Projector Buyers Guide for Photographers

Photographers are a growing segment of projector buyers, and we know that photography has some special requirements when choosing a projector. So we have put together this buyer’s guide specifically for artists who want their projected images to match their creative vision.

Photography and Projectors

[ image: Brian Adams of Brian Adams PhotoGraphics sits with clients using the Panasonic PT-AE1000U ]

Projector Basics

Brightness, contrast, and resolution, oh my! Basic projector specifications aren’t complicated, but you do need to know a little about them before you start shopping for one. Here’s a brief rundown of the basic specs you need to understand.

Projector Brightness

Brightness is measured in ANSI lumens. Simply put, more lumens equal more brightness. The amount of brightness you need will depends on a couple things.

  • Size of your audience.
    • Larger audiences require larger images, which in turn require brighter projectors. It’s hard to go wrong with more lumens, but more lumens will cost you more. So finding the balance is key.
  • Amount of ambient light in the room you are projecting in.
    • If you travel with your projector to client meetings you might want assume the worst case scenario for ambient light. But if your projector will stay put in a controlled environment, just about any brightness will do.
Projector Brightness Chart for Photographers
Ambient Light Audience Size Lumens Suggested
Low 2 – 10 people 1700 – 2200 lumens
Some 10 – 100 people 2200 – 3500 lumens
High 101 – 500 people 3500 or more lumens

Contrast Ratio in Projectors

Photographers probably know more about the importance of contrast than most projector buyers, but let’s talk about the contrast projectors can deliver. So, a higher contrast ratio means more difference between the black and white portions of the image and more shades of gray in between. A high contrast projector should also deliver a clearer and brighter image than a low contrast projector, right? Not exactly.

Photographs have more subtleties and depth of color in the images than PowerPoint presentations, but still images that are generated by a computer are in reality more similar to PowerPoint than they are to video display. If you want your projected image to match the one you see on your LCD™computer monitor, you really only need to achieve a contrast ratio of around 400:1. Typical contrast ratios of LCD monitors range from 350:1 to 1000:1. Movie buffs usually are striving for the highest contrast ratios because they want the deepest blacks and richest colors, photographers on the other hand, often complain that ultra high contrast projectors ‘blow out’ details and intricacies in their still images.

Realistically, a projector used to display professional photographs should have a contrast ratio of at least 400:1. However some manufacturers are more conservative when publishing their specifications, so a lower contrast projector may still do an adequate job, even if the specs don’t compare on paper. Contact a Projector Expert for the inside scoop on what the images look like in real life.

Historically DLP™ projectors have had higher contrast ratios than LCD™ projectors. LCD™ projectors, however, have contrast ratios that fall into the desirable range for photographers displaying still images. Below we have created a quick reference chart comparing DLP™ and LCD, in case you didn’t take the time to read all this.

Quick Tip: Some projectors, including several from Panasonic, offer light sensitive contrast adjustments that can make the image look punchier in brighter light without altering the appearance of the colors.

The Right Resolution

Resolution is essentially the number of pixels that make up the image, but you already knew that. You may have heard that the easiest rule to follow is to match the computer and projectors resolution. But computers have outpaced projectors in developing higher resolution output. So to start, just make sure that your projector can scale to that resolution of your computer, or vice versa.

Also related to resolution is aspect ratio. The majority of the projectors sold around the world are either 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios. Laptops with widescreen resolutions are increasingly more common, and may be a good choice for some photographers.

Projector Resolutions for Photographers – the Pros and Cons

SVGA (800 x 600 pixels) – 4:3 aspect ratio

  • Pro – Lowest price.
  • Con – Some photography presentation software programs may not be compatible.
  • Con – More visible pixels when displaying large images.

XGA (1024 x 768 pixels) – 4:3 aspect ratio

  • Pro – Best value per pixel.
  • Pro – Many can display HD video.
  • Pro – Matches most of the presentation and sales software on the market (such as Ron Nichols’ Proselect).
  • Con – Not widescreen native. (But can scale to widescreen with visible “black bars.”)

SXGA+ (1400 x 1050 pixels) – 4:3 aspect ratio

  • Pro – High resolution display for very sharp, clear images.
  • Con – More costly than lower resolution displays.
  • Con – Fewer model options available.

WXGA-H (1280 x 720) – 16:9 aspect ratio

  • Pro – Very popular for those who want widescreen native display.
  • Pro – Likely to have higher contrast ratios because they are designed for home theater.
  • Con – “Black bars” along the sides of the image when displaying 4:3.

HD (1920 x 1080) – 16:9 aspect ratio

  • Pro – The best looking picture on the market under $3,000.
  • Pro – Future proof HD resolution.
  • Con – “Black bars” along the sides of the image when displaying 4:3.
  • Con – You must have an HD source to produce an HD picture.

Quick Tip: Video projectors also have ‘lines’ of resolution, which is usually just the number of vertical pixels. You will see video resolution referenced as 480p, 720p, or 1080p (the ‘p’ is for progressive scan). These video resolutions are also typically widescreen format.

Projectors also have a lower resolution (or fewer pixels) than digital cameras. Projectors maximum resolutions (for consumer use) top out at SXGA+ (4:3 format) and HD 1920 x 1080 (16:9 format). There are higher resolution displays available, but the costs are prohibitively expensive for most buyers (exceeding $10,000). Here is a quick chart with mega-pixels broken down for you into horizontal and vertical pixels.

Common Digital Camera Resolutions
Mega-Pixels Horizontal Pixels Vertical Pixels Aspect Ratio Total Pixels
0.3 640 480 4:3 307,200
0.5 800 600 4:3 480,000
1 1,280 960 4:3 1,228,800
2 1,600 1,200 4:3 1,920,000
3 2,048 1,536 4:3 3,145,728
4 2,272 1,704 4:3 3,871,488
4.1 (Canon 1D) 2,464 1,648 3:2 4,060,672
5 2,560 1,920 4:3 4,915,200
6 3000 2000 3:2 6,000,000

[ source: Wikipedia ]

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