Musings on Photography

Optimal Lighting

Posted in aesthetics by Paul Butzi on March 11, 2007

Back when all my printing was B&W gelatin silver, I had a very simple formula for determining the optimal lighting for a print – you kept putting more light on the print until it started to smoke.  And then you backed it off, just a teeny bit.

That’s a great practice for making gelatin silver prints look good – the shadows are always compressed a bit, and having huge amounts of light on the print opens them up slightly.  And there’s some visual effect, too, where the brightness of the highlights really makes the print sing.

So most of the display areas in my home have this ‘just short of smoking’ lighting.  And I was happy.

But last week, I put up an inkjet print in one of the bright locations, and it looked like crap.  I was confused, because it was a beautiful print under more muted lighting.  So I’ve moved it to a location where the light is less intense (by about a stop) and now it looks awesome.  There’s something about putting too much light on an inkjet print, with it’s more limited Dmax, that make the print look flat and lifeless.  Unlike airdried glossy fb gelatin silver prints, it’s possible to put too much light on an inkjet print.

The interesting thing is that the optimum for gelatin silver is a lot more light than you generally find in any display space.  This was something of a frustration.  But the more muted lighting that I’ve measured in most display spaces seems to be just about the sweet spot for inkjet prints on non-glossy papers.

4 Responses

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  1. Colin Jago said, on March 12, 2007 at 2:46 am

    …unless you print on Crane Silver Rag. Compressed shadows until you find the brightest spotlight you can.

  2. Frank said, on March 12, 2007 at 6:30 am

    Just back in the darkroom and making silver prints after too long an absence. I had a devil of a time trying to figure just how deep I wanted the print. I think it was Ansel that said his prints demanded 250 foot candles of light to be properly viewed. You would be extremely lucky today to find gallery lighting within two stops of that. Whole bunches of curators of rare, non-photographic paper materials — manuscripts, etc. — will often light a display with only 5 foot candles. I’m with you, the brighter the better, otherwise we’re wasting what little silver they put in papers these days.

  3. Ed Richards said, on March 12, 2007 at 11:04 am

    The HP Premium Plus Satin paper that I use for printing has a deep dMax and behaves like silver – the more light, the better it works. But, do you print for bright viewing light, when you know that your prints are not going to be shown under bright light? If you do, then the prints will lose most shadow detail on the walls.

  4. StephaneB said, on March 18, 2007 at 12:24 am

    I have stopped looking for more DMax. It serves little purpose, costs loads of money and is no fun. Platinum prints are considered “very fine art” and that process cannot give a high DMax. As long as an ink/paper combo gives me 1.45 it is usable. 1.5 is great, 1.6 is heaven.


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