A Tale of Two Monitors

It was the brightest of times,

it was the darkest of times…..

Several years ago I went out on a Boxing Day and took advantage of a good deal on a 24″ LCD monitor at one of the local big box stores. I seem to recall that it was about 1/3rd off the regular price, it was from Samsung (highly respected display maker). It was huge, bright and just calling out to me from the advertising flyer.

From that point, I have been a convert on the need for a large working space for photography. 17″ monitors just don’t do it for me. LCD monitors seem to offer a great display, lots of working space, and a low profile. Fair enough.

So, this year I captured an image while I was travelling in France with my wife. The image here is what I saw in the St. Ettiene Cathedral in Cahor.



The image below is what I saw in my mind while we toured the cathedral.


I really loved the potential of the falloff of light around the edges and I knew I could burn that area in further to enhance that effect. I seldom make any types of changes that could not be replicated by techniques developed and perfected in the traditional wet process darkroom. But, a bit of dodge and burn is fair game, along with using filters on the colours to help enhance the structure of the resulting black and white image. Also, lately I’ve fallen in love with Silver EFEX Pro from Nik. They simplify an otherwise laborious process by giving many tools that are really well collected and structured for creative black and white images.

Anyway, regardless of the software in use, I brought the lower image into being. One of the key elements that I strive to keep in my images (actually, it drives me a little insane a times) is to maintain some level of detail visible even in the deepest and darkest shadows of the image. That brings me to this image, a crop of the lower right hand corner of the image.

As you can see, the wood panelling does retain some degree of detail until it’s nearly all the way into the corner. It will somewhat depend on your monitor settings as to how much you can see here, and this is a rather significant point that I will get to in a moment.




Now, it’s important to note that the final judgement of the image is in the print, not the screen. Unless you are doing new media works, the rubber hits the proverbial road on the paper. Having spent a few years in a ‘special relationship’ with my Epson Professional printers (and only my wife knows truly how much time I put into the print work), I was eager to see the printed result.

This is what came out on the paper. Solid black, no details, just a big muddy blob all along the lower edge and especially the corners of the print.

Not impressive.




Now, most will wonder what this has to do with the title of this post. Well, what do most of us fairly normal obsessive-compulsive photographers do at this point, of course, pull out our favourite calibration unit and get at it with the monitor….surely there must be something wrong with the profile, or I’ve inadvertently adjusted the settings. You see, if the image looks good on the screen, but prints very dark on paper, then the screen is probably too light and over predicts the lightness expected on paper. So, off I go and calibrate again, but little change in the perceived screen display.

Now time to burn through some ink and paper. At $6 a sheet of paper, and as much again in ink (did I ever mention how expensive really dark moody prints are….lots and lots of black ink), I elected to make some small trial prints with different printer settings, imagining that I’d mistakenly chosen the wrong paper profile, or forgotten to check the Blackpoint setting, or some other beginner’s mistake. Three small prints later, three nearly identical images, three muddy black annoyances now added to the original print and I’m not going to sleep soundly until I know what’s going on.

At this point, I had an image that I really liked on the screen, and nothing I could live with on paper. What does any self-respecting photographer do at point….throw a curve on the image in Photoshop. UGH….I really hate doing that. In fact, that’s one of the few things where I will use the word ‘hate’ as it has such a strong nauseating connotation. I don’t ‘hate’ brussel sprouts, but I hate putting an arbitrary curves layer on an image to create a fake offset of the image just for correcting for printing. It feels like cheating on an exam, where the actual skill, knowledge and judgement doesn’t matter, just pull out the Coles Notes and scribble away with the answers.

Alright, so I made a print that I concluded was close to my envisioned intent, framed it and took it to the studio tour weekend. Of course, many folks admired it and gave positive feedback on the feel of the image, etc. I explained to many the story of the image, where it was captured, how I envisioned the darkness, etc. All in all, well received.

But I secretly resented the print.

So, what to do?

After researching online through several well-respected sites, I concluded that the calibration tool that I’d been using was not ‘top of the technology’ heap any more and I went out and upgraded to the latest Sypder4Elite from Datacolor and proceeded to calibrate the monitor with the upgraded tool. What did I find? Well, it was interesting, to say the least. The basic calibration was not significantly changed, but the new software had the capability to measure in 9 areas of the screen and generate a luminance plot of the entire screen.

Here are the luminance plots of the Samsung monitor, first at 100% brightness (as driven by the software – so equal to a bright area of an image).

As you can see, the centre of the screen is brightest (thus the 0% difference to maximum luminance), and the lower 1/3rd of the screen is 7% less luminant than the middle.





Now, here’s the interesting bit. The luminance plot of the monitor when driving only 50% brightness, something such as the darker region of the image.


Notice how the lower middle square is now the brightest area (was darkest when at 100% setting) and the upper 1/3rd of the screen is now the darkest area with an error of about 3 times the error at 100% brightness. This means that as the image on the screen gets darker, the lower edge does not darken at the same rate as the rest of it!



So, in simple terms, the lower edge becomes the brightest relative area when the image gets dark. Thus, visually showing more details in the shadows than actually exist in the image!


The Second Monitor Arrives

So, seeing the injustice of a screen that just won’t give a true rendition of the image, especially in my most treasured dark regions, I set about to find a replacement. The options are fairly wide, along with the price range. Professional screens can cost upward of $1000 and quickly become “stupid expensive”. While many photographers won’t hesitate to drop a grand on a good lens, spending similar money on a monitor does not generally come easy.

I ended up deciding on an Asus PB278, that was recently released. It boasts a resolution of 2560×1400 resolution, a nice step up from the 1920×1080 resolution I’d become accustomed to, and it was 27 inch, not the Samsung’s 24 inch. For the record, $749 at Staples. Comes pre-calibrated from the factory and has 100% sRGB colour space coverage.

I brought it home, set it up and was pleasantly surprised to learn that my existing video card would drive it a full resolution, no issue. I hooked up the Spyder4Elite again and set to work after the monitor had warmed up a bit.


Interestingly, a slightly higher variance between brightest and darkest areas when driving at 100% brightness than the Samsung (it was only 7%).






Here’s the interesting bit. At 50% brightness, the variance in brightness is basically the same as at 100%, as compared to an increase and location reversal of the Samsung.




What’s the moral of the story?

Don’t assume much of anything in your colour management system. Everything should be suspect until proven ok.

How did the print go now? Well, I suggest you see it for yourself.

I’m happy now……