Photographers don’t hesitate in spending thousands of dollars on the greatest cameras equipment and accessories but the hard truth is that it’s a waste of money if you don’t also invest in a quality monitor.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve captured a razor-sharp image with a compelling composition and amazing colors if you go on to edit on a bad monitor; the colors will be inaccurate and, often without knowing it, your images end up looking completely different than what you intend.
After all, what’s the point of spending time processing your images when it looks different on the viewer’s screen than yours? Personally, I’d be quite embarrassed (and yes, I speak from experience!)
The BenQ SW321C is a professional monitor made specifically for photographers but is it really as good as they say? Will it have an impact on your images and does it show accurate colors?
Let’s find out!
Why are quality monitors important?
Before we dive into the specifics of the BenQ SW321C photography monitor, let’s quickly reflect on why a high-quality monitor is so important for photographers.
Does it really make a difference if you process images on a generic monitor instead of a professional one? Even if you calibrate it?
The answer is yes.
It makes a huge difference. One of the reasons is that standard monitors aren’t able to accurately represent the full gamut of colors. Even if calibrated.
There are many other advantages of a professional monitor (which we’ll come back to ) but it’s the incapability of accurately representing colors that’s the most important.
You might already be familiar with the concept of calibrating your monitor for better color accuracy. This is a crucial step in a photographer’s post-processing workflow but, unfortunately, it won’t make the monitor represent a wider gamut of colors.
In other words, a monitor that has a 75% AdobeRGB coverage won’t represent colors with the same accuracy as one with a 99% coverage.
A high AdobeRGB percentage is a key factor photographers need to look for in a monitor. Historically, the price of monitors with a wide gamut of colors is drastically higher than those who don’t. While that’s still the case, times are changing and we’re now seeing monitors with good AdobeRGB coverage to a more consumer-friendly price.
Introduction to the BenQ SW321C for photographers
One reason why many photographers are reluctant to invest in a proper monitor is the difficulty of choosing the right one. It’s hard to understand their differences and, quite frankly, there’s a lot of numbers and expressions thrown around that few of us understand.
This is a problem BenQ set out to solve and with their PhotoVue series, a series of monitors specifically designed for photographers, finding the right alternative is a lot less confusing.
It’s not hard to understand why photographers love it when winning titles such as ‘Best Professional Photo Monitor 2020’ by TIPA.
The SW321C is a massive 32″ 4k monitor and the series’ top model. This means that the maximum resolution is 3840 x 2160px and with a size of 32″, that translates to a density of 140PPI.
There are several notable features about the monitor but I want to point out two right away: the IPS type panel and Uniformity Technology. This may not mean much to most of us but a closer look shows just how important these features are for photographers.
IPS stands for In-Plane Switching and is a technology that leads to saturation and contrast remaining constant regardless of the angle you’re viewing the screen.
Most generic monitors don’t use IPS technology, which in reality, makes them useless for post-processing purposes. Even a slight change in your perspective affects what the image looks like, which is unacceptable for any serious photographer.
Another important feature is BenQ’s Uniformity Technology. Adding this to the existing IPS technology means you not only get a constant saturation and contrast regardless of your viewing angle but also precise color and brightness from corner to corner. This is another crucial feature when processing images in full-screen views!
The SW321C might be a beast of a monitor but it still has a sleek and elegant design. Its base plate is relatively small for what you’d expect from a 32″ screen so it doesn’t take up unnecessary space on your desk.
Its stand can be extended up to 15 centimeters and allows for both tilting and swiveling plus a full 90-degree rotation. This is perfect for when you’re editing images with a portrait orientation.
I’ve previously gotten headaches when working on 32″ monitors before but this hasn’t been a problem with the SW321C thanks to the extremely effective anti-reflection coating. I still recommend having some viewing space for the best experience.
The monitor comes in a robust packaging that allows you to sleep comfortably at night without having to worry about damages. Even though the box showed signs of being thrown around by the postal service, the content was unaffected.
There are several clever compartments inside the packaging that, in addition to keeping the content secure, also makes assembling it quick and easy.
In addition to the monitor and stand, the box contains:
- Calibration report
- Instruction manual
- CD with software installation
- Power cable
- HDMI, DisplayPort and USB-C cables
- Hotkey Puck G2
- Detachable shading hood
- Screen cleaning roller
The BenQ SW321C’s main connection hub is located on the underside of the monitor. Here you find two HDMI 2.0 ports, USB Type C and Type B, and a Display Port. You can choose either of these to connect your computer with.
Personally, I’m thrilled to connect via USB-C as it charges the laptop and allows for it to be used when folded without connecting the battery charger. This is a dream come true and it’s nice to have one less cable to care about.
A secondary set of ports is found on the side. Here you find two USB 3.1 ports as well as an SD card reader. This panel is easier to access and will most likely be more used on a daily basis than the main hub.
Detachable shading hood
Editing in rooms with strong light sources can easily lead to glare on the monitor. This can further affect the way you perceive color, contrast and luminosity on images displayed.
The SW321C’s panel has an anti-reflecting coating named ART (Advanced Reflectionless Technology) which helps reduce glare on the screen. This works extremely well but attaching the shading hood will completely remove glare.
Blocking external light is yet another important step in achieving the best possible color accuracy in your post-processing workflow.
Hotkey Puck G2
The Hotkey Puck is a neat little controller that is used to quickly access and navigate the monitor menus. There are three programable buttons which also allow you to bypass the menus and make instant changes – such as changing the active color space.
I’ll admit that I haven’t found a place for it in my current workflow but the main purpose I’ve used it for is to quickly change between the AdobeRGB and sRGB color spaces. This lets me easily preview what an image will look like when shared online and allows me to make any necessary adjustments.
You can also change to the Black & White color profile to preview what an image would look like without colors.
The controller itself is small and neat and fits into a small circular holder at the base of the stand. It’s easy to use and can come in handy for those who like to access the OSD menu or frequently change between color spaces.
I have a feeling that I’ll be more appreciative of this after spending more time with it.
Key features for photographers
We’ve already talked about the importance of color accuracy and this is an area where the SW321C doesn’t disappoint; each monitor is manually calibrated before shipping and it has an impressive 99% AdobeRGB and 100% sRGB coverage. This means you get great color accuracy straight out of the box.
The BenQ SW321C is packed with useful features but there are some that really stands out and are extra important for photographers:
#1 AQCOLOR for better color accuracy
I’ve mentioned the importance of color accuracy in a monitor several times already but it goes to show just how critical it is for photographers. Luckily for us, BenQ has understood this, which is why they’ve developed AQCOLOR.
This technology is used to ensure maximum color fidelity, smooth gradations and natural color transitions. It consists of the four components Industry Standards, Display Details (Uniformity Technology), Out-of-the-Box Guarantee and 3rd Party Qualification.
Meeting industry standards is the first step in AQCOLOR technology. These standards define the target value which the monitor should be adjusted or calibrated to. AdobeRGB and sRGB are the most important standards for photographers.
Display Details (Uniformity Technology)
I’ve already briefly mentioned BenQ’s Uniformity Technology as one of the noteworthy features of the SW321C but it deserves some extra attention. After all, it’s the second component (or pillar if you want) of AQCOLOR.
Most of us use a measurement device placed on the panel when calibrating a monitor. This is an important step to assure accurate colors but the problem is that most monitors don’t perform equally throughout the entire screen. When displaying a full white background on a generic monitor, you typically see shadows closer to the edges. Only the centre point seems to be correct.
BenQ’s Uniformity Technology totally eliminates this issue. I’ve been blown away by just how well this works; move an image around the screen and you’ll see that there’s a perfect uniformity through the entire panel.
I’ve always felt the need to calibrate my monitors directly after unboxing them but the SW321C is manually calibrated before delivery and comes with a detailed calibration report. The report is unique for each monitor and bears its serial number.
3rd Party Qualification
With AQCOLOR Technology, BenQ monitors have been awarded the Pantone Validated Certificate and Calman Certification. These are third-party color certifications that, in some cases, BenQ is the first to have been awarded.
#2 Hardware Calibration
One of the BenQ SW321C’s big advantages is the possibility of hardware calibration. This is a far superior method to the more common software calibration and ensures a much greater color precision.
So what exactly is the difference between a hardware and software calibration, and why does it matter? This gets a little complicated but I’ll try to explain as simple as possible:
A standard software calibration uses the computer’s video card which is limited to 256 levels per color (8 bit). The hardware calibration, however, bypasses the video card and applies the correction curves to the LUT inside the monitor itself. This gives us a much higher color precision since the SW321C has a 16-bit lookup table. In this case that gives us 65,536 levels per color compared to 256.
Both software and hardware calibration require the use of a calibration device such as the DataColor SpyderX Elite but to perform a hardware calibration you’ll need to download BenQ’s Palette Master Element (PME). This is a free software that is easy and intuitive to use.
Be aware that the native software for your probe only allows you to perform software calibrations.
#3 Paper Color Sync
The third and final feature that I want to point out is extremely useful for any photographer who enjoys seeing their images printed.
The ART (Advanced Reflectionless Technology), which I’ve briefly mentioned before, reduces glare and gives the panel a slight matt look. This matt look helps to simulate the effect of a photographic paper and is the first step in color accuracy for printing purposes.
BenQ has developed its own Paper Color Sync technology which eliminates the difference in color and contrast between monitor and print. In other words, the printed image should look the same as on the monitor.
You can use the Hotkey or OSD menu to activate the Paper Color Sync menu but you’ll need to download the free Paper Color Sync software for accurate results. The software lets you input the printer model, type of paper and the color space. You’ll then be given a specific color setting that represents what the print will look like. This is similar to (but more accurate than) soft proofing in Adobe Lightroom.
Note that the list of supported printers is still limited. BenQ is making these color profiles themselves (as the monitor characteristics are taken into account) but I’m sure that more profiles are added on a regular basis.
As a full-time photographer, I depend on having the very best equipment throughout my entire workflow. What’s the point of using a top-notch camera when the files are treated on a monitor with big color issues?
The BenQ SW321C is far from a cheap monitor and, as of writing this, it will set you back about $2,000. That being said, it’s impossible to find an equally good alternative anywhere close to this price.
Features such as the Advanced Reflectionless Technology, Uniformity Technology, Paper Color Sync and Hardware Calibration make the SW321C one of the absolute best monitors for photographers and videographers.
I highly recommend this monitor for anyone who’s serious about their photography, spends time in post-processing and ultimately enjoys seeing their images printed. If you already have quality camera gear, you should invest in a quality monitor. It’s as simple as that.
If you don’t spend much time in post-processing and don’t worry too much about the outcome of your images, this is not a monitor for you. You’ll be perfectly fine with a generic monitor (ideally calibrated) but be aware of the limitations that follow.
I’ve already fallen in love with the BenQ SW321C and for the first time in a while, I’m really enjoying post-processing again. It’s a dream to work on such a quality monitor and to know that what I see on the screen is exactly what I’ll see on paper.