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Monitor to Print Matching (Part I): Choosing the Right Proofing Light

Post by Andrew Darlow

One of the most common questions I’m asked by photographers is “Why don’t my prints match my monitor?” As you may have deduced from the words “Part 1” in the title of this post, this is not a simple question to answer. There are many reasons why, but one of the main ones is due to incorrect print lighting when evaluating prints next to a calibrated and profiled monitor.

Mr. Kelvin to the Rescue

The key to choosing a light is to first understand color temperature. A typical warm incandescent light (like a standard light bulb) is approximately 3000 degrees Kelvin, and daylight at noon is approximately 5500 degrees Kelvin. There are other characteristics of different types of lighting (such as fluorescent) that affect the way that printed photos as well as the base paper (white areas) look. Assuming that we want to emulate the look of daylight, I would recommend a daylight-balanced incandescent light for viewing your prints near your monitor.

To be more specific, I would recommend a 50 Watt SoLux 4700K bulb with a 36 degree beam spread. A 36 degree beam spread (as opposed to a narrow beam spread of about 16 degrees) is a wide beam spread that will allow you to proof up to about a 20×30 inch print while keeping good overall illumination on the print. A very narrow beam spread bulb (like the 16 degree bulb mentioned above) will create a hot spot from just about any normal viewing distance. That will look dramatic, but it’s generally not good for proofing. A search for SoLux online will reveal multiple sources for SoLux bulbs and fixtures. There are other manufacturers who make similar bulbs, but I’ve had great success with the SoLux products-they are inexpensive (less than $9 ea.), and are used in track lights by many galleries and museums to illuminate artwork.

One of the main reasons to proof under daylight-balanced lighting is because that’s the color temperature of the light that magazines and commercial printers use when evaluating prints coming off their presses. If you submit files for printing that you have proofed under daylight-balanced lighting, you’ll have a much better chance of getting accurate color.

Shifting Color in Black and White

Most high quality digital lab prints as well as prints made with the latest pigment-based inksets from Canon, Epson, and HP (and some other manufacturers) will not show a significant change in color when moved between common types of light sources (for example, from daylight to typical indoor incandescent lighting). However, black and white prints are especially susceptible to slight shifts in appearance under different lighting conditions.

The three images above show the way in which a change in lighting can alter the look of the same black and white image. The left image has a greenish tone, the center is neutral, and right is slightly warm. In practice, the goal would be for us to print a neutral image out and see it as being neutral (no color cast) when placed under a daylight-balanced light.

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