Projectors for Photography, Part II

Evan Powell, June 27, 2008

After looking at a lot of photographs on many different projectors, we've got two hot projectors to recommend for photography: The Optoma HD80 and the Sanyo PLV-Z2000. Of all the models we've seen, these two get Editor's Choice Awards for outstanding value as photography projectors. We will get to the specific benefits of each of these models below, but first a bit of background that leads us to single out these two units in particular.

There are several important issues to consider in selecting a projector for photography. First, in Part I of this series, we looked at resolution as a key factor. The highest resolution you can get for any reasonable amount of money is 1080p, which has a widescreen 1920x1080 pixel matrix. Both the HD80 and the Z2000 are native 1080p products. And yes, we are recommending these widescreen models even for those who want to display their photography in a relatively square format. Camera clubs in particular often want to be able to show photographs in the same physical size regardless of whether they are in landscape or portrait orientation. That means having a square (or close to square) projection frame to work with, not a widescreen. For this reason, SXGA+ projectors have been popular choices for photography.

However, today's 1080p resolution products tend to outperform SXGA+ projectors in color saturation, contrast, and resolution, and they can be acquired for less money. So if you want a square projection frame, you can achieve this by using just a 1080x1080 pixel square in the center of the 16:9 display. Just make sure all of the photographs you display are formatted to a maximum of 1080 pixels on the longest side of the image. Once you do that, all of your portrait and landscape images will be displayed in the same physical size. SXGA+ models remain good options for those who need very high light output, which is their primary advantage over 1080p models as of this writing. (We will be reviewing the new Canon SX80, a 3000 lumen SXGA+ projector, next month).

Other Key Performance Factors

Other than resolution, the other important performance factors that make a great photography projector are contrast, color saturation, color accuracy, and image sharpness. Certainly, having the deepest black level and the longest tonal range you can get is a primary objective because high contrast images look sharper, more three-dimensional, and more life-like. And a long tonal range contributes to increased color saturation.

Projectors that have a wide color gamut and the ability to maintain 6500K over the entire gray scale will render photographs in the most natural color possible. 1080p projectors built for home theater are designed to render better color than most business or commercial models. So quite apart from their high native resolution, their advantages in contrast and color make them well suited to photographic display.

Optoma HD80 and Sanyo PLV-Z2000

From our testing thus far, the two 1080p projectors that do the best job of balancing color, contrast, resolution, sharpness and price are the Optoma HD80 and the Sanyo Z2000. Of the two, the HD80 is the more expensive, selling at street prices in the mid-$2,000 range, while the Z2000 sells at street prices well below $2,000.

The HD80 is a single chip DLP projector with a seven segment color wheel. Its advantages include excellent color gamut, very long tonal range, great color saturation, and an overall brighter picture (almost 700 ANSI lumens) than most other 1080p products in its price range. It is also relatively compact and portable, making trips to camera club meetings rather easy.

Its primary limitations are a short 1.2x zoom lens and no lens shift. These two factors in combination introduce restrictions on where you must place the projector to fill any given screen. Fan noise is also higher than on most home theater projectors, and the unit's 300-watt lamp throws off quite a bit of heat. Nevertheless, for pure, natural, well-balanced photographic beauty, the HD80 is strongly recommended as a projector which delivers the best picture we've yet seen for under $3,000.

However, the LCD-based Sanyo Z2000 has one huge advantage over the HD80: it costs many hundreds of dollars less. Prices are fluid in this market so I hesitate to quote a price differential. But at the moment it is significant. As such the Z2000 will be the better choice for many buyers who are looking for a more cost effective alternative to the HD80.

With the Z2000 you actually don't sacrifice much in picture quality as compared to the HD80. The Z2000 does not have the very long tonal range that the HD80 has, and thus the picture in side by side comparison is not quite as three dimensional. But standing on its own, contrast and black levels are plenty adequate to produce a rich, beautifully balanced image. Moreover, the image is not quite as bright as the HD80, but the difference here is not hugely significant. When viewed side by side, most observers would identify the HD80's image as the brighter of the two pictures, but the Z2000 is not objectionably dim in comparison.

Despite these differences, most viewers would probably be more struck by the similarity of the two pictures rather than their difference in contrast and brightness. Color is extremely good on both, and in fact the Z2000 produces an even wider color gamut than the HD80.

The Z2000 also has an operational advantage with its long 2.0x zoom lens and extensive lens shift, which makes it much easier to set up in any room. Fan noise on the Z2000 is lower, and almost nonexistent. Its 165-watt lamp is almost half the wattage of the HD80's 300-watt lamp, so the Z2000 does not throw off nearly as much heat as the HD80. However, it is heavier and bulkier, weighing 16 lbs compared to the HD80's 10 lbs. It is still portable, but it is somewhat more of an effort to lug it around.

In the end, however, what you get with the Z2000 is a great photography projector for a very low price. In terms of performance for the dollars spent, it is an outstanding accomplishment.

Other photography projectors

The HD80 and the Z2000 are obviously not the only two projectors that can produce a great photographic image. For example, the Infocus IN83 produces an image that is 50% brighter than the HD80, and yet maintains the same excellent color balance and tonal range characteristics. Unfortunately it costs $5,999. It is available only from professional AV installers and specialty retailers, so one cannot anticipate large discounts. If money were no object we'd choose the InFocus IN83 over the HD80. But in our world money talks, and the price of the IN83 will not be worth the incremental benefit it delivers over the HD80 for most users.

If you have a large audience and a correspondingly large screen, you may need a lot more light than the current crop of reasonably priced 1080p projectors can deliver. In that case, the brighter SXGA+ models might be the better choice. We are anxious to get the new Canon SX80 in for review, and will report on that one as soon as we've had some stick time with it. Based on Canon's track record for high quality photography projectors, we look forward to seeing it with eager anticipation.

More to come in the world of photography projection ...