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Display gamma is numerical expression that describes the relationship between signal input and light output of a display device. As you increase signal voltage, the traditional CRT display does not produce increases in light output in a linear way. The relationship between signal input and light output is non-linear. To correct for this, reciprocal non-linearity is applied at the production stage. This is typically referred to as camera gamma. The combination of these two opposite nonlinear luminance curves—camera gamma at the production end and display gamma at the device end—results in a linear system gamma of 1.0, which is what we want. However, when viewing material in a dim environment, it is generally thought desirable to have a system gamma that is slightly higher: somewhere between 1.1 and 1.2 is most often quoted figure.
Assuming a Rec. 709 camera encode gamma of 0.51, this means that display gamma should be in the 2.2-2.35 range, but what does this mean? For an idea of what different display gammas provide, see the chart below.
As you can see, the various gammas all begin and end with a one-to-one relationship between signal input and light output. Zero input produces zero output (actually, because of the display’s residual black level it is really just the minimum amount of light the display produces, not literally zero) and maximum input produces maximum output. This is as you would expect. However, the precise relationship between input and output as you gradually increase input from 0% and above is not linear, as shown above, and it varies depending on gamma.
A display with lower gamma increases its light output more quickly as you increase the signal input. If you look at the 10% input, you will see that a 2.8 gamma produces only 16% of the light output of 2.0 gamma. This is obviously an enormous difference. The difference becomes increasingly less significant as the level of input rises, so that at 80% input a display with a 2.8 gamma produces nearly 84% of the output of a display with 2.0 gamma, which would be barely noticeable.
For this reason, the primary effect of system gamma on image quality will be with shadow detail and black levels. A gamma of 2.2-2.35 offers a nice compromise between these two opposing qualities. If you lower gamma below 2.2 you will achieve great shadow detail but your black levels will be noticeably elevated and contrast will suffer. If you raise gamma above 2.35 then you will create deep, dark blacks but with compromised shadow detail.
There are several points to keep in mind about gamma: