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Projectors for Photography

In the last couple of months we have evaluated quite a few projectors specifically for their attributes as photography projectors. We have many more to look at, so this will be the subject of ongoing study and comment as we find models that are particularly exciting for photography.

What we have concluded so far are the following:

&##8226; SXGA+ projectors have been the favored choice for photography in the last few years due to their (a) high resolution, (b) lack of visible pixel structure, and (c) almost square format, which is perceived as being desirable for the display of photographs in both portrait and landscape orientations in the same physical size. However, today's 1080p resolution products tend to outperform SXGA+ projectors in color saturation, contrast, and resolution, and they can in some cases be acquired for less money. If one uses just a 1080x1080 square in the center of the 16:9 display, one can achieve the same effect of displaying portrait and landscape images in the same physical size. SXGA+ models remain good options for those who need very high light output.

&##8226; Projectors with high ANSI contrast (as opposed to high Full On/Off contrast) tend to be the best for photography since each photograph is a single frame of content. Conversely, the auto-iris features found on some projectors are designed to improve apparent contrast in film and video. However they don't offer any advantage in the display of static images. Thus, Full On/Off contrast ratings that are based on auto iris behavior should be ignored completely. In general, DLP projectors in the 1080p resolution class have thus far been showing higher ANSI contrast performance than their LCD or LCOS counterparts.

&##8226; Projectors with high ANSI lumen output are more desirable than those with less lumen power. Though the optimum lumen output for home theater video might be in the range of, say, 400 lumens for a 100" screen, photography display is markedly enhanced with the use of a brighter projector as long as the higher brightness does not compromise contrast.

&##8226; Home theater projectors tend to have higher ANSI contrast and better color dynamics than business models. As a class of projector, they are the most suitable models for photography display.

So what is the best projector for photography? Well, we have not seen and evaluated them all, but from the array of 1080p and SXGA+ projectors we've seen so far the Optoma HD80 stands out as a uniquely impressive photography projector, and it is one of the best values on the market. This widescreen 1080p DLP projector is brighter than many other home theater projectors in its price range. We measured its ANSI contrast at an excellent 515:1, which surpasses the LCD competition and matches the contrast performance of other 1080p DLP projectors that are much more expensive. But beyond that, it is able to track a beautiful gray scale, it has excellent color depth, and it sells for street prices in the mid-$2,000 range. The light engine is sealed, so you won't ever need to worry about dust spots on the projected image. And it is smaller and lighter than most home theater projectors, and thus more easily portable for those trips to the camera club meeting.

The HD80 has its limitations. Fan noise is higher than we'd like in a home theater projector, but for the display of photography fan noise is usually of little concern. The fan noise is necessary to keep internal operating temperatures under control, which is a challenge with its 300-watt lamp. This is almost double the wattage of lamps found in many 1080p LCD models, so it throws off a lot more heat as a result. Be aware that this projector will heat up a small room quicker than most if the room is not well-ventilated.

As with most DLP projectors, the HD80's zoom range is a short 1.2x, and there is no lens shift. So for any given screen size and location, your options for positioning the projector to fill that screen are extremely limited. It has a built-in upward throw angle that makes it suitable for table top use. Nevertheless, in some cases this can be a nuisance, and the LCD competition has done a much better job of alleviating this problem by providing long zooms and extensive lens shift capability.

However, if the limitations just noted don't concern you, the Optoma HD80 will reward you with a truly beautiful, natural display of photographic images. All things considered, the HD80 delivers the best static photograph image quality for the money we have found so far. The product was released last summer, so we don't know how much longer it will be available. But the Optoma HD80 is an outstanding value for the money. If you are looking for a magnificent photography projector for under $2,500, this one is easy to recommend.

We will have a great deal more to say on a variety of other models soon. This will evolve into a separate thread of commentary that parallels our work in the home theater market since it is a distinct application with its own issues and concerns. And a lot of folks are looking to replace that old Kodak Carousel slide projector with a new and better product in the digital age.

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