BenQ SW321C 32″ Wide Gamut Adobe RGB UHD 4K Monitor Review

Ever since BenQ released the BenQ SW2700PT 27” back in 2016 (Reviewed here on my Blog and also on the Luminous Landscape website) they have been shaking up the photographic world with their high performance, budget priced monitors.  When I reviewed the SW2700PT and the SW320 (reviewed HERE)  I actually wrote that they offered exceptional performance at their price point – that still stands today.

BenQ SW321C Review – Recently BenQ released the update to the SW320, the  32” SW321C 4K UHD Wide Gamut Monitor. I have been testing a production sample of this monitor in my studio for the last couple of months and have now had the time to write a complete review of this new display. To be clear, the SW321C is the direct replacement for the previously reviewed SW320. Everything I wrote about the SW320 still stands with the SW321C; with the added benefit of several improvements (notably an improvement in corner uniformity). It is also worth noting some additional specification differences between SW320 and SW321C:

  1. SW320 did not have USB-C port but SW321C has USB-C port with 60W power delivery.
  2. SW321C has A.R.T. panel which has less glare and reflection.
  3. SW321C have Paper color sync software (I will review this in full at a later date)

The SW321C builds upon the success of its predecessor (the BenQ SW320) whilst continuing to set a new performance benchmark for wide gamut 4K monitors at a low price point. In addition to its UHD resolution the SW321C 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 a couple of years ago). 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*. In real world tests the benefit is tangible and noticeable. HDR is one of those features that once you get used to, you wonder how you ever lived without. *To view HDR content from your device, ensure that you use the HDMI cable provided with the SW321 monitor or a High Speed HDMI Cable or Premium High Speed HDMI Certified Cable.benqsw320-2In short, the new SW321C 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 continues to do so at a price point previously unheard of for a monitor of this size with these features. You simply cant find these specifications and performance at a price point anywhere near what BenQ are asking and that makes this a very special product indeed.

The overall quality of colour reproduction on screen has been further improved from the SW320. In side by side comparisons the SW321C outperforms its older brother in colour fidelity and most notably in corner uniformity.

Specifications – There is no need to regurgitate a complete list of the SW321C specifications as those are already available on BenQ’s website. See the SW321C page on BenQ’s website for full details.

Out of the Box – Every single BenQ SW321C 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 SW321C 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 SW321C 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.

Out of the box the BenQ SW321C 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.  The ‘tool-free’ assembly is most welcome and other manufacturers would do well to take note.

SW321C Performance – Like many displays the SW321C 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 SW321C’s performance and make direct comparisons against other displays.

BenQ Palette Master Software – To get the very best results from the SW321C, 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 SW321C 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 SW321C currently supports the X-Rite i1 Display Pro / i1 Pro /i1 Pro 2 , and Datacolor Spyder 4/5, X-rite i1 studio, ColorMunki Photo, and Spyder X colorimeters.  I tested all of these during my time with the SW321C and all performed without issue. BenQ 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. 

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 SW321C with both a 2013 6-core Mac Pro with 64 gigabytes of RAM and dual AMD FirePro 500 video cards and a late 2019 13” MacBook Pro and both were able to drive the display at its full native resolution. 

Advanced Black and White Mode – The BenQ SW321C 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 SW321C is equiped with a very cool 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.gamutduoHotkey Puck – Like the BenQ SW320, the BenQ SW321C 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.

Shading 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 shade hood included with the SW321C 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 SW321C is the best I have seen regardless of the brand or price of monitor.shadehood

The 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 SW321C 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 SW321C 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 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 SW321C provides in spades. Colour rendition is excellent on the SW321C and the UHD resolution makes for a powerful and versatile work space.

My daily use for a monitor such as theSW321C 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.

Like its predecessor, the SW320, working in Adobe Lightroom on the BenQ SW321C 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 SW321C 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 SW321C 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.

The colour rendition of the SW321C 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 SW321C to offer truly outstanding performance. In fact, it offers performance that far exceeds its modest price tag.

Conclusion – The BenQ SW321C is a superbly constructed high quality UHD wide gamut monitor that offers users exceptional resolution, colour accuracy and uniformity at a price point that puts competitors to shame. 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 very extreme corners (it is actually so close to the Eizo as to be nothing more than quibble). This is outstanding performance that photographers and other graphic artists will really appreciate in daily use.

The SW321C is also packed with features from the previous SW320 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 SW321C includes the very latest HDMI (again at a price point well below the Eizo).  

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.

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 SW321C 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 SW321C 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. Like my previous tests on the SW320, I tested the SW321C 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 SW321C 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 SW321C be sure to use the Palette Master Software to ensure you are accessing the Hardware LUT for the best possible results.

Overall the BenQ SW321C 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 continue to 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 SW321C 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 SW321C. 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.

Ross Sea Antarctica and Sub Antarctic Islands Report 2020

In January and early February of 2020 I guided a small group of photographers to the sub Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia that included Enderby Island, MacQuarrie Island, Campbell Island and Snares Island on a twenty-eight day voyage that subsequently took us on a planned expedition deep into the southern reaches of the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. This unique itinerary also provided us with the opportunity to visit the historic hits of Scott and Shakelton. This expedition was a joint co-operation between my company Wild Nature Photo Travel and Heritage Expeditions from New Zealand.

By way of some background; tourism in Antarctica has grown exponentially in recent years and this year the Antarctic peninsula will receive in excess of forty-thousand visitors alone (mostly by boat from Ushuaia in Argentina and Puerto Williams in Chile). By comparison, the Ross Sea region of Antartica will receive fewer than four hundred visitors this year. This makes the Ross Sea region of Antarctica incredibly special and an area that is a real privilege to travel to and experience. This region of Antarctica is very remote and requires a considerable commitment in time to reach – hence the requirement for a twenty-eight day expedition.

Our journey began from the port of Bluff in Invercargill in the South Island of New Zealand. From here we boarded our ice-class ship (the Spirit of Enderby) and set sail into the Southern Ocean for the highly protected sub-Antarctic islands. It was our plan to first visit the Snares group of Islands but the weather conspired against us with 35-50 knot winds and swells that exceeded thirty feet – welcome to the Southern Ocean! The Snares islands (home to the endemic Snares penguin, the Tom Tit and Fern bird) would have to wait for our return trip.

With Snares off limits due to the inclement weather we instead set our sites on Enderby Island where we safely landed on two different locations. Enderby Island is home to the rare and endangered Yellow-eyed penguin (the world’s rarest Penguin) as well as the New Zealand Hooker Sea Lion and is also the nesting place for Wandering and Southern Royal Albatross. We were able to photograph all four species during our landings. Enderby is also home to a great many other birds including the flightless Teal, the Snipe and Pippit; all of which are endemic to the island. There were also several sightings of Falcon during our first landing (although I personally did not see it).

From Enderby Island we set sail south for MacQuarrie Island (Australian territory). It is a full days sailing from Enderby to MacQuarrie across the notoriously rough southern ocean and thankfully we had far more cooperative weather for the crossing with only light winds and a small moderate swell. At MacQuarrie island we also landed twice – once at Sandy Bay where we photographed the thousands of Royal and King Penguins that call the island home and once at the islands base where we toured the facility and photographed the Gentoo Penguins, Giant Petrels, Skuas and elephant seals.  All of our landings at Enderby and MacQuarrie were several hours in length that gave us plenty of time for contemplative photography. We were mercifully blessed with heavy overcast skies and light drizzle during our time in the sub-antarctic islands which made for wonderfully soft light.

From the sub-antarctic islands we set our waypoint south for the three plus day steam to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. To help give you an idea of how remote this area of the world is there was only one other ship on our radar during our time in this region – our sister ship that operates with us for safety in a ‘buddy’ system (there was also an American Ice Breaker ‘The Polar Star’ treading water near McMurdo after cutting a channel through the ice for its re-supply ship). By comparison there were more than forty-five ships operating on the Antarctic Peninsula.

During the crossing south we had sightings of Orca, dolphins and whales (including Minke, Fin and Humpback) as well as countless albatross that followed in the wake of our ship as we made our way south. Antarctic Petrels, Snow Petrels, Wilson Storm Petrels, Prions and Diving and Cape Petrels were also present from time to time. As we pushed through the pack ice we had many sightings of Crab Eater and Weddell Seals; as well as many Adelie Penguins on open drift ice. We also had our first Emperor Penguin sighting. Although we searched hard, the elusive Ross Seal alluded us the entire expedition. We spotted our first iceberg early on our fourth day south as we set our sights on a landing at Cape Adere. Cape Adere is hope to the largest colony of Adelie Penguins in the world and is also home to Carsten’s historic hut. We landed at Cape Adere and spent some time photographing the penguins before a zodiac cruise amongst the ice and our subsequent return to ship. Cape Adare was also a continental landing for those who had never traveled to Antarctica before.

From Cape Adare we travelled south where we hoped to land at the Possession Islands. Thick ice surrounding the islands prevented us from approaching and a potential landing so we turned our attention further south again for the 300 nautical mile steam to Terra Nova bay.

At Terra Nova bay we landed in perfect conditions late in the evening in great light at Gondwana where we photographed Adelie Penguins and South Polar Skuas. With perfect conditions we worked well into the early morning hours before relocating to inexpressible island. Local catabatic winds delayed our landing until after 4am, but we landed briefly.

From Inexpressible Island we relocated and visited the Italian Antarctic research base where we were greeted with some wonderful hospitality including good coffee, biscotti and pizza (God bless the Italians and their penchant for coffee). Although I personally find these type of landings at Antarctic bases to be somewhat banal it was nevertheless appreciated to have some time on terra firma to stretch ones legs and enjoy some hospitality.

Continuing south we landed at Franklin Island in near perfect conditions with soft morning yellow light on the horizon. Franklin Island is home to a huge Adelie penguin colony and we spent several hours photographing the penguins porpoising in the glassy water against beautiful morning light.

After Franklin Island we continued even further south past Beaufort Island, passing Mount Errabus and Mount Terror bound for Ross Island and McMurdo. We cruised the ice edge of McMurdo Sound before photographing large pods of Orca and an Emperor Penguin before landing at Hut Point late in the evening. Mount Errabus is still an active volcano with clear and open caldera that puffs smoke on a slow but steady basis. McMurdo was the furthest south we could reach with a position of 77.5 degrees south. Dense pack ice prevented any further travel south.

From McMurdo we travelled north to Cape Evans where we visited the historic Scott hut. This was a highly emotional and powerful experience for me. I remember as a young boy watching the movie, Scott of the Antarctic and later reading about his adventures and final ending in Antarctica only eleven kilometres from shelter and safety. The hut itself has been immaculately restored with thousands of artefacts still in place. The dark room still includes all of the chemicals, trays, aprons and materials used to process the film from the parties expedition. This was an absolutely fascinating location to visit and a real time warp. The hut and contents are near perfectly preserved in the sub zero temperatures. Surrounded by a protective asper the entire area is heavily managed and controlled with no more than eight individuals (including guide) allowed in the hut at one time.

After our landing at Cape Evans we repositioned to Cape Royds where we landed ashore in the afternoon to spend some time visiting the restored remains of Sir Ernst Shakelton’s hut. Like Scott’s hut, Shakelton’s hut has been immaculately restored and offers a first hand glimpse into what life was like for the early explorers. Shakelton’s socks still hang from a clothesline inside the hut.

From Cape Royds we made our way slowly out of McMurdo sound to the Ross Ice shelf. It was my hope that we would encounter a great number of cetaceans of whales in this area as we cruised the impressive ice shelf (I was particularly hopeful for Blue Whales), but it was not to be. We did however have large numbers of Killer Whales cruising the edge of the ice pack on several occasions as well as a large pod of twenty or so Minke Whales as we began our journey north. Crab Eater seals and Adelie penguins were also in abundance.

We left Antarctica in the evening of the 29th of February with a waypoint set for the Bellini Islands; a distance of some 400 nautical miles. The Bellini islands offered a chance for Chinstrap penguin sightings as well as possible landscape opportunities. On arrival we had our first Chinstrap sighting on an ice flow, which was followed by a zodiac cruise of the glacier face for landscape work. One of the chinstraps took the opportunity to hop aboard one of the zodiacs as it cruised the glassy seas!

After the Bellini islands we set our course north for Campbell island; a three and a half day steam that provided some fabulous birding opportunities from the rear deck of the ship (especially as we left the Bellini islands and approached Campbell island).

On arrival at Campbell island we landed in good conditions and hiked up to a large Southern Royal albatross colony where we spent several hours photographing the birds as they preened, displayed and soared overhead. This was a magical experience for those with an interest in birds as there are few places on earth where one can get so close to Southern Royal Albatross. I had hoped we would see the Yellow-eyed penguin again at Campbell Island but it was not to be. We did however site both the endemic Snipe and flightless Teal.  Strong winds outside the protective bay prevented us from zodiac cruising the western side for Southern Rockhoppers.

With time running out we set a waypoint north for the Snares series of Islands – home to the rare and endemic Snares Penguin. This was a big hope of mine as I am now closing in on photographing all eighteen of the worlds Penguin species. Landing is forbidden at Snares and conditions must be near perfect for zodiac cruising due to the granite islands exposure to the ocean. There is no safe harbour at Snares and no anchorage. Given we had missed the Snares on the way south my hopes were high we would pull off a close encounter with the Snares penguin on our return.

The weather gods were on our side and on arrival at the Snares islands we put zodiacs in the water at sunrise for an early morning cruise of these jurassic like islands. Landings are strictly prohibited on Snares, so all photography is from zodiac. Honestly, this makes it extremely tough to photograph the Snares Penguin. Ideally, one could land and take the time to choose clean backgrounds; but with the inability to land and the penguins resting on rocky shores there are very limited opportunities for clean backgrounds. Nevertheless it was a wonderful experience to see and photograph this endemic penguin species.

All up we spotted and photographed a amazing total of ten different species of Penguins on this expedition that included: Gentoo, Adelie, Emperor, Royal, King, Yellow-eyed, Southern Rockhopper, Chinstrap, Snares and a vagrant Fjordland Crested penguin we found at the Snares Islands.

The Ross Sea region of Antarctica offers breathtaking landscape, wildlife and experiences. It is not without its difficulties however; extensive days at sea, highly variable wind and weather and of course the unknown of wildlife sightings. However, for the intrepid explorer / photographer, the Ross Sea region of Antarctica offers a very unique experience that few on the planet will ever undertake.

Australasia’s Top Emerging Photographers 2020 Pro Judge Capture Magazine

This year I will be judging both the landscape and animal categories for Capture Magazines ‘Australasia’s Top Emerging Photographers’ competition. Australasia’s Top Emerging Photographers recognises, encourages, and promotes talented photographers in the early stages of their careers. Winners and runners-up will be showcased in the May/June 2020 issue of Capture and will share in more than $26,000 in cash and prizes. If you fit the bill for an emerging photographer be sure to get your entries in soon!

 

Photo of the Month February 2020 – Pallas Cat on the Move

This photograph of a Pallas Cat stalking in the snow was made in Mongolia last November 2019. It was only possible due to a number of different circumstances which conspired in my favour – it was at the end of the day nearly pure serendipity.  Firstly, my guide and I found the cat not long before sunset, just as the light was becoming optimal. We had been searching the lunar-like landscape all day in search of a cat and had found only tracks. Then with less than an hour before dark we discovered this cat. I asked my guide to go around the cat and to approach its position slowly from behind. I then went and lay down in front of the cat some hundred metres or so away. I was wearing full winter camouflage clothing and once I was lying down in the snow was virtually invisible. The cat had no idea I was there until it was less than 20 metres away.

Wildlife Photographic Magazine Cover Shot Article January / February 2020

The 2020 January / February issue of Wildlife Photographic magazine includes one of my photographs of an Arctic Fox on the cover as well as an article I wrote on arctic fox photography and my three year project ‘Melrakki’. This is the second time I have been published in Wildlife Photographic and the second time I have been fortunate to score the cover shot! (the last edition was on Polar Bear Photography). The magazine can be found in the Apple App Store: HERE Clicking the link will automatically determine the type of device you are on (IOS or Android), send you to the appropriate store to download the WP app. and best of all activate a free 3-month subscription! Links must be used before 2020-03-31.