Choosing an Expedition to Antarctica – What you Must Know Part Two

In part one of this series of articles on choosing an expedition to Antarctica we looked at the option of choosing either a fly or sail expedition. This critical decision will have a huge impact on both your wallet and your overall Antarctic expedition experience. In this second part of the series we are going to look at what you need to know about choosing a ship suitable for your needs if you have made the decision to sail to Antarctica. If you have made the decision to fly then you will likely already have chosen an operator (there are not many to choose from).emperorsexpedition2016-19461-editThe first and most important consideration when you are investigating the multitude of ship options for sailing to Antarctica is how many passengers does the ship take. This very critical piece of information is going to have very significant impact on how much shore time you can expect whilst you are in Antarctica and what sort of photographic opportunities you can expect. Before we discuss this in further detail it is important to understand that the IATTO (International Antarctica Treaty Organisation) body is responsible for the protection of Antarctica and managing tourism to the continent. Their regulations are continually being refined, expanded and updated. The critical regulation you need to consider when choosing your ship is the maximum number of passengers permitted to land on Antarctica at any given point in time is limited to no more than 100 people (including ships expedition staff). Therefore, if you choose a ship that carries 100 passengers or more you will be forced to wait your turn and rotate on landings in order for the expedition company to comply with IATTO restrictions (they will make no exceptions to this rule). This will be extremely frustrating having travelled all the way to Antarctica and being made to wait your turn. You may well miss landings (in fact you will), miss wildlife opportunities and miss the best light of the day as you sit with increasing impatience waiting for your turn.

My recommendation is therefore that you choose a ship with as fewer passengers as possible. Anything less than 100 is acceptable with something around fifty or less being ideal in my experience. In fact, the fewer the better – period. Keep in mind that fewer passengers also decreases the potential for other guests walking into your photographs during landings. Note if you are considering a very small sailing vessel for your expedition then the total number of passengers will already be very small.

Once you have made the decision to choose a ship that carries fewer than 100 passengers the next thing I recommend you check with your expedition company is what ice class the ship has been rated. You want to make sure that your chosen vessel is capable of going into broken sea ice and that it is able to push ice out of the way. This is going to ensure that you can get nice and close to icebergs for the best photo opportunities and that you can get into ice filled bays and coves that other ships simply cant access. There is an important distinction between an ice breaker and being ice hardened. You are unlikely to find an ice breaker for your expedition as such ships are usually reserved for commercial operations and are far from comfortable for crossing the Drake (they roll and wallow in high seas because of their hull design). Instead you want to select a ship that is rated ice class 1. Ice Class 1 is the next class down from an icebreaker and ships with this rating are capable of pushing not insignificant pieces of ice out of their way. I have quite literally driven one of these ice hardened ships into the pack ice; parked it, and got out and walked on the frozen sea. That is an experience not to be missed.The GovernerA word on ship stabilisers. Some expedition companies market the fact that their ship has stabilisers to help keep it from rolling around too much as you cross the Drake passage. Whilst stabilisers can and do make a difference to ship movement you should be aware that ships equiped with outboard stabilisers are usually not suitable for use in the ice. Stabilisers are easily damaged by large pieces of ice so the captains of these ships are usually going to avoid taking the ship into the ice or too close to icebergs. Therefore I recommend you avoid ships that are sold and marketed as being ‘stabilised’.

Once you have chosen a suitable ice class ship that carries fewer than 100 passengers the next thing you need to ensure is that the ship has sufficient zodiacs (small rubber boats that you will use for cruising and landing in Antarctica) for all passengers to be transported at the same time. On average you can comfortably accomodate up to ten photographers (8 is better) on a Mark V Zodiac and still have sufficient room to comfortably photograph. Therefore a fifty passenger boat is going to need not loss than five (and preferably six) zodiacs. Ships will always want to keep one zodiac in reserve for safety purposes so always bank on the total number of zodiacs on the ship being one less than advertised. The number of zodiacs available for operations is as important to your photographic experience as the total number of ships passengers and the ships ice class rating.

A not insignificant consideration in choosing a vessel is the amount of deck space available on the ship for photographers. You are going to be sharing this vessel with up to one hundred (or possibly more) other photographers who are all going to be jockeying for the best position to make photographs during your expedition. Find out if there is an open bridge policy and if you can venture out onto to the bow and stern of the ship for photography when it is safe to do so (many ships have closed bow policies and forbid passengers to access this area of the ship). Ask your expedition company about the places on the ship you can and cannot go so that you have a good understanding of exactly how much space you will have available. If possible, try and obtain a deck plan for the ship so that you can analyse potential shooting locations. Don’t underestimate the importance or manoeuvrability on board the ship for photography. When the ship is under steam and you are passing icebergs you need to have ample deck space and to be able to move quickly to obtain the best angles.PolarPioneer and PenguinsOne thing you should be acutely on the look out for is generic expeditions that offer a photographic component as part of their overall program; or expeditions that comprise in the majority of general tourists with what is marketed as an additional small dedicated photography group that plans to co-exist on the same ship. These expeditions are disasters for photographers who are dedicated to their work and who want to achieve the best possible photographs. Any expedition that comprises in the majority of general tourists will first and foremost have to cater to this majority (and not the much smaller group of photographers). Such groups will not be able to rearrange their schedule to suit the best light for photography and will not be able to suitably serve the needs of the dedicated photographers. I can tell  you from experience that these sort of expeditions are incredibly frustrating as you are forced to photograph during midday landings in harsh light in order to meet the standard meal times when the light would be optimum for photography. If photography is your primary goal avoid any sort of mixed expedition at all costs.

You should also do your research on your expedition leader and photographic leader. Try and find out what sort of experience they have working in Antarctica. It is of critical importance that your expedition leader have experience working with photographers and that they understand the needs and requirements of photographers looking to capture stunning images in the best light of the day. The expedition leader is in charge of daily operations and therefore is going to make all of the decisions pertaining to shore landings and zodiac cruises. If those operations are planned for midday light to accomodate standard meal times you can expect a very poor experience from a photographic perspective. You absolutely must have an expedition leader who is willing to shift meal times to ensure you are out in the best light of the day. Typically in Antarctica this is very early in the morning and very late in the evening. It is the responsibility of your photographic leader to liaise with the expedition leader to ensure you get the best opportunities.antarctica2016-26430-edit-2 It is not uncommon for photography guides to have little to zero real world Antarctic experience. Such guides should generally be avoided as they are likely to be far more interested in their own photography than in helping you or others on the expedition. If possible, try and select an expedition that includes a photography guide who specialises in polar photography or who otherwise has significant experience operating in Antarctica. Such guides know what to look for in terms of subject and know how to position a zodiac for the best backgrounds and to take advantage of prevailing light. Such leaders also know how to liaise with expedition leaders to deliver the opportunities you would otherwise miss.

The photographic leader and expedition leader you choose are going to have as much bearing on the success of your expedition as the ship you choose to travel on. They are critical elements to your success that should not be overlooked. In fact, you should equally weight your leader and ship choice for any expedition to Antarctica.

In part three of this series we are going to look at the very important decision of what time of year you should travel to Antarctica in order to achieve your desired outcomes.

Antarctica White Nature 2017 Expedition Update

In November this year I will lead a dedicated photographic expedition to the Antarctica Peninsula in early November – Antarctica White Nature. This new and very special expedition is a co-operative effort between myself and Norwegian photographer and friend Ole Jorgen Liodden.

The expedition is for a strictly limited number of 54 participants plus photography guides and expedition leader. We have chartered the ice hardened expedition ship M/S Polar Pioneer with a highly experienced crew so that we can get as close as possible to giant icebergs for the best photographs. Our expedition ship the ‘Polar Pioneer’ is equipped with sufficient zodiacs and crew for all photographers to be shooting simultaneously with plenty of room to spare for camera equipment. So bring what you need!The main focus of this expedition will be Antarctic wildlife including penguins, seabirds, seals, and possibly even whales. We also plan to photograph snow and ice covered landscapes and icebergs. Our expedition has been timed as the first of the season so we expect fantastic icebergs and a breathtaking winter landscape. Very few photographers have visited Antarctica in early November, and experience has shown us that this will give you the best possible photo opportunities.

Antarctica is one of the hot-spots for photographing penguins, seals and icebergs in a great landscape. We will be landing early in the morning and late in the evening to get the best possible light conditions, which you will miss out on an ordinary tourist trip.

At this stage there are now only very places remaining before the expedition will be sold out (we have two twin-share places remaining only). Captains Suite, Mini Suite, Twin Private and Triple Share cabins are now all sold out.If you would like to join us or if you would like any additional information please do not hesitate to drop me an email to info@jholko.com.

Choosing an Expedition to Antarctica – What you Must Know Part One

Over the last six plus years I have been fortunate to travel and photograph in Antarctica more times than I can easily recall. As a polar specialist, my photographic travels to the great white continent have given me great insight into what works and what doesn’t work in terms of clothing, equipment, and accessories. But perhaps more importantly it has provided me very significant insight into the things you should know and consider before you make the decision to join any photographic expedition to Antarctica.emperorsexpedition2016-19435-editIf you like, this is perhaps a guide to choosing and planning your Antarctic expedition. It is an unabashed and unbiased look at the real facts of Antarctic travel and it contains information about the realities of Antarctic travel that expedition companies just wont tell you. Or, if they do share some of this information it will be selective to suit their sales needs. This information is critical to the experience you will have in Antarctica and you should use it to guide your decision making process.

When I started writing this guide I quickly realised that it was going to be far to long for a single post and as such I am breaking up the article into a number of different parts. I have tried to keep strictly to the facts based on my own experiences but you should keep in mind that the expedition industry is a dynamic and fluid environment. You should also keep in mind that photography is the first and foremost consideration in these articles.Cuverville Island, Antarctica12013Firstly, lets deal with the biggest decision you need to make once you have decided you want to photograph in Antarctica. Should you sail or fly to Antarctica? Irrespective of this decision you will almost certainly have to get yourself to either Ushuaia or Punta Arenas at the bottom of South America (there are expeditions that depart from New Zealand and Tasmania but both of these are sail only options that require a considerable investment in time). Ushuaia is located at the bottom of Argentina and Punta Arenas at the bottom of Chile. From here the decision to fly or sail to Antarctica will have a very significant impact on both your wallet and your overall experience.

Speaking frankly, nothing puts fear into people like the thought of being violently sea sick for days at a time in huge seas as you bob like a cork across the Drake passage. The Drake Passage is the narrow stretch of water between South America and Antarctica. It is one of the wildest stretches of ocean in the world and its fearsome reputation has become legendary amongst mariners and land lubbers alike. So what about flying instead?

Here is my take on the option of flying to Antarctica after having both flown and sailed on countless occasions. Firstly, lets deal with the real truth about the infamous Drake passage. On average the Drake takes approximately two days to cross via ship from the tip of South America to the tip of the Antarctic peninsula at a speed of approximately 10-11 knots. Vessels under sail will take longer depending on prevailing winds and faster ships will obviously take less time. Currents, winds and weather all throw an additional variability into the travel time mix. Whilst the Drake can be a roller coaster ride with huge seas in-excess of thirty feet or more (Drake Shake); it can also be equally calm with only very minor swells (Drake Lake). In truth, when I look back at the many expeditions I have completed over the last few years I have experienced as much ‘Drake Lake’ as ‘Drake Shake’. In fact, I would say on average that the seas have been quite moderate most of the time. I don’t want to lead you astray with my experiences as the Drakes fearsome reputation is well earned and the Drake is to be respected above all. However, you shouldn’t fear a Drake crossing even if you are prone to seasickness. All of the expedition ships are equiped with Doctors who are equiped with significant quantities of the very latest sea sickness medications. The key is to medicate before you start to feel sick. With proper medication before the onset of sea sickness even a rough Drake crossing can be enjoyable. The good news is, once you arrive in Antarctica the seas are significantly calmer and you can expect any sea sickness you might have experienced to quickly subside and disappear. The Antarctic peninsular is comprised of a great many sheltered straits, coves, bays and inlets and the expedition ships captain will have great experience in navigating them based on prevailing weather conditions. Therefore, once you arrive at the Peninsula you can expect smooth sailing most of the time.Polar PioneerAdditionally there is a more ephemeral factor to consider when you choose a sail to Antarctica expedition. There is something quite romantic and special about sailing across the Drake passage. Antarctica is one of the hardest to reach and most remote places you can visit on the planet. Arriving at the peninsula after two days sailing really is akin to travelling to another planet. A great many photographers who have travelled with me to Antarctica over recent years have remarked that crossing the Drake is just part of the allure and romantic charm of an Antarctic expedition. I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with them. Just as an aside, here is a tip if you are prone to sea sickness and you have decided to sail to Antarctica. When you book onto your expedition request a cabin on a lower level and closer to the middle of the ship. These cabins experience the least movement during a rough crossing and are the most comfortable place to be during any rough weather. Whilst you might be tempted to go for a top cabin with a porthole view the reality of an Antarctic expedition is that outside of the Drake crossing you will spend very little time in your cabin and really only use it for sleeping. The top cabins are subject to the most movement during rough seas and are usually amongst the most uncomfortable places to be. They also cost more than the lower level cabins; so I just saved you some money to boot!

Whilst the idea of flying to Antarctica and avoiding the Drake might seem highly appealing on the surface you should be aware that the weather in Antarctica is extremely fickle and there are often very significant flight delays and cancellations that will quite literally destroy your well laid plans. It is not uncommon to be delayed for days (or even weeks) whilst you wait with increasing impatience and frustration at the bottom of South America for a suitable weather window for your flight. In the case of significant delays expeditions can rack up back to back with people waiting to get onto a flight to the continent. Flights and entire expeditions can and have been cancelled entirely at short notice leaving you disappointed and out of pocket with significant investment in travel costs. I have personally experienced delays in excess of a week on numerous occasions waiting for weather windows to fly to Antarctica. The experience is extremely frustrating and expensive (hotel bills rack up fast). On top of this, delays can mean onward trips and plans are severely disrupted. There is a domino effect of not inconsiderable inconvenience that will cause you significant stress and angst as your delay stretches out day after day.Top of the World You need to be aware and keep in mind that a plane ride to Antarctica is far removed from your average commercial flight. Antarctica serves up very unique challenges that frequently make airline travel impossible. Katabatibc winds, freezing temperatures, zero visibility, low cloud, fog etc. all frequently contribute to delayed and cancelled flights.emperorsexpedition2016-14203If you make the decision to fly to Antarctica I recommend you allow an absolute minimum of one week for weather delays from the day your flight is scheduled to depart and that you plan for the possibility of expedition cancellation due to bad weather. You should also plan ahead with hotels in South America as accomodation can be very difficult to extend at short notice should you be delayed (and in all likelihood you will be). I have in the past had to stay in very poor hostel accomodation because everything else was completely booked out as expeditions banked up and conferences came into town. I have had to bribe hotels to keep rooms for me when they were otherwise sold out and have had to move hotels on far too many occasions because of lack of last minute accomodation. Ideally, and if you can afford it, you should simply book a full weeks accomodation from the date you are scheduled to fly in case of weather delays. This adds a not insignificant cost to what is already a very expensive exercise in a fly trip to Antarctica.

Fly Antarctic expeditions are often marketed to the unwary as a time saving option compared to sailing across the Drake passage. Be aware however, that likely weather delays will very quickly erode your two day sailing time and you could well find yourself stuck at the bottom of South America waiting for a weather window for a lot longer than two days. Therefore you shouldn’t choose a fly option because you are time poor. The inverse is actually true. If you are on a tight timeline a sail Antarctic trip is far more likely to meet its time schedule.

Even if you decide to fly to Antarctica you should keep in mind that your expedition will likely land either at King George Island (where you will need to board a ship) or at Union Glacier in the interior of Antarctica. In the case of Union Glacier you have no alternative but to fly and you should therefore plan accordingly. In the case of King George Island you should be aware that although you might have saved yourself a trip across the Drake you still need to board a ship to sail to the Peninsula and that your choice of ship is going to be critical to your experience. Part two of this article will deal with how to choose the right ship for your expedition needs.Walking on the Pack Ice

Once your decision is made to fly be sure to take out travel insurance that will cover you for as many eventualities as possible. Very few insurance companies (if any at all) will cover you for weather delays so you should make sure that the insurance you do have can at the very least help you with hotels on short notice and any pre-booked onward travels. If you have status with a particular hotel chain (and there are not that many to choose from at the bottom of South America) you should definitely leverage this to maximise your ability to get a room at short notice if you are delayed.

There is one more factor you should take into consideration before you choose a fly Antarctica expedition and that is the flight weight allowance. Whilst most commercial flights will allow you to take 10 kilograms or more of carry on camera gear, most flights to Antarctica will not. You can expect weight allowances of as little as 20 kilograms of checked luggage and as little as 5 kilograms of carry on luggage. These tiny allowances are simply insufficient for most photographers needs (myself included). Unlike commercial airlines I guarantee you that both your checked and carry on luggage will be very carefully weighed and inspected before you are allowed to board a flight to Antarctica. Excess baggage charges are frequently in excess of $60 USD per kilogram and you will be forced to gate check your camera bag if it exceeds the carry on weight allowance. No amount of kicking or screaming will relieve you of this last burden.

The long and short of the option to fly to Antarctica based on my own experiences is I advise against it unless you have no alternative (such as flying into Union Glacier in the deep interior of Antarctica where ships cannot go). If you decide to take a fly expedition then you need to be prepared for significant delays in excess of a week at a time or even cancellations of flights and expeditions full stop. Whilst this might all sound rather dramatic I can assure you from significant personal experience that contingency planning is everything if you intend to undertake a fly to Antarctica expedition.

In the next part of this article we will look at the very important decision of choosing an expedition ship appropriate to your needs. We will look at ship size, number of passengers,  IATTO restrictions for landing, zodiacs, ship operations and logistics and a lot more.

Departing for Arctic Winter Expeditions 2017

In a few hours time I am headed to the airport for the long haul flights to Europe to kick off the 2017 year. I had planned to have a couple more weeks at home before I headed north to the Arctic but a new opportunity in Italy has ramped up my schedule and I will now have a couple of weeks in Italy before I head up to Finland and then onto Iceland and Svalbard.

I have a number of different workshops and expeditions on this trip which officially kick off in force after Finland. Finland is a scouting trip and I am hoping to get the opportunity to photograph Great Grey Owls, Hawk Owls and also Wolverine in a winter setting. I actually won the trip to Finland as part of the Global Arctic Photographer of the Year award and decided to extend the trip into a full scouting expedition. As I have not been to Finland before this will all be new and I am very much looking forward to the experience.

After Finland I am travelling directly to Iceland for my annual winter workshop with Daniel Bergmann. This workshop has long been sold out but we are now starting to take bookings for 2018 and full details of this workshop are available on my website at www.jholko.com.On the way to the End of the World - AntarcticaAfter our Winter Frozen north workshop I am leading a small group of wildlife photographers up to the extreme northwest of Iceland to photograph Arctic Foxes in a winter setting. We are using a private charter boat to access the remote peninsula and will spend a week living with the Arctic Foxes. Having worked extensively in this area over the last three years on my Arctic Fox project I am really excited about sharing this experience with other passionate photographers. I will have a full trip report on both the Iceland Winter Frozen North workshop and Iceland Arctic Fox expedition on my return.Fox AttackAfter I finish in Iceland I am travelling to Svalbard for a week long snow mobile expedition for a new short film about Nature photography in winter in the Arctic. It has been a couple of years since I was last in Svalbard on snow mobiles in winter and I am really looking forward to getting back out into the back country and wilderness in a winter setting. With just a two person film crew we will be light and mobile and should be able to cover a lot of ground and hopefully have some wonderful wildlife encounters.

After the snow mobile expedition I will lead one final winter Arctic expedition from Longyearbyen aboard the expedition ship M.S Origo – Svalbard in Winter. Our plan is to take advantage of the winter light and low angle of the sun to explore and photograph both the wildlife and landscape of the Svalbard archipelago in a winter setting. The high Arctic in winter is an incredible place and although the temperatures can be very extreme it is well worth the effort to witness and photograph such an amazing landscape in such dramatic winter light. The 2017 expedition has also long been sold out but bookings are now open for the 2018 expedition – details on my website at www.jholko.com  (limited places remaining).svalbard-9725-edit copyPacking for these sort of expeditions is always a challenge. In terms of subject matter, there will be both extensive wildlife and landscape opportunities during these expeditions and as such I am packing both wide angle and telephoto lenses. With that in mind I settled on the following as my selection for these  trips:

Gura Gear Bataflae 32L Camera Bag (Carry on Luggage)

– 2 x Canon EOS 1DX MKII bodies
– 1 x Canon EOS 5DSR body
– 1 x Canon 16-35mm F4L IS Lens
– 1 x Canon 24-70mm F2.8L IS MK II Lens
– 1 x Canon 70-200mm F2.8L MKII IS Lens
– 1 x Canon 600mm F4L IS MKII Lens
– 1 x Sigma 15mm Fish Eye Lens
– 1 x Canon 1.4 TC MKIII Teleconverter
Gura Gear Chobe (Carry on Luggage)
– 1 x Apple MacBook Pro 15″ Retina
– 1 x Apple laptop charger
– 1 x Canon 200-400mm F4L MKII IS Lens
– 2 x USB 3 2TB external portable Sandisk SSD Drives
– 1 x  Thunderbolt CFast card reader and CF card Reader
– 1 x Sunglasses and sunglasses case
– 1 x Leica Ultra-vid 10×42 HD Binoculars
Etcetera Case #1 (Inside Chobe)
– 1 x Canon 1-Series camera charger
– 2 x Power Adapters for on board ship
– 2 x Canon 1DX spare Batteries
– 2 x Canon 5DSR spare Batteries
Etcetera Case #2 (Inside North Face Duffle)
– 1 x Arctic Butterfly Sensor Cleaner
– 1 x Filter Wrench
– 1 x Zeiss Cleaning Fluid and Lens Cleaning Tissue
– 1 x Micro Fibre Lens Cloth
– 1 x Rocket Blower with Hepa-Filter
 –
I have been toying for some time with the idea of adding the new Canon 100-400mm MKII lens to my arsenal (as a replacement for the 70-200mm), but in the end decided I really wanted the faster 2.8 lens for these particular trips.  In addition to all of the above, I am also taking a pair of Pocket Wizards and a CamFi remote trigger system for the Canon EOS1DX MKII system. I recently reviewed the CamFi here on my blog (Read the Review) and am looking forward to using this remote trigger system with the Arctic Foxes in Iceland. Lastly, I will have some spare time in Italy and am looking forward to hopefully a few days in Rome and Venice in winter. Please put the coffee on….  See you in Italy.

BenQ SW320 31.5″ Wide Gamut Adobe RGB UHD 4K Monitor Review

Last year BenQ shook up the wide gamut monitor world with the release of the BenQ SW2700PT 27” Adobe RGB monitor (Reviewed here on my Blog and also on the Luminous Landscape website). This 27” monitor offers excellent performance for a wide gamut Adobe RGB display at a price point that was (and still is) far lower than the majority of competitor offerings. When I reviewed the SW2700PT last year I actually wrote that it offered exceptional performance at its price point. Having now lived with this monitor in my studio for the better part of a year I can say without doubt that this is still the case. If you are in the market for a wide gamut monitor with accurate colour and excellent uniformity on a tight budget I doubt you could do any better; or could you?benqsw320BenQ SW320 Preview – In November last year at Photo Plus in New York BenQ showed us a sneak preview of it’s recently announced (but not yet available for sale) 32” SW320 4K UHD Wide Gamut Monitor. As of publication time of this review the SW320 has not yet been officially released to the public for sale, but I have been testing a production sample of this monitor in my studio for the last few weeks and have now had the time to write a complete review of this remarkable new display. To be clear, the SW320 is not designed to replace the previously reviewed SW2700PT, but rather to supplement the BenQ line up with a high quality 4K UHD wide gamut offering at a competitive price point. So has BenQ succeeded?

In a nutshell; Yes, they have. The SW320 builds upon the success of its exceptional smaller brother (the BenQ SW2700PT) whilst unequivocally setting a new performance benchmark for wide gamut monitors at a low price point. In addition to its UHD resolution the SW320 takes image quality to the next level with the addition of HDR capabilities (not found in the much more expensive Eizo CG-318 I also reviewed last year). According to the supplied literature from BenQ, High Dynamic Range (HDR) increases the overall dynamic range between black and white so the resulting image appears closer to what your eyes see in the natural world*.

*To view HDR content from your device, ensure that you use the HDMI cable provided with the SW320 monitor or a High Speed HDMI Cable or Premium High Speed HDMI Certified Cable.

Does this HDR feature make a difference in the real world? Its hard to say in my experience to date without rigorous scientific testing (which I have not had time to do); but in my own user experience thus far I have no hesitation in stating that the SW320 has outstanding contrast and dynamic range.benqsw320-2In short, the new 31.5” 4K UHD monitor offers extraordinary performance with a true 10-bit panel with 99% Adobe RGB, 100% sRGB colour space coverage as well as supporting HDR content. The knock out punch is that it does so at a price point previously unheard of for a monitor of this size with these features.

That isn’t the whole story though as the new BenQ SW320 has other improvements over and above monitor size, resolution and image quality. The overall quality of colour reproduction on screen has been further improved from the SW2700PT. In side by side comparisons the SW320 outperforms its smaller brother in colour fidelity and uniformity. Lets examine the features and performance in more detail as well as compare this new screen to other UHD and 4K Displays on offer in the marketplace.

SW320 Key Features

BenQ SW320 Monitor Key Features

  • 31.5 inches, 16:9 3840 x 2160 true 10-bit IPS Technology Panel
  • 99% Adobe RGB coverage, and 100% SRGB
  • Colour accuracy with 14-bit 3D LUT with a Delta E of less than 2
  • Palette Master Element Calibration Software with Hardware Calibration with LUT
  • High Dynamic Range (HDR) content support ready
  • Brightness Uniformity Function
  • GamutDuo function to support dual color space on one screen
  • Advanced Black and White Mode
  • Technicolor Color Certified *

* Technicolor® Color Certified is a designation reserved for devices — PC monitors, laptops, all-in-ones, and tablets — that satisfy the required Technicolor specifications during the device’s manufacturing process to meet the same strict standards for colour accuracy used in Hollywood and throughout the media and entertainment industries. All Technicolor Colour Certified devices display colours accurately, consistently and exactly as the content originators intended. Anyone can enjoy shopping, entertainment and gaming experiences with full confidence that the colour you see onscreen is accurate.

Specifications – There is no need to regurgitate a complete list of the SW320 specifications as those are already available on BenQ’s website. See the SW320 page on BenQ’s website for full details.

Out of the Box – Every single BenQ SW320 ships with an online factory Calibration Report. This detailed report includes some very useful information including Uniformity Measurements and Dealt E reports that tell you just how your individual SW320 performed when tested before it left the factory. It is worth noting that the report is serial number specific and not batch specific so BenQ are testing each and every monitor. These sort of reports are normally only found in much more expensive displays such as those from the NEC SpectraView Line and the Eizo Colour Edge monitors. The mere fact the BenQ SW320 ships with this sort of individual test report speaks volumes to the sort of high quality display BenQ have produced and the care and attention to detail they have invested in this new display. A copy of the individual calibration report included with the supplied SW320 as tested is included below:calibrationreportbenqOut of the box the BenQ SW320 is a breeze to set up and in less than ten minutes I had the stand fully assembled, the display plugged in (via HDMI) to my MacBook Pro and the system fully operable. It seems to me that with every new model BenQ have continued to refine and improve their display stand and ease of installation.  Other manufacturers would do well to take note.

SW320 Performance – Like many displays the SW320 ships in ‘flame-thrower’ mode and out of the box was far too bright for my viewing environment. I know manufacturers do this to try and impress viewers who will no doubt see the display first in a brightly lit fluorescent showroom but I really wish they wouldn’t. Once calibrated however to a more reasonable 120 Candelas and D6500 Kelvin I was able to properly assess the SW320’s performance and make direct comparisons against other displays.

BenQ Palette Master Software – To get the very best results from the SW320, the profiling software you use needs to access the internal monitor hardware Look up Tables (LUT), and for that you need the supplied Palette Master Element software. For Apple users, the supplied software is installed as an application. I don’t own a Windows machine so did not test the software under a Windows environment.

The SW320 ships with the BenQ Palette Master Software; but it can also be downloaded for free from the BenQ website. By using the Palette Master Element software and a calibrator (X-rite i1 Display in my case), you can tune and maintain the colour performance of the monitor at its most optimal state.

The BenQ SW320 currently supports the X-Rtie i1 Display Pro / i1 Pro /i1 Pro 2 , and Datacolor Spyder 4/5 colorimeters.  I tested all of these during my time with the SW320 and all performed without issue.

Palette Master Welcome Screenpalettemaster-1Palette Master Advanced Settings Screenpalettemaster-2Palette Master Measurement Screen
palettemaster-3Palette Master Calibration Results
palettemaster-4BenQ provide a user friendly instruction manual with the Palette Master Software that you can download from their website.  There is both a basic and advanced mode to choose from. The instructions are clear, concise and easy to follow. Download the PDF Manual  HERE.

Driving a 4K UHD Display – Before you rush out and purchase any UHD or DCI 4K display you should make sure your computer can actually drive the display at its native resolution. In my case I tested the SW320 with both a 2013 6-core Mac Pro with 64 gigabytes of RAM and dual AMD FirePro 500 video cards and a late 2013 15” MacBook Pro with an NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M 2048 MBMB and both were able to drive the display at its full native resolution. I did notice the fan kick in more often on the MacBook Pro when driving the SW320 than with the previous SW2700. This is to be expected as the video card is being driven much harder with the higher resolution display. There were however no ill side effects and system performance and speed appears unaffected in general day-to-day use.

Advanced Black and White Mode – The BenQ SW320 also includes an advanced Black and White mode that allows you to view your photos in a black and white film effect. You can choose from three different black and white presets to preview your photographs in before you perform actual adjustments in Lightroom or other image editing applications. I am not a black and white photographer so I didn’t test this feature other than to quickly check it actually functions as advertised; which it does. Black and White photographers should definitely test this feature to see if it fits within their workflow.bwmodeGamut Duo – The BenQ SW320 is equiped with a very cool new feature called GamutDuo. GamutDuo enables you to view content simultaneously on the screen in different colour spaces side-by-side for easy comparison. I found this new feature quite useful to soft proof images going from Adobe RGB colour space to SRGB for the web. By viewing the two images side by side it is very easy to see the differences. Users who have to re-purpose their photographs for different colour spaces are likely to find this a very useful feature. To activate the GamutDuo feature you switch to PIP/PBP mode.gamutduoYou can learn more about “How to use the GamutDuo function to view contents in different colour spaces side-by-side” by watching this short video:gamutduovideoHotkey Puck – Like the BenQSW2700, the BenQ SW320 ships with a The Hotkey Puck that allows the user to switch between Adobe RGB mode, sRGB mode and Black & White modes effortlessly. The hot key buttons can also be customised to map other modes or OSD settings, such as brightness and contrast to bring added convenience to photographers. The Hotkey Puck is a nice addition and it is worth taking a bit of time to properly understand its uses and how it might save you time in your own workflow.kotkeypuckYou can learn more about “How to set up the Hotkey Puck to switch between modes rapidly” by watching this short video:hotkeypuckvideo4K Display Comparisons – Comparisons between the BenQ SW320 and the previously reviewed Eizo CG-318 4k DCI display are going to be inevitable so lets get those out of the way (since I have both displays side by side in my studio). Firstly, and perhaps most importantly there is a huge price differential between these two monitors. The Eizo retails for approximately $6000 USD MSRP and the BenQ will likely sell for under $1,500 USD when it goes on sale shortly. That difference alone is going to make the choice a no brainer for most people. There are however some other important differences worth noting. Wether those differences are worth the $4,500+ USD hit to your hip pocket depends on your needs and circumstances.

Firstly the Eizo CG-318 is a true DCI 4K Display with a resolution of 4096 x 2160. The BenQ SW320 is UHD (Ultra high Definition) with a resolution of 3840 x 2160.  The DCI 4K standard goes above the UHD resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels that is often confusingly marketed as being 4K instead of UHD. Perhaps the easiest way of defining the difference between 4K and UHD is: 4K is a professional production and cinema standard, while UHD is a consumer display and broadcast standard. Whilst the difference on paper between 4096 pixels (DCI 4K) and 3840 pixels (UHD) on the horizontal access is only 256 pixels this equates to a not inconsiderable 7% increase in resolution across the entire display that makes for an overall larger workspace. However, unless you have specific need of a DCI 4K Display in your workflow there is frankly little benefit to the additional resolution in real world applications in my own experience. In fact, you may prefer UHD resolution for pixel mapping if you are dealing with 4K consumer video.photographer page 2The Eizo CG-318 also has its own built in calibration device that can be automated and scheduled. The BenQ requires the use of an external colorimeter (like most displays including the NEC Spectraview range). This isn’t a big deal in daily use, although one could argue its awfully convenient to simply schedule the Eizo to calibrate itself once a week. The BenQ SW320 does include thoughtful nag warnings to remind you to calibrate the display on a regular basis. How often you choose to calibrate depends on your circumstances and how neurotic you want to be with your hardware. In general, I find every few weeks to be more than sufficient.

Measuring colour gamut between the Eizo and the BenQ SW320 is a pointless exercise since for all intent and purpose they are identical in real world applications. Both produce 100% of the SRGB colour space and both produce 99% of the Adobe RGB space. Any subtle differences in gamut are a quibble. In terms of brightness uniformity the SW320’s exceptional uniformity is achieved through a delicate process involving the utilisation of high precision apparatus to meticulously fine-tune hundreds of sub-regions on the entire screen. The results of this fine tuning is a noticeable and significant improvement in uniformity over the SW270 and outside of the extreme corners it measures almost as good as the Eizo CG-318. This is remarkable performance, regardless of price and BenQ are to be commended for their efforts in obtaining this exceptional level of uniformity. You can check how your individual BenQ SW320 monitor performed in its uniformity test on the supplied Factory Calibration Report.

Comparing a sub $1,500 USD MRSRP display to one that costs around $6000 USD MSRP might seem a bit unfair but the results illustrate just how good the SW320 really is and just how much bang it offers for the buck. Quite honestly, its ground breaking performance at this price point.

Perhaps a fairer comparison would be to compare the NEC Sepctraview UHD display agains the new BenQ SW320 but unfortunately I did not have access to this display for a direct comparison. Since the NEC Spectraview sits between the Eizo and the BenQ in terms of price it will no doubt perform equally well and I suspect any differences outside of calibration software in real world use to be a quibble.

Comparing the BenQ SW320 UHD display to LG’s 27” Ultrafine 5K display (as sold by Apple) is somewhat of a mute argument since LG do not quote how much of the Adobe RGB gamut their display is capable of producing; other than to say it produces ‘P3 wide color – 99%’. Nor are there any uniformity tests available for the 5K LG display that I could find (I did not have a display available to test uniformity for comparison with the BenQ SW320 at time of this review) and none of the online reviews I could find of this display even mention uniformity in passing. One other key point of difference is the LG has a high gloss screen and such screens are far from ideal for making fine art prints in my experience. I suspect anyone interested in a wide gamut display for making prints will dismiss the LG out of hand just because of its gloss finish.

Screen surface aside, purchasers of wide gamut monitors should be aware of the differences between the DCI-P3 and Adobe RGB98 Colour Spaces. Whilst the overall volume of the two spaces is similar the red and green primaries are shifted in DCI-P3 and as result there are not insignificant differences between the two colour spaces. Technically, the DCI-P3 space isn’t new. It was established in 2007 by Hollywood as a standard for digital projection devices. This Colour Space was designed to best mimic the colour range of motion picture film, as projected. Since still photographers generally don’t digitally project in theaters, we’ve been  more or less ignoring DCI-P3. 

Here’s the problem though. The old video standard, Rec.709 was for all intents and purposes essentially identical to sRGB. Videographers and still photographers were basically getting the same thing. DCI-P3 is about the same size as AdobeRGB, only it’s skewed differently in the CIE colour model. AdobeRGB extends deeper into the greens and blues, while DCI-P3 extends more into the reds and a different set of greens.

For still photographers that means we’ve now got a mismatch we need to look out for. This mismatch is going to be most troublesome for people who shoot JPEGs in AdobeRGB Color Space or for photographers outputting RAW files into the Adobe RGB color space for print applications. AdobeRGB has colours in it that DCI-P3 can’t display, and vice versa.

Videographers beware that for true digital cinema work, just having a P3 colour space isn’t  sufficient. The Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) standard also specifies a gamma of 2.6 and a luminance of 48 cd/m2 or 100 cd/m2 depending on whether you’re targeting movie theaters or television, and there are also various white point standards.  You will still have to use a profiling device to make sure the display is hitting the correct gamma, luminance, and white point numbers for the specific standard you’re targeting. And of course the LG5K Display does not offer the much more powerful Hardware LUT capability of the other Wide gamut displays discussed above

Shade Hood – Knowing that ambient lighting can obstruct colour accuracy, all BenQ SW series photographic monitors include a detachable shading hood to reduce screen glare to deliver the most accurate colours possible. The newly-designed shade hood included with the SW320 can be used in portrait orientation as well as in landscape orientation (a very nice design consideration). What I really appreciated is the solid build quality of the shade hood. It feels like a high quality addition to the display and not a cheap plastic after thought; like it does on the much more expensive Eizo CG-318 display. In fact, the Eizo CG-318 shade hood looks positively cheap and nasty in side by side comparisons. Once secured in place the shade hood feels extremely robust and is nicely finished inside with anti-reflective black flocking. BenQ are to be commended for providing a shade hood with the display of such a high quality. Another nice touch is the addition of a small operable window at the top of the shade hood to pass a colorimeter through for screen calibration. Quite honestly, the shade hood included with the SW320 is the best I have seen regardless of the brand or price of monitor.shadehood

Watch a short video on how to mount the shade hoodshadehoodvideoThe Bezel and Stand – Attention to small details is very important in high end displays and I was very pleased to see that the bezel of the SW320 is finished in a dark grey matt that minimises any potential bezel reflection. I am told from the factory that extensive testing was done on various bezel surfaces in order to achieve the best result and most optimal viewing experience for photographic professionals. This sort of attention to detail might sound trivial but it ensures an optimal result when you are working for hours at a time in front of the display. In addition to coating changes, the monitor’s stand has been redesigned in a minimalist style, with a sleek L-shaped neck that streamlines with the monitor frame.  It looks great on my desk and will likely fit well in most studio spaces. The stand is shipped in two pieces and is easily assembled without tools. There is some facility for cable management and over all the stand feels very solid and well made.

Real World Use – In Real world use the first thing you notice on turning on the SW320 is the incredible resolution that a UHD screen provides and the subsequent desktop real estate that this resolution enables. If you are used to working with a lower resolution display the vast real estate that this sort of display offers will be a revelation to you. Depending on how close you sit to the screen and the quality of your vision you may need to implement some scaling to increase the text size. In my studio I sit quite close to the monitor and have (as of last test 20/20 vision) no problem reading text on screen without the need for any software scaling. Daily life in a UHD environment under MAC OS X just works provided you have good enough eye sight to read the small text. If (like me) you like to work on a single monitor then you recognise the high value of having significant desktop real estate; something the SW320 provides in spades. Colour rendition is excellent on the SW320 and the UHD resolution makes for a powerful and versatile work space.

My daily use for a monitor such as theSW320 involves the editing, post production and printing of digital files in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud. I also use applications such as in-Design, Premiere Pro and other image related programs and plug-ins. On the whole most of my time is in the majority spent in Lightroom and Photoshop and thus this is the area that my comments are most related.

Working in Adobe Lightroom on the BenQ SW320 is a joy and a pleasure. It has always bothered me that the side panels in Lightroom are fixed and not tear away (yes, they can be hidden, but I prefer tear off). The SW320 has so much screen real estate and resolution to play with that the fixed panels are now an absolute non issue for me. I used to have to hide the panels to gain resolution for the actual image on the horizontal axis for a standard 35mm ratio image. On the SW320 however, the extra screen real estate provides sufficient resolution to negate this need and the side panels can now be left open all the time. This might seem like a very small benefit, but in real world use it’s actually extremely beneficial to my workflow. Again, your mileage may vary.

Contrary to what I have read on the internet in various places I experienced absolutely no issues with Lightroom or Photoshop running slowly with a UHD display. I suspect any such issues are almost certainly related to video cards being driven to their limit (and beyond) or because users are not implementing the latest software versions.

The colour rendition of the SW320 is exceptional and when combined with the excellent uniformity the display offers it is extremely easy to judge tone and contrast when processing RAW files.  For those of you who place a large emphasis on printing (as I do) you will find the BenQ SW320 to offer very good performance. In fact, it offers performance that far exceeds its modest price tag.

Conclusion – The BenQ SW320 is a superbly constructed high quality UHD wide gamut monitor that offers users exceptional resolution, colour accuracy and uniformity at a price point previously unheard of. The monitor is simple and easy to assemble and operated without issue out of the box with both my laptop and main desktop computers.

Overall picture quality is exceptional with excellent linearity and uniformity across the screen that matches the much more expensive Eizo CG-318 in all but the extreme corners. This is outstanding performance that photographers and other graphic artists will really appreciate in daily use.

The SW320 is also packed with useful new features including GamutDuo and an Advanced Black and White mode that photographers are sure to find beneficial in their workflows.

When I reviewed the Eizo-CG318 Display I niggled that the HDMI ports really should have been version 2.0 and not 1.4 on a display at this price point. I was extremely pleased to see that the BenQ SW320 includes V2 HDMI (again at a price point well below the Eizo).  In terms of connectivity it is also worth noting the thoughtful addition a USB hub with 3 USB 3 ports; one port dedicated to the HotKey Puck.

The display hood is extremely well constructed and provides a very solid black around the screen when working. The screen itself exhibits very low reflectance.

A few other nice additions worth noting include VESA mount compatibility and an inbuilt card reader (I prefer external readers but this addition will no doubt prove useful to some).  The OSD menus can also be configured in a whopping seventeen different languages.

I am primarily a stills photographer who only occasionally works in video so I confined my testing to predominantly sill images. The video I did pass through the SW320 looked extremely good to my eyes and videographers should be extremely happy with the performance of this display.  During the review I tested several 4K video pieces as well as upscaled 1080p video content.

The BenQ SW320 monitor offers the big and accurate colour space I need in my photography and the power of the hardware LUT means there is no banding or posterisation in any of the test images I tried when reviewing the screen. I tested the SW320 with a wide range of my own photographs as well as a large suite of ISF (Image Science Foundation) test images designed specifically to trip up displays (ISF test images are designed to show up weaknesses in displays not often found in general viewing). The SW320 performed without issue on all counts.

I feel it is extremely important that calibration software is intuitive and easy to use. In fact, the simpler the better in most cases as it means there is less chance of users making a mistake during the calibration process. To BenQ’s credit, the supplied Palette Master software is easy and intuitive as well as ensuring accurate calibration of the display. If you purchase an SW320 be sure to use the Palette Master Software to ensure you are accessing the Hardware LUT for the best possible results.

Overall the BenQ SW320 is a superb display that offers a huge UHD resolution workspace in combination with a wide gamut Adobe RGB display at a price point that puts the competition to shame.  That is quite a combination that I feel will again see BenQ shake up the marketplace as photographers rush to embrace a display that offers performance and a feature set previously found only in much more expensive displays for those with much deeper pockets.

Full Disclosure – In the spirit of full disclosure I would like to be clear that BenQ provided me with the SW320 test unit at no cost (at least I have received no invoice to date). I also want to be clear that although I am officially an ambassador for BenQ they have in no way tried to influence my review and instead specifically asked me to be thorough and rigorous in my testing of the SW320. I only ever accept products to review on the clear understanding that I will be completely impartial and report anything negative I find as well as anything positive.  Since I am using these products in my own workflow being clear, honest and forthright is my number one priority.