David Cardinal: Ambient Light in the Digital Workflow
Jul 2012 19

For all the time photographers spend worrying about color reproduction, and lighting their subjects, far too little attention is paid to the importance of light after the photograph is taken. Until you spend some time actually doing a comparison, it is hard to believe how much difference ambient light — the light that just happens to be there when you edit, print, or display your images — makes to the appearance of images.

Lighting Your Photographs

Take one very simple example. A common complaint about printed photographs is that they are “too dark.” And certainly, when you compare a brightly lit LCD image to a print sitting, somewhat unloved, on a unlit table, the print is going to suffer from the comparison. Take the same print outdoors, in the “Sunlight” lighting condition used by default for most printer profiles, and the difference is literally night and day. The image will likely appear bright and those tones hiding in the shadows will appear as if by magic.

Photographers who need to create professional-quality art for clients have a few options for how to work around this problem. The ideal solution is for the art to be displayed under controlled lighting. Companies like Solux offer lighting products which accurately reproduce lighting conditions very similar to daylight, that can be used for studios, galleries, or even for track lights or individual pieces of art. I have one in a desk lamp near my computer for careful image reviewing, and we use them in all our track lights for our artwork and image display.

In most cases you, or your friends or clients, won’t have the luxury to customize their lighting to make your prints look great. Fortunately, color management vendors have an answer for you. Datacolor, for example, offers the PreciseLight feature in their SpyderPRINT product, which allows you to create a customized version of your printer profile for both the color temperature and brightness of the area where your prints will be viewed.

The PreciseLight brightness slider can be used both for dim locations (with a negative slider value) and overly bright viewing conditions (with a positive slider value). Similarly if the lighting will be cooler than sunlight — for example if a skylight is located near the print — then a positive adjustment on the color slider is in order. For very warm lighting — for example if all the lighting is incandescent bulbs — then a negative adjustment will help correct for it.

Users of high-volume RIP software may also have another alternative. Colorbyte Software’s ImagePrint comes with a selection of profiles for alternative lighting conditions — since their users typically can’t create their own profiles for the software.

Lighting Your Studio or Workspace

For truly accurate color correction, the ideal studio is a dark, cavelike, gray. Most of us aren’t very interested in working in that environment. Closer to reality are well-light, friendly areas — like Joe McNally’s which Scott Kelby featured in his live video. Datacolor’s Spyder4PRO and Spyder4ELITE versions let you test the ambient light level in your workarea, and attempt to help you set your display and generate a profile to provide the most accurate color it can in that environment. The Pro version offers an assist in tweaking the profile for your light level, while the Elite version adds the ability to set the luminance targets yourself.

In addition, if you’re finding that you can’t get the accuracy you want under your current lighting, and aren’t willing to darken your environment, a monitor hood is your next best bet. For desktop setups you can get ones which clip onto your display, while for travel or laptops then Hoodman makes an excellent product.

Lighting Your Talks and Slideshows

Walls aren’t the only place where ambient light affects your images. Most of the time when we give talks or present slideshows there are issues controlling the room light levels. If you can work in a blackout, great; but if you can’t, Datacolor has a nice solution for this problem also. Users of the Elite version of Spyder4 can choose to build additional versions of their projector profiles which attempt to adjust for higher brightness levels. Obviously this alternative can’t entirely address the decreased color saturation you’ll see in bright room lighting, but it does help.

I always travel with a set of projector profiles for just this reason, as I’m often teaching outdoors in Africa or in an impromptu grouping in a hotel restaurant or lobby — or maybe at a conference where the only way to let the attendees take notes is to leave some of the overhead lights on.

is a veteran travel and nature photographer who specializes in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia as well as North American mammals and birds. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it. You can learn more about David on our Friends with Vision page, or on his own website, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow David on Facebook or join him on one of his Photo Tours and Safaris for plenty of experience