When Will Online Photo Display Equal Prints?
August 23, 2010 1:27 PM   Subscribe

Are efforts afoot to improve the quality of photos displayed on computer monitors? What, for example, would it take to produce a photo display on a screen that would be essentially indistinguishable from a darkroom print of the same size? Do we need screens with many more, smaller, pixels? Do we need better software? Both?
posted by justcorbly to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Screens with many tinier pixels would help. And so would better software. But, mainly the tinier pixels.

But, having a display that's really indistinguishable from a print would require that the surface texture of the screen and the print be identical. I can't see that happening any time soon. Likewise, the simple behavior of a screen versus a print is different: hold a print up in the sun, you can see it better; do the same thing with a screen, you see it worse.
posted by Netzapper at 1:34 PM on August 23, 2010

Yeah you'd need at least 300dpi, closely to which the Apple Retina display claims to be. Average displays are around 96dpi. You've also got problems with lit from behind (LCD) as opposed to lit from the front (paper).
posted by msbutah at 1:37 PM on August 23, 2010

The two big things that gain realism are higher resolution (pixels per inch) and higher dynamic range (the difference between how dark and how bright the pixels can be). Apple's Retina Display on the iPhone 4 is one step towards bringing high-resolution (above 300 pixels/inch) displays to the masses, albeit in a very small size. High dynamic range displays are still under development but the technology is slowly creeping out. Check out this somewhat old review of an HDR display for some insight into dynamic range. You also mention software, which also comes into play as almost all images are edited and displayed with only 8 bits per channel; software will need to support at least 16 bits per channel for effective HDR.

Also note when I say HDR I really mean HDR, not the current fad of tone mapping to make images just look like they have more dynamic range.
posted by zsazsa at 1:38 PM on August 23, 2010

What, for example, would it take to produce a photo display on a screen that would be essentially indistinguishable from a darkroom print of the same size? Do we need screens with many more, smaller, pixels?

Compared to a typical consumer computer monitor you'd need:

higher pixel density (more, smaller pixels)
higher contrast ratio (particularly a much darker black level)
more bits per pixel (i.e., more possible colors)

Software-wise you need an OS and programs that support color calibration and monitor profiles, and of course the display manufacturer would need to make a profile for it. That front is in good shape, actually. OS X in particular is good at this.

Anyway, there's not a lot of effort to improve the quality of consumer monitors. Most of the focus is on making them cheaper for a given size. Really high quality monitors still cost ~$1000 (e.g., the high end displays from Dell and Apple), which is much more than most people are willing to spend, and even then you only get more bits per pixel and a better contrast ratio. High pixel density isn't available for really any price right now. And the contrast ratios could still be a lot better, too.

IBM did make a high pixel density display several years ago, and it has basically been unmatched since. It cost $18,000 when it was introduced.

As Netzapper pointed out, the other issue is the inherent nature of monitors as emissive rather than reflective surfaces. To fix that issue you'd need a fundamentally different technology, like electronic ink.
posted by jedicus at 1:39 PM on August 23, 2010

There are monitors out there that can produce very good photo displays, but those are expensive.

In general resolution (pixels per inch, not in total), colour space (the 'number' of colours) as well as the density (and/or contrast) are critical.

But there's a huge difference you cannot change: screens do display images based on light, prints based on inks. E-ink may change that, but not now.

Software in general can handle all that. HDR images are a good example: their contrast is a lot better than most monitors can show. To display them anyway, they're simplified for screen viewing and still look amazing.
posted by oxit at 1:40 PM on August 23, 2010

In addition to much higher resolution, I think we'd need a display that uses subtractive coloring instead of additive. I believe Apple has a patent on such a display technology, though it has not yet been introduced commercially.
posted by brain at 1:40 PM on August 23, 2010

The screens on the new iPhone 4's are the closest I've seen to what I think you're getting at. You can hold them right up close to your eye and not really see the separate pixels. Once I saw one, I wondered how long it would be until we saw the upped dpi put into monitors (I'm guessing cost is the issue right now).
posted by blueberry at 1:41 PM on August 23, 2010

BTW, when I was in grad school I got to use one of those IBM monitors that jedicus is talking about. It was truly glorious for static images, but the computers and display standards of that time just couldn't push pixels fast enough for high frame rates. I'd love to see another go at such a cost-is-no-limit display now that it's almost 10 years later.
posted by zsazsa at 1:45 PM on August 23, 2010

Colors work entirely differently on screen versus paper. Colors on paper are subtractive (CYM), colors on screen are additive (RGB). On paper, black is the amalgamation of every primary color. On screen, white is. There's a pretty good explanation of this stuff here, but in short, a color image is never going to look quite the same on screen as it does on paper, because the underlying process is different.
posted by vorfeed at 1:47 PM on August 23, 2010

I should mention that there are high resolution, moderately high density monitors for certain special purposes like medical imaging. For example, the Barco Coronis Fusion 6MP is a 30" 3280x2048 monitor with finely calibrated, high quality color. That works out to 129ppi. Considerably less than the IBM T221; roughly comparable to an iPad, in fact. All yours for a mere $15,163.

Barco is coming out with a 30" 10MP display, which will be about 150ppi. But it will only do greyscale (for x-rays, CTs, etc).
posted by jedicus at 1:59 PM on August 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

You can get very small pixels relatively cheaply by pointing a standard LCD projector at a screen that's very close. One setup I've seen around, called the GeoWall, uses 4 projectors to get about 200 dpi.

Sharp makes LCD panels with yellow subpixels and claims they have an increased color gamut compared to standard RGB. This would also increase the effective dynamic range of the screen, since our eyes are super sensitive to yellow-green colors.

New LCD displays are usually lit by a panel of white LEDs. On a few models, the brightness of the LEDs can be individually controlled, so you can get very high dynamic range (in a picture of the moon at night, the LEDs behind the moon might go full blast while the night sky remains completely black). I think it might be possible to add this tech to newer displays relatively cheaply.

I'm not sure that standard LCD monitors will get much higher in resolution anytime soon. Operating system and driver support is always a problem -- the current OSes will display stupidly tiny icons on a high resolution screen, which people will find frustrating. Plus, higher resolution means lower frame rates for gamers, who spend a lot of money on hardware. Most buyers pick a monitor based on size and completely ignore the resolution. But hopefully super high resolution will be available for those of us who want to pay for it.
posted by miyabo at 10:23 AM on August 25, 2010

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