Making hard proofs (a proof on the same paper and device you will use for final prints) is a central part of my approach to fine printmaking. Therefore, the light sources I use to view proofs are also very important, because not all light sources are accurate for my needs. If I can’t view the print accurately, then I can’t use them as guides for making changes to improve my prints.
To choose a good viewing light for your proofs, you need to understand there is no light source that will make your prints perfectly match your monitor. I know this is contrary to many marketing claims. You can get really close, but a perfect match to your monitor is impossible because of the monitor itself, and the light sources. Like most things, the differences can only be bridged by experience, not technology (or money!)
Since I can’t have a perfect light source for every purpose, what I have to settle for is a light source that is a good simulation of a given environment.
In my world, there are two separate environments I’m interested in simulating: the monitor, and gallery lighting. Each one of these environments needs a different light source to achieve my goals.
Simulating a Monitor:
To simulate the monitor, I use SoLux 4700K bulbs. SoLux bulbs provide what I believe to be the most accurate color for monitor simulation, and they also happen to be the least expensive solution. A 4700K SoLux MR16 bulb costs just $7.95 each and works in standard track lighting fixtures.
I believe these bulbs are far more accurate for comparing prints to a monitor than any other light source. I base this belief on their spectral distribution curves. My experience is that the fluorescent proofing lights used in the offset printing world (costing thousands of dollars) are not as accurate as SoLux bulbs. But you don’t have to take my word for it, as SoLux bulbs are used by a long list of major galleries and manufacturing companies for evaluating critical color.
At West Coast Imaging, it’s very important for us to be able to simulate the monitor, since we are often matching prints to chromes and original artwork. We also need to critically evaluate color tests of new papers and profiles, and SoLux 4700K bulbs perform this function better than any other light source. Using SoLux bulbs lets us have confidence that we are viewing accurate color from our prints, and lets us evaluate if our monitors are doing the same thing. Not using an accurate viewing light is one of the most common causes of customers thinking their prints don’t match their monitor.
Simulating a gallery environment:
In my personal work I emphasize the simulation of a gallery environment more than I do matching the monitor. (This assumes that I have an accurate and well profiled monitor as a starting point.) When I look at a proof of my own work, I really don’t care if it matches my monitor. I care if it will express my artistic intent on the gallery wall, which means I need to use lighting that simulates the gallery environment where my work will be shown.
Why is this so important?
It’s because there is a vast difference in the way prints look in 4700K light, and the way they look in the 3000K-3200K light that is used in most galleries. Gallery light is warmer, and that affects how colors in a print are perceived. Warmer light tends to make warm colors richer, and cool colors less vibrant and less cool. For example, reds, yellows and oranges may have more depth and vibrancy in gallery lighting, while rich blues will be dulled by the “yellow” quality of the light.
The color temperature of the light also affects very light colors and paper white. This is especially evident in B&W prints, which look substantially different under 3200K light than they do under 4700K light. The warmer gallery light will always make light colors and paper white look warmer than it does under cooler light.
Therefore, my methodology when I am evaluating a proof, is to look at it in gallery lighting conditions, since that is the lighting my audience will see it in. I want to make printing decisions so the print looks “right” in that light. I don’t care if it matches the monitor if it doesn’t convey my message in light used in galleries and homes.
The good news is that if you make a print look as good as it can under 4700K light, or on a D65 calibrated monitor, it generally looks as good as it can under 3200K light, and vice versa. But there can still be differences, so I choose to use 3200K to evaluate my proofs, and I save the 4700K light for special occasions when I need to check the performance of my monitor, or evaluate color tests.
For gallery lighting, you don’t need to get any specific make or model of bulb. The standard MR16 bulbs sold at the big box home improvement stores are the best simulant of galleries because that is the same light they are using. They probably even buy their bulbs there, too!
What about different lighting situations?
If I’m viewing proofs in light that is not one of these carefully chosen light sources, I don’t try to make critical color decisions, and I am very suspect of my perceptions. This is especially true of the fluorescent lights used in businesses and homes for task lighting. Typical fluorescent light is the worst light imaginable for judging color, and can show huge magenta or green shifts!
Setting up accurate lighting to evaluate your proofs and prints isn’t hard, but it is a very important part of crafting expressive photographs. Just remember, friends don’t let friends view prints in bad fluorescent light!