Are LCD Flat Panel Displays Ready For The Digital Darkroom?
How To Choose And Use The Newest LCDs

In the past couple of years I've reported on LCD flat panel displays either as part of an integrated system (Apple and Sony) or as a stand-alone product (LaCie Photon 19). Although these LCD displays offered some distinct advantages, I did not see that they could replace the functionality of CRTs when it came to image processing. Until a little less than a year ago their main limitation photographically was that they could not reproduce as full a gamut of colors as a CRT, which is necessary for critical color correction and adjustment of digital photographic images. The display industry then began introducing a new generation of 20.1" LCD displays, and some brands began promoting these new models with color performance to support graphic professionals. So, I decided it was time to get seriously interested, especially as there are indications that CRTs may be on their way out and that most CRT production in America and Japan would be moving to China.

A photographer using a computer to color correct, adjust, and edit a color image cannot do so effectively if all of the color in an image file cannot be seen on screen. In the past, a small color gamut has been the key limitation that has kept many photographers from taking LCD flat panel displays seriously. With the two LCD displays, the Sony and LaCie, used for this report, the color space gamut is now so close to that of a good quality CRT no serious impediment remains. The graphs of the color gamut displayed by both the control CRTs and the LCDs in this comparison against an outline of the Adobe RGB color space were generated by the ColorThink application, Courtesy of

Even today, after LCD prices have dropped precipitously as sales have increased, the main thrust in development and marketing is to leverage the attractiveness of the higher brightness and contrast of the LCD display. However, one of the main concerns of photographers is to make prints that match photographs as they are displayed on screen, and the very brightness and contrast of LCD displays makes this match less viable because the range of values displayed is so much greater than the reflective range of values in a print.

So, my assignment in researching and writing this article is more than to produce a typical user report on the newest and best LCD displays. It is to discover how to best configure and use LCD displays to support the functions photographers perform.

The Displays, Systems, And Environment Involved In The Test & Evaluation
First of all, I needed to acquire samples of new 20.1" LCD flat panel displays. So, I contacted Apple, Sony, and LaCie. These are brands that I felt would be representative of high-quality performance. Sony sent a new model SDM-S204 display, with which they are targeting the engineering and desktop publishing markets. LaCie sent their new Photon 20 Vision II display that is marketed to design, publishing, and photography users. Just as I was about to start this project Apple announced newly designed models of their Apple Cinema Displays in 20, 23, and 30" sizes. Unfortunately, these new displays are not expected to be available until September 2004, so Apple was not included in my test and evaluation.

The systems used to install and use these two new LCDs include a new Apple Mac G5 dual processor model with an ATI Radeon video card, two Apple Mac G4s, one of which is a year old and the other 2 years old, as well as an IBM NetVista 2.4GHz with an ATI Radeon video card running Windows XP Pro. The CRTs that are normally used with these systems include two Sony 21" models, a CPD-G520P less than a year old and a CPD-E540 just a few months older, as well as a Mitsubishi Diamondtron monitor that's a little over 2 years old. These systems and monitors are fully color managed and the displays are calibrated with the latest ColorVision Spyder and PhotoCAL or OptiCAL software.

Screen color representation quality that provides a display of most if not all of the color input from a camera or a scanner is critical to making adjustments. You have to see exactly what you want on screen to be successful with the entire digital photography process.

To accomplish color-critical digital photography work with a computer the "light" environment in your workroom is extremely important. Your monitor/ display(s) should be entirely free from contaminating direct illumination that could mix with the light of the image on screen and skew accurate perception of the values displayed. In my workroom, all of the room (ambient) illumination is provided by lamps located behind the face surfaces of the displays.

The light level in the room is adjusted so the area of view I see surrounding the monitor has the same brightness value as the screen itself. The light sources include 5000Þ Kelvin fluorescents as well as quartz halogen lamps with dichroic daylight filters, so the ambient light in the room does not differ significantly with the color temperature of the displays. The walls and ceiling of my workroom are a neutral off-white, and there is one large window facing north that is partially shuttered. It should be noted that working in a room significantly illuminated by daylight can have an adverse variable effect on doing work with digital photographs because daylight can vary in color temperature drastically during the course of a day.

Contrary to opinion, even recent opinions by some known as experts in the field, I found that working with these two new LCD displays produced prints with great color fidelity to what I saw on the screen.

Working With The LCD Displays To Provide A Basis For Evaluation
My basic approach was to replace one of my CRTs with one of the new LCDs and then do all the digital photography tasks that I normally perform every day, like acquiring and color correcting raw digital camera files, scanning film, retouching and cleaning images of defects, and then tweaking and printing from Photoshop. I began with the Sony SDM-S204. After connecting it and making initial adjustments to obtain a smooth picture using the Sony software, I found first off from opening a previously color corrected photographic image that at default settings the brightness of the Sony was so high that the detail in the highlights of the images was washed out--the image looked like an overexposed color slide.