What is the best type of light for viewing printed photos?


3 Answers 3


The ISO standard, as explained in this document produced by X-Rite, a company that produces hardware and software used for color calibration, is to view prints in light that is at D50 (full spectrum centered at 5,000K) in terms of color temperature. In terms of intensity, around 2,000 lux (roughly equivalent to an overcast day) should be used for color decisions and judging (2000lux +/-500lux is within the standard, but +/- 250 is preferred), but intensity levels as low as around 800 lux may need to be used to observe fine differences in tonal qualities. The ISO standard also recommends at least 500 lux in a display setting, such as an art gallery. The light should be even, with the darkest areas at least 60% of the nominal value. The print should be surrounded by matting that is neutral in color and between 10-60% in terms of luminous reflectivity (i.e. Munsell N8/gray). And the light source, image, and viewer should be arranged so that there is no glare reflected from the surface of the photo to the viewer.

Barring access to a photo viewing booth specifically designed to meet the standard, a location that uses diffused daylight of sufficient intensity to provide similar lighting conditions is recommended, and don't forget to view the print against a neutral background.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Don't forget light spectrum for color rendering — avoid fluorescent bulbs and LED lighting, or at least look for high-CRI options. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Dec 27, 2013 at 13:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ The broad spectrum is covered under D50, which since 2009 even includes the amount of UV content. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 27, 2013 at 19:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ While this describes the proper conditions for comparing lab accurate color, it doesn't fit the definition of "best". There is a large difference between standard and best. McDonalds has a standard cheeseburger, but that doesn't mean it is the best cheeseburger that could be made, even with those ingredients. A standard exists for consistency, not personality. In fact, the standard is derived to be free of personality, like a doctors office, so that things can be analyzed in a consistent manner. This answer is the best for reviewing a photo. There isn't a best for viewing a photo. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Dec 27, 2013 at 21:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ The question says "viewing". That is very general, and could be taken to mean viewing for color critical evaluation or photo contest judging, viewing for contact/proof comparison, or viewing for display. I don't think the question, as written, eliminates any of those possible cases. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 27, 2013 at 21:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark - fair enough, I can buy that argument. Thanks for clarifying. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Dec 27, 2013 at 22:17

It is really an artistic choice. The standard environment for lab color is as Michael Clark described, but display of a print and the gallery conditions can also be altered to whatever conditions you think best fit the print. Paper selection, light color or colors, framing and matte options, angle of display, size of display, printing technique, color, size and shape of the room are all factors that you can adjust and there isn't a right or wrong way to do it.

When choosing a lighting and display setup, you want it to feel natural with the image, but generally you will still want it to allow for colors to appear natural. This may also mean adjusting the color tone prior to printing to suit the color of the environment you will be displaying it in. If for example, the light will be very orange in color, you might reduce the amount of orange in the image and tint the white to be more blueish so that it will appear white when viewed in the gallery.

Typically, for reviewing images on screen, a relatively dark environment is suggested. Not so dark that the screen is overly bright, but dark enough that you get good contrast and the brights are vibrant. Color temperature is typically around 5k or 5.2k, but you can adjust it as you desire.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What your answer addresses is the type of light used to display an image. The question asks, "What is the best type of light for viewing printed photos." Booths which comply with the ISO standard are commonly called "photo viewing booths." Conditions at an art gallery or other places where photos are exhibited are normally referred to as the "display conditions" or "display environment." \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 27, 2013 at 22:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MichaelClark - interesting distinction in terminology. I'd always heard review conditions for analytical, but I was not familiar with the display conditions term. Granted, it would still be nice if the OP could clarify their intended meaning since I think we can both agree it is currently ambiguous. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Dec 27, 2013 at 22:20
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify my previous comment, I don't think display conditions are totally excluded from viewing conditions, but rather a small subset. I do think the vast majority of the time when an imaging professional uses the term 'print viewing' or 'viewing conditions' they are referring to some type of critical analysis of the print(s) as opposed to exhibiting print(s) for display. The question isn't necessarily ambiguous, just broad. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Dec 27, 2013 at 22:29

Basically any light that gives a full spectrum of colors, like daylight or incandescent light. Daylight may have a slightly yellowish tone, and incandescent light have a quite strong yellowish tint, but our eyes compensate for this, so that is only a problem if you are doing color correction so you have to compare the printed image to a computer screen.

Some flourescent light developed specially for this purpose gives a rather complete spectrum, but a regular flourescent light emits only a few colors from the spectrum. There is no way for our eyes to compensate for colors that are completely missing.


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