an image published online, its contribution will be decisive.
In this article we are going to test together the monitor BenQ SW271, which, according to BenQ itself, has been specially created for us photographers.
Will this claim hold true? As usual, let’s go and discover it together.
Why we Need a Monitor for Photography
Before testing our BenQ SW271 monitor let’s try to understand, as always, the reasons behind certain things, in an intuitive and simple way, and therefore in this case we first have to consider why a monitor should be “for photography”.
In fact, the first objection you might raise is “well, I can already see colors perfectly on my current monitor, I don’t need a new one”. That’s right and wrong…but unfortunately more wrong than right. In fact, supposing that you have a generic desktop monitor or that you’re using your laptop monitor, it is rather correct to say that the colors you are seeing seem correct.
They do only as long as an image is loaded from your hard disk to your monitor, therefore without any print or online publication. And even at that stage, depending on the so-called screen gamut (we’ll see what this means below) what you see may just be a portion of the colors that the image you’ve captured actually has.
Exactly, it’s a bit like being short-sighted and we are driving: we adjust the trajectory of our car on the road but we are not aware of (we don’t see) the road before us.
The Features of Monitors for Photography
But the real question is: what is a monitor for photography? What are then the minimum features that make such a monitor?
Let’s start by dispelling a myth right away: there’s actually no such thing as a monitor for photography, but there are monitors with features that are better suited to our needs as photographers.
As usual we could spend hours through technical details, but since you would get bored I am now going to leave in-depth analyses as future answers to your possible questions, and here I shall focus on providing you with an overview of the minimum things you should keep in mind when you’re searching for a new monitor.
One basic feature I deem essential is that our monitor should have an IPS panel. IPS means “In Plane Switching”, and in simple terms it means that saturation and contrast will not change depending on the angle from which I look at the screen. Imagine that you are applying some adjustment to your photo: if that adjustment is valid only for the exact angle from which you are looking at the screen, then surely the final result of your image will be clearly different from your expectations, since you just need to move your head a little and you will have a chromatically altered image.
Therefore, our monitor has to be able to reproduce colors in the most accurate possible way. Such accuracy is described by two parameters: gamut and gamma.
Leaving out gamma (which, although it is essential to the correct reproduction of a color, does not take part in choosing a monitor, provided that we are considering latest generation products), it is important that we focus on gamut, which tells us how many colors a monitor is able to display. In the photography environment it is essential that our monitor covers 100% of the sRGB (fundamental to our online publications) color space, but it also has to cover as much as possible of the Adobe RGB color space. This is important because having a complete or almost total coverage of the latter space will allow us to correctly prepare our images also for print.
Now that we’ve pointed out which parameter tells us how many colors a monitor reproduces, it is essential that these colors are correctly reproduced. For this purpose we use a value called DeltaE which is obtained by carrying out specific measurements on our monitor and comparing the results with the expected standard values. DeltaE just represents the deviation between measurement and expected result.
Photographically speaking, a monitor whose DeltaE value with regard to gamut is higher than 4 should not be taken into consideration, as the chromatic alteration would be perceivable, while we can deem professional those panels that have a value lower than 2, which are therefore perfect for us.
It’s important to underline that DeltaE doesn’t describe the quality of the monitor, but the quality of the profile applyed to it. If you are going to calibrate and profile the monitor you can skip this, but if you want to use the monitor straight out of the box, you should focus on it too.
Other parameters we should take into consideration are definitely monitor resolution and (static) contrast ratio, which in an IPS monitor should be around 1000:1.
The BenQ SW271
BenQ has developed a series of monitors specially-made for photographers: the SW Series. As we have anticipated, this doesn’t mean that these monitors were created by resorting to alien technology, but that they are optimized for the features that we pixel nerds need.
For example, let’s see together the characteristics of the BenQ SW271 which I have with me:
- Panel size: 27″ / 68.58 cm
- Aspect: 16:9
- Resolution: 3840 x 2160
- Display area: 60.88 x 35.53 cm
- Brightness: 350 cd/m²
- Native contrast: 1000:1
- Technology: In-Plane Switching (IPS)
- Viewing angle: (H/V) – 178°/178°
- Refresh Rate: 60 Hz
- Gamut: 100% Rec. 709 / sRGB | 99% Adobe RGB | 93% DCI-P3
- Colour depth: 10-bit
- Backlight: LED
- 3D LUT: Yes (14-bit 3D LUT)
- Weight: 6.3 kg without base
Interesting… and shortly we’ll analyze every salient aspect.
Its equipment is respectable as well. In fact, in the package we also find:
- Desk stand
- Shading hood
- CD with drivers and manuals
- Calibration certificate
- Hotkey Puck
- Power cable
- Additional cables: USB-C, mDP to DP, HDMI 2.0, USB 3.1
I must admit that it is a nice surprise to find the hood and the complete set of cables included in the package.
From an aesthetic point of view, this monitor is really nice and pleasing: despite its size, it takes up little space. Its sides are really slim, and once installed on its base, it has a discreet and elegant appearance.
Frontally it’s simply stupendous: almost the whole of the surface is given by the panel, and only in the lower part there is an edge where we can find the power button and the buttons to access the various configuration menus and make selections.
At this point we just have to analyze the main features of this monitor for photography: BenQ SW271!
The Resolution of the BenQ SW271 Monitor
The first datum we obviously notice right away on the BenQ SW271 monitor (and the reason why I chose this monitor, to be honest) is that it’s a 27-inch 4K monitor. As soon as we turn it on, just looking at the background image that we have chosen makes us feel like we are thrown into the photo. Yes, I was already working on a 27-inch monitor, but it was a 2K (2560×1440 pixels)…and this is objectively another world.
Unfortunately, on the internet you will come across a lot of urban myths related to this particular combination of size (27”) and resolution (4K). In the photographic environment, in fact, having a too high pixel density will make it difficult to apply the correct amount of sharpening, making it effectively “visible” only when we have reached a situation of oversharpening, thus jeopardizing our image with regard to printing or online publishing, the latter involving visualizations on monitors with lower resolutions. Therefore it is often suggested that you take into consideration 4K resolution only for 32-inch monitors and above. And I couldn’t agree less.
In fact, I use a 2018 15” MacBook Pro. Its monitor has a density equal to 220 PPI. And our BenQ SW271 has a density equal to 163 PPI…therefore lower. What does this mean? That it will be more difficult to apply the correct amount of sharpening when I am using my MacBook Pro!
Sure, if you come from traditional LCD monitors or from laptops whose display performances aren’t so high, you are likely to be accustomed to an average density around 96 PPI, but this certainly won’t compromise your experience with the BenQ SW271…on the contrary, you will surely benefit from it!
Since about 95% of my images were developed with monitors with densities above 180 PPI, you can see that it is possible to obtain really natural results: you just need some practice.
In conclusion, I believe that once you try a 4K monitor you will hardly go back (and anyway it wouldn’t be wise to do that, considering that this is the direction the whole world is taking).
Connectivity, GamutDuo and Hotkey Puck
Design and resolution apart, one of the features I have really appreciated in the BenQ SW271 is the wide connectivity that it offers. A sign of this was already given by the cables included in the package. If we look at the back of our monitor we can see that there are 5 ports in addition to the power connector and the headphone jack, and they are subdivided as follows: two HDMI 2.0, one Display Port 1.4, one Micro USB upstream and one USB-C. Exactly: among them we can find a native USB-C, which will be appreciated by all the owners of the latest generation computers and Macs. On the left side of the monitor there are also two USB 3.0 ports and one SD reader. Well, I dare say we can’t really complain!
One very interesting function for us photographers, of which we can make use also thanks to the large number of ports available, is GamutDuo: by connecting the BenQ SW271 to our computer through two connections simultaneously (e.g. DisplayPort and HDMI) we can have a double color space visualization! For example, we can visualize an image both in sRGB and in Adobe RGB, so as to further optimize our post-production workflow to prepare our image for online publishing and for printing.
Within the rich equipment of the BenQ SW271 there’s also a selector called Hotkey Puck: after connecting it to the screen through the specific port, with a simple click we are able to select the color space within which we want to work. Thus, switching from a sRGB to an Adobe RGB view will be really immediate. Thanks to its configurability, I am finding the Hotkey Puck particularly useful with regard to print: in fact I can set (to then recall them with a simple click when they are needed) different calibrations or simply a different contrast and brightness to suit the various papers that I use. And that’s another optimization to my workflow.
Wide Gamut with low DeltaE
We’ve said that gamut is one of the most crucial aspects in a monitor for photography since it actually tells us how many colors a monitor is able to represent, and the BenQ SW271 does definitely not disappoint in this regard.
As to sRGB space, this monitor provides 100% coverage; it therefore guarantees us absolute control over any online publication, whatever the destination may be, such as our website, or Facebook, Instagram and so forth.
And at the same time the coverage of the Adobe RGB space reaches an excellent 99%! This means that when we prepare our images for print, we are really enabled to control their colors and carry out absolutely accurate print proofs.
As seen above, another absolutely essential parameter to evaluate the color reproduced is its DeltaE value, because this tells us to what extent the monitor is accurate in representing the colors covered by its gamut. For the BenQ SW271 the guaranteed value is lower than 2 out of the box, which places it in the segment of professional monitors. But actually this 2 is quite conservative, as its DeltaE value appears to be even lower than 1 over almost the whole measuring pattern, and however slightly higher than 1 in the worst case.
But what does this mean in the real world? Very simple: a high DeltaE value means that the monitor displays colors that are not true to what they should be. A DeltaE value higher than 1 begins to be visible to the most sensitive eyes and a value higher than 3 is visible to most eyes and makes the monitor in question not professional. A generic monitor not profiled and calibrated has a value around 7.
Yes, thanks to our BenQ SW271 we are really sure that what we see does faithfully represent what it should be immediately after connecting it to the computer and without any inital calibration or profiling, so goodbye to nasty surprises especially when it’s time to print!
Calibration and 14-bit 3D LUT
The importance of calibrating a monitor, regardless of what monitor it is, has already been discussed in other articles, so if this topic is a stranger to you or if you need a revision I suggest that you read HERE.
In any case, trivializing the subject, I can say that calibrating is essential to make sure that the full potential of the monitor will be unleashed and thus colors will be displayed with the maximum possible accuracy.
One characteristic that I deem absolutely important in a monitor for photography is that it should have the so-called hardware calibration.
Essentially, when you calibrate a generic monitor, the correction curves generated by the probe/software system act on the graphics card of your computer. The fundamental limit of this method is that the calibration curves managed by the graphics card only allow you to work on 256 levels per color (8 bits), therefore they’re barely sufficient to correctly display a photographic image. By contrast, with hardware calibration the correction curves are applied to the internal LUT (Look-Up Table) of the monitor, thus allowing not only a greater constancy, over time, of the calibration that’s been executed, but also allowing the monitor to have no limitations in the chromatic rendition of all shades thanks to the higher number of levels available for each color. The BenQ SW271 has a 14-bit 3D LUT.
What is the real-word difference that we’ll obtain by using 14 bits instead of 8 bits? The difference is that we go from being able to manage 16.7 millions of colors (8-bit) to 4.39 trillions of colors (14-bit). Exactly: terrific!
For executing the calibration of our monitor we just need any of the probes you can find on the market. Among them I recommend again the X-Rite i1Display Pro, whose review you can read HERE.
As to the calibration software there are various possibilities, including, doubtlessly, the possibility of using the software supplied by the manufacturer of the calibration probe (in the case of X-Rite i1Display Pro it will be iProfiler).
An alternative consists of using the excellent calibration software provided by BenQ for free: Palette Master Elements. I will certainly write a specific tutorial on it, but for now I can just tell you that calibrating with Palette Master Elements is really an intuitive and very accurate operation. Yes, there are also other independent calibration softwares, some free of charge and some not, but honestly I can’t find a good reason to use them.
In fact, for my BenQ SW271 I have chosen to use the X-Rite i1Display Pro probe with Palette Master Elements: I am unconditionally pleased with the result.
After a few weeks of intense use of this monitor I have to admit that the BenQ SW271 exceeds my rosiest expectations. In comparison with other commercial products, the price is absolutely reasonable and perhaps lower than what we would expect for a professional grade monitor.
In this case, more than ever, it is just true that the quality of a product is not dependent on an exorbitant price.
The rich equipment, which includes cables and a shading hood, really enables us to immediately have all we need, with no further costs.
In terms of performance, after weeks spent through the post-production and print of images, making use of all the gamut provided by this monitor, I am absolutely astonished by the results in terms of chromatic fidelity.
The included calibration software, Palette Master Elements, allows you to carry out accurate calibrations even with a limited technical knowledge of the matter, thus knocking down another barrier towards users.
My use of this monitor has mainly involved Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop and PhaseOne Capture One, and with all these three software the user experience has been marvelous: 4K resolution allows you to read texts in a clearer and more distinct way and at the same time it allows you to work on your images being able to take care of every detail.
As mentioned above, the combination of 4K and 27 inches, in my opinion, is absolutely perfect thanks to the pixel density available, and if you’re already using a monitor with a high PPI value, then the transition to this monitor will give you an even more natural sensation.
In short, the BenQ SW271 really proves to be an excellent professional monitor for us photographers, and I wouldn’t have a reason not to recommend it!