How to Choose a Professional Display Monitor (Part One)

You already know what I call a video monitor. We have understood why a video monitor can only be ‘satisfactory’, and never ‘accurate’. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you do so first, because what follows will make more sense.

In this article, I will explain how to classify professional display monitors, and what features we should look for in a professional display monitor.

Finally, we’ll look at how to read the charts and numbers on monitor specifications. By breaking it down in simple chunks, finding that perfect monitor will no longer be a hassle.

Dolby Monitor

How to classify Professional Display Monitors

Why should you classify anything? Simple. It tells you at a glance what you shouldn’t waste your time on. Since I’ve already explained that professional display monitors (let alone consumer ones) fall into one murky grey mush, this step is critical.

This is how I classify monitors:

  • Size vs Resolution
  • Field vs Studio use
  • Technical vs Aesthetic
  • Monitor Grade
  • Connectivity
  • Budget
  • Target Audience

 
Let’s break it down one by one. Which one should you look for first?

Target Audience

Didn’t see that coming? Did you expect color space or bit depth or resolution? I don’t blame you. To get to the fruit sometimes you have to peel off the skin.

Whom are you looking to please?

  • Yourself
  • Your client
  • The masses

 
This is extremely important, and not as trivial as it appears at first glance. I bet you would love to have all three. But let’s not fool ourselves. When was the last time anything pleased everyone?

Let me give you my example. I shoot on a Canon C300 and edit on Premiere Pro or FCP (depending on which of my editors is free). One of them uses a Dell UltraSharp U2410 24-inch Monitor while the other uses an Apple 27″ LED Display.

Apple Cinema Display

It might seem counterproductive to use a broadcast camera in conjunction with a high-end consumer-grade display, and not something like an HP DreamColor LP2480zx Professional Monitor or an Eizo ColorEdge CG246 24.1″ Monitor. Strange to those who don’t agree with my way of doing things perhaps, but perfectly logical according to what I’m outlining here.

I know my clients only use high-end consumer displays. The customers or whomever they share their videos with use the same displays, too! If these videos are converted to Blu-ray or DVD, as they sometimes are, they will be watched on consumer-grade HDTV panels or laptop displays. Since my clients pay the bills, they take top priority.

Would I love to see what I’ve shot on a Dolby reference monitor? Sure, but I would also love to drive around a Ferrari, and have Spielberg write my blog for me.

See what this classification does? It forces you to think in practical terms, and prepares you for what’s about to come. If your work is destined for theatrical release, you will need a monitor that can display DCI P3/CIE XYZ. If your work is destined for broadcast television, you will need one monitor for NTSC/PAL SD but another for NTSC/PAL HDTV. If your work is only for Youtube, almost anything will do.

Stay focused.

Technical vs Aesthetic

Once you’ve decided whom your monitor is intended to serve, the next big classification is whether or not you need technical monitoring along with aesthetic monitoring.

How much skill do you bring to the table? Do you really know how to read waveforms or vectorscopes? Do you want to? If your delivery is for broadcast, the requirements are sometimes strict, and you have to conform to all the video specifications related to the delivery standard.

Leader Waveform Monitor

If your delivery is theatrical distribution, your requirements are not that strict, as surprising as it may seem. Paranormal Activity and Lincoln were both displayed through the same projectors in the same screens (Not the exact same ones, but you get the idea).

If your delivery is consumer-based, like DVD, Blu-ray, the internet, local cable, etc., your requirements are not that strict. In this case, technical features are good to have, but not necessary. As long as you have a basic calibrated monitor, you know you’re in the ball park, and any minor deviations will never be noticed.

People only know if you’ve deviated from the norm if you show them the norm. Otherwise, if you and your clients are happy with the final product, that is the norm.

This classification tests your ability and resolve to use the monitor you are hoping to buy. Extra features are called ‘extra’ features because they are not the main features. Most of the time when we look for specifications we tend to get drawn to the unnecessary features when we should first study the core features for ‘battle-worthiness’.

Ask yourself: What’s the point of carrying the most expensive sword to battle, if you don’t know or want to wield it?

There’s no shame in getting a tool that is perfect for the job, even if ‘Neighbor J’ has a Barco in his toilet. You are a professional. It is your duty to find the right balance and get the job done, and then move on to the next job. Only stupid doctors worry about their stethoscopes.

Make the call.

Field vs Studio Use

Okay, the first two classifications look simple and stupid, but are really tough to pull off. If you are able to do that, congratulations. Now, let’s deal with the easy ones.

One of the easiest classifications you can make is whether your monitor is going to be used on set (outdoor or indoor) or in a studio. How are they different?

Monitors for field use interface well with cameras, display well under harsh sunlight and are rugged. They tend to offer ‘quicker’ solutions so you can get on with your shooting. To know more about how to choose good external monitors for field use, check out the chapter on External Monitoring in the Comprehensive Guide.

Monitors for studio use interface well with computers, have more dynamic range for dark environments, weigh more and are not meant to be moved around much. They need to be used under ‘precise’ environments failing which they quickly use utility. E.g., if you take a Dolby outdoors in the sun, sometimes it may be difficult to tell it apart from a monitor one tenth the price.

The first question you might want to ask is: Will I be moving my monitor around much? Expensive grading monitors are not meant to be moved around.

Then you can ask whether or not you will be carrying it outdoors, or under tough environments (inexperienced crew is a tough environment), and so on. The answers to these questions should make it clear enough, and lead you to the next classification.

Connectivity

If you’re interfacing with your camera, the most common connectivity options are HD-SDI, HDMI or Component video. To know more about these, read Signal Flow and Standards.

If you’re interfacing with your computer (via I/O Card or GPU), the most common connectivity options are Displayport, HDMI and DVI. To know more about which is best for your work, check out: SDI, Displayport, HDMI or DVI? The best way to monitor video.

In Part Two we’ll take a look at the rest of the classifications.