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Understanding Wide Gamut Displays

NEC 30"

See also Web Browser Display of Image Color (Color Space).

Want to see the colors actually there in your images? Digital cameras offer an exceptional range of colors (gamut) when shooting RAW. But to actually see that color, a calibrated wide-gamut display is essential—otherwise you are in effect partially color blind, editing your photos literally without seeing the consequences.

If you can’t see it, your chances of making a print that matches your artistic vision diminish greatly. Today’s DSLRs, especially Nikon and Canon high-end DSLRS, have a very wide gamut, and the latest Epson printers have a wider gamut in some colors than even the best monitors. Don’t proof and edit for today, do so for tomorrow, where printer gamuts will expand even more.

See my computer wish list for recommended displays. If you can’t afford a 30" display then choose a 27-inch or 24-inch model, which drops the price considerably and has the same horizontal resolution.


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Wide gamut

The NEC color calibrated displays (various sizes from 24" to 30") offer a gamut that is actually wider than AdobeRGB (overall). Though it can’t quite show all the greens, it shows substantially more in the reds and blues, something you’ll appreciate for strawberries or southwest landscapes or mountain shooting (blues) or asian festivals (bright reds and such).

Color gamut of NEC PA302W as calibrated to 6500°K / gamma 2.2

Now compare the truncated color gamut of sRGB below (blue triangle outline). Huge chunks of green and red go missing in sRGB, a problem I’ve seen increasingly with wide-gamut cameras like the Nikon D3x.

What this means is that (a) using sRGB for serious photography is a huge loss of color nuance, and (b) using a monitor with a limited gamut is hiding a great deal from you— which I can personally attest to after getting the NEC 30", with its outstanding gamut. More on that below.

NEC PA302W color gamut shows how pathetic the sRGB color space is in reds, greens and blues

A tale of two gamuts

By chance I came across the Color of Money in Albuquerque, shown below. The lighting is very “stimulating”, is it not? Funny how red ink results in green.

The color gamut of the NEC 30" LCD 3090WQXi is far larger than the sRGB color space. It’s also larger than the gamut of my Apple 30" Cinema Display (as of Feb 2010). One wouldn’t realize this without seeing it—the full-gamut image is actually an intense garish green, probably not displayable on most monitors.

The Nikon D3x has a very wide color gamut, and never before have I seen so many images that not only are out of gamut in sRGB, but even out of gamut in Adobe RGB, though usually in minor ways, with intense reds being the exception. The sRGB color space should be avoided like the plague with the D3x; RAW with a wide-gamut color space into 16-bit TIF is the way to go for optimal results. It’s like playing an low-fi MP3 track on a pair of Wilson Audio Watt Puppies (studio grade speakers).

The pair of images below differs only in the color space: sRGB for the first one and AdobeWideRGB for the second (AdobeWideRGB is a color space supplied by Nikon Capture NX2). The sRGB results have resulted in a yellowish and desaturated approximation of the original. The image is mostly in-gamut in standard AdobeRGB however.

On the NEC 30" display, there is an obvious difference in color between the two images below; the NEC display can show the intense saturated greens, which were what attracted me to this building at night. What’s interesting is that converting to sRGB shows almost no visible change in color on the Apple Cinema Display, but a pronounced change on the NEC, another way of demonstrating the latter’s wider gamut.

You’ll need a color-aware browser to make this comparison, or open the images in Photoshop.

Color of Money
Greens severely affected by limited sRGB gamut
Color of Money
Image in AdobeWideRGB from Nikon Capture NX2
(color aware browser required for correct display)
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