Buyer’s Guide to the Best Monitors for Retouching

buying guide for retouching monitors

The end of the year is an opportune time to invest in your business or add a smart purchase to your holiday wish list.

In a retoucher’s quest for quality, investing in a great monitor can help you take advantage of phenomenal color accuracy and improved detail.

With prices falling and technology constantly improving, if you’ve been staring at the same screen for several years, this no-nonsense guide may just be what you need to build your ideal workstation.

WHAT TO CONSIDER

Screen Size:

The typical screen sizes you will find on the market are 24”, 27”, 30”, and 32”, with some variances in-between. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, so your first step is to measure your desk space, along with the distance that you will be to the screen itself. Our perception of screen resolution is greatly impacted by distance, as is the potential for eye strain. Keep in mind the depth of the monitor, if there’s an attachment such as a visor / hood, as well as leaving you with enough space for your graphics tablet, computer, other peripherals, and perhaps even an additional monitor.

On that note, the larger your screen, along with a higher resolution, will translate to more tools that you can display at once, with plenty of real estate available for your images themselves. A monitor that is 27” will satisfy most needs in a single setup.

One Screen or Multiple:

This is a decision that comes down to preference, desk space, and budget. If you are perfectly content working on one monitor, then your investment should be focused on maximizing your budget for the best quality screen you can purchase. If you plan to have one central monitor for retouching, with another (or two) for displaying various tools, then those additional screens could easily be inexpensive monitors, and may not drain the bank as much as you might think.

For instance, the difference in price between a 24” display to a 27” or even a 30” display for a higher end model would undoubtedly run between $200-$600. If you’re only going to put tools and options on those secondary displays, that difference in price could easily go toward a separate monitor, instead of a few additional inches.

 

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Resolution & Pitch:

Display / Screen Resolution is the amount of pixels that comprise your monitor, typically quoted in width x height. The term Full HD describes resolutions of 1920 x 1200 / 1920 x 1080, with monitors at 2560 x 1440 labeled as WQHD. With the popularization of 4K displays thanks to televisions, that resolution now sits at a staggering 3840 x 2160 (with 5K and 8K options also available). So what exactly does that mean for you?

The more pixels that comprise a display, the more subtle each pixel appears. Apple’s Retina Displays put this into practice as the square-shape of pixels of older devices like the iPad 2 or iPhone 3G were suddenly undetectable by the human eye with the introduction of Retina displays in their newer generations of products. This theory holds true for your desktop monitor, as the higher the resolution, the sharper the image will appear to be.

That said, the size of the display has an impact on our perception of resolution. For example, a 4K television at 65” will appear to have much larger pixels than a 27” display with a 4K resolution. This is due to the PPI (Pixels Per Inch), and the Pitch, which is the size of the pixel itself. A 24” monitor with a resolution of 1920 x 1200 will have a PPI of 94 and a Pitch of 0.27mm. A 24” monitor with a 4K resolution will have a PPI of 188, and a Pitch of 0.14mm.

With our viewing distance typically about two feet from the display, the human eye will perceive pixels extremely smoothly with a PPI of 120, meaning that resolutions of 2560 x 1440 and higher will more than satisfy your needs. So long as your computer’s graphics card and operating system can support the higher resolutions, that would be the way to go.

 

 

Panel Technology:

There are three main types of panel technologies: TN, VA, and IPS. TN (Twisted Nematic) is an older technology, which is common in laptop monitors and budget office displays. The issue is that the orientation of your eye toward the display and the angle greatly impacts the perception of color, making effective color management nearly impossible. VA (Vertical Alignment) is a step up from TN, as it offers better color reproduction and wider viewing angles.

Our recommendation, however, is to invest in a monitor with IPS (In Plane Switching) technology. These panels offer the best overall image quality, color accuracy, and improved viewing angles at consistency across nearly 180 degrees. IPS technology has become more commonplace, so there are some variations on the quality spectrum as a result. Definitely consult reviews when considering a budget display that claims to use IPS.

Color Space:

When it comes to color accuracy, the wider the gamut, the better. Just about all modern displays support sRGB, which already displays a spectrum of 2.5 million colors. That said, the better monitors should be able to support Adobe RGB 98 or ProPhoto, or have a wider color gamut that can support up to 1.07 billion colors.

This becomes especially important when working with more saturated tones of blue, green, or red in your photographs, as sRGB will not be able to render these ranges as well as wider color spaces.

 

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Screen Type: Glossy or Matte?

With Apple iMacs becoming a popular choice for visual artists, it’s hard to deny the visual appeal of glossy displays. Nevertheless, glossy screens will favor contrast and vibrancy, with colors appearing more saturated than they actually may be when printed. The other issue with them is that the glossier screen will more easily reflect ambient light sources, and therefore potentially distort your perception of the image. If your work is purely consumed digitally, than a glossy display will be a great option.

When it comes to matte displays, images that are meant for print will typically have more faithful color reproduction, which is why it is the finish of choice for most high-end monitors.

Design Considerations:

With the basics out of the way such as monitor depth and screen size, there are a few other options to consider. Curved displays have recently gained momentum in televisions, but is not something that is necessary for retouching. What is more important, is the presence of a VESA mount, or the monitor’s stand being height adjustable.

The ability to control the height of your display is vital for good ergonomics. As retouchers, we spend endless hours in front of our workstations, which will quickly aggravate any discomfort caused by an inefficient setup.

Another consideration for the design is the ability to rotate the screen, as this can be useful for viewing vertical images.

But what about a visor or a hood for your monitor? As light conditions change throughout the day, the ability to keep ambient light from reflecting off of your display is invaluable. If it is within your budget, purchasing a monitor with a visor, or picking up a third-party compatible one, will grant you much more consistency while retouching at all hours.

 

 

Color Calibration:

Most monitors are factory calibrated, but you should be calibrating your display with a calibration device regularly. X-Rite and Datacolor are the main players in this arena, with X-Rite’s ColorMunki and i1 Display Pro, or Datacolor’s Spyder series.

The cost of these devices ranges between $99 and $500 (typically an average of $300), so it is an item you’ll want to account for in your budget.

Calibrating your display at regular intervals will ensure consistency across your devices, while reproducing accurate colors in print.

Tablet Displays:

One device that tends to inspire gear envy is the Wacom Cintiq, a series of pen displays that bridges the disconnect between your pen and the image itself. With a tablet display, you’re able to retouch directly on the image itself with the digitizer.

That said, tablet displays come with a hefty price tag, with the least expensive option, the Cintiq 13HD starting at $799. While the high-end Cintiq 27QHD is an impressive display, its color accuracy falls just shy of a comparable Eizo, due to the built-in digitizer that allows you to use your tablet pen. if you prefer retouching directly on a screen, it’s a small sacrifice to pay.

Keep in mind that retouching on a tablet display requires a different way of positioning your body, head, and arm while you work.

 

 

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Combining everything in this guide, the ideal monitor for a retoucher should check off the following requirements: at least a 24” display, a minimum resolution of 2560 x 1440, IPS panel technology, a wide color gamut, and a color calibration device will give you the best results possible while retouching.

MONITOR RECOMMENDATIONS:

Budget Friendly Options (Under $300)

Mid-Priced Options (Under $999)

 

High-End Options ($1,000 & Up)

 

 

Sources: Photo Workout | The Digital Camera | Arnaud Frich | Fstoppers | Pexels

PS. Size matters? 😀

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