A Review of the BenQ SW321C - The Importance of Hardware Calibrated Monitors

I recently got the BenQ SW321C and this is a story about the frustration that led me to that decision along with a review.

I have noticed that sometimes I advance my photography in large increments rather than gradually. This statement held true when I started using Photoshop circa 1998 and started understanding the relationship between colours and tones in a way that I just hadn't done before I started editing my work digitally. It held true when I got my first digital camera circa 2001 (one of the Minolta Dimage 7 series) and all of a sudden I could make many times more photographs than I previously had been able to afford to make as a student. It held true when I realised that storytelling in landscape photography is all about emotions, rather than finding a story. It holds true now when I finally took the plunge and got myself a calibratable professional photography focussed monitor - albeit, perhaps at a slightly lesser degree. A monitor that can display true and accurate colours isn't as important to a photographer as a solid understanding of colour theory or the principles of design - but it sure is important when making a living as a photographer as it saves time and money. Let me give you a little background to hinge my reasoning on. Over the last three years I have been switching between a 15-inch MacBook Pro for travels and a 27-inch iMac for the office. I have had both displays software calibrated occasionally but never been completely satisfied with the results from printing or how my images look on the web. It just never looked exactly like it did on my screen. As a photographer with part of the income generated from selling prints, the quality has to be perfect. My printing process typically involved printing test images and adjusting until I got it right. My online process typically involved exporting in sRGB for the web and then uploading to Instagram (or other platform) to notice that the colours and luminance was not at all what I had intended in my edit (this is no exaggeration) and then making adjustments in the Instagram app itself, never getting it exactly right, publishing it anyway because - you know - it is "just Instagram." That just isn't good enough. The process for printing was too time consuming and the process for online use was just too inaccurate. This frustration continued to build over the last three years, as I deliver more prints and online presence is becoming increasingly more important with expectation on posting something almost every day. I downplayed the importance of having a professional level monitor (after all - I had an iMac and surely that was as good as it got?), but over the years as my frustration grew, I got determined that I had to look at alternatives. About two months ago I had enough and finally ordered the BenQ SW321C. Since then I have had something that I can only describe as a renaissance in my editing. I have revisited old favourites and images where I never managed to get the colour just right and a few new ones too. I have edited and enjoyed more images in these few weeks than I probably had in the six months previously. My printing process is also much shortened and I get what I see (after some slight luminosity adjustments to get true blacks and whites) - which is all I ever wanted! Fine art photography is a demanding process. Composition, technique, editing and printing has all got to be perfect. Not to mention that, as a landscape photographer, I deal with a subject matter that I cannot influence, the only thing I can do is wait or try again if the light isn't just right. Every step of this process is demanding in its own way. Editing and fine art printing is perhaps some of the more demanding aspects. The gamut and dynamic range of the paper and ink is limited and thus, you really want to be able to see what you will get before you print. One could argue that justifying a professional display would perhaps depend on if you are a revenue making photographer or if you are an enthusiast photographer, but I think this is a poor way of seeing things. If you are making prints and if you care for your details, you will potentially be wasting a lot of money on discarded test prints. I know I did. And over a month or a year you will save the cost of a display through fewer discarded prints - a professional display is an investment that quickly repays itself for the printing photographer.

From white to black - editing has never been this accurate to me before


For a review this was perhaps the longest introduction in the history of reviews. But at least for me, the rationale behind getting a professional photo editing monitor is as important as the specs and performance of the monitor that I (after weeks of reading every available reviews) finally decided on. I am not the kind of person that gets snowed in on the specs. In my decision-making process, I decide what I want spec wise, and as long as the product has that, I look at actual performance, and, of course, a perceived cost / performance ratio. In particular I was looking for a big 32-inch 4K monitor as I wanted to be able to immerse myself in the work when editing. I wanted as close to 100% Adobe RGB as possible, hardware calibration, hood compatibility, and price / performance to be maxed out. After considering 3 different models from the major manufacturers, I decided on the BenQ SW321C, which is a professional photo editing monitor for made especially for photographers. It is a 32-inch monitor and has 4K UHD resolution. It supports 99% Adobe RGB, 95% P3 and 100% sRGB colour space. It is able to switch to a mode they call "GamutDuo" viewing, which basically is that you can have half the screen in Adobe RGB and sRGB, which is a cool feature when proofing for web. On paper 100% of what I wanted. On arrival, my first impression was that the monitor is a behemoth. Well, the box is. Once I got it out and on my desk and plugged in the one USB-C cable it fit right in and was just as immersive as I wanted. A good amount bigger than my old 27-inch iMac, but after a week of usage the size is just right. It comes factory calibrated, but I ran a calibration anyway and the difference is quite noticeable, so I do recommend calibration (I use the X-rite i1 Display Pro together with the BenQ software for hardware calibration). I compared the colours with my calibrated MacBook Pro and the difference is huge. Like really huge. The MacBook Pro is too warm in its overall tone and has a very slight magenta cast in the highlights. I never knew this, and it was something that caused issues of too cool images when posting to the web. The BenQ screen is also completely matt with almost no reflections, apparently this is due to some type of coating and this helps to give an impression that is closer to that of some of my favourite papers. Talking about papers, it has a function to mimic papers and provide an approximation of how a printed image will look, this I don't see myself using. It also has one million and one extra settings that I will never touch. For me a monitor needs to have my preferred size and resolution, to allow for calibration and it needs to turn on and off - after these basic things everything comes down to image performance. Does the BenQ SW321C deliver? Well, my i1 Display Pro calibration tool certainly seems to think so, my eyes can notice a huge difference to my MacBook Pro, I feel that nice 32'' screen real-estate and high resolution allows me to immerse myself in the images more fully, and I am having more fun editing - so YES, the screen delivers. Would I recommend the screen to other photographers? Yes, I would. For me the monitor is having a positive impact on my editing and I could easily say that I wouldn't even consider going back to my MacBook Pro for colour critical work.


Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about the BenQ SW321C, calibration or colour critical work.


/Jonas