Fundamentals of Digital:
5. Equipment and Environment

15th October 2015

Equipment and Environment

Wow! So that was a long and thorough journey through the theory and practise of colour management.

By now, you should have a sound working knowledge of the fundamentals of digital imaging - and how to get files from one end of your workflow to the other with accuracy and control.

Now - the fun really starts! Actually applying the knowledge to your work and seeing improvements.

It's worth finishing with a discussion on setting up your working environment properly - as by now you realise that perception of colour is a complex thing and of course the environment in which you're seeing and working on colour can make a substantial difference.

Also, you simply can't produce great craft with crappy, unreliable tools, so at the end we point you in the direction of specific equipment recommendations. For a relatively modest investment you can set up a truly world class digital darkroom (aka Lightroom!).

Introduction

The state of your working environment - essentially made up by the colour of your walls, and the colour and brightness of your lighting, has a big effect on your ability (or lack of ability) to control colour accurately. It’s important to minimise colour distractions in your field of vision, so that you can really concentrate just on the image you are working on and give your eyes the opportunity to accurately perceive colour.

Even wearing a very brightly coloured shirt can cause minor issues as this will reflect in your screen and alter how you see the screen colours!

As with all things, you will need to find your own balance between your wish to achieve accuracy and the lengths and expense you're will to go to achieve this accuracy. For most people a happy balance it not too hard, or too expensive, to find. Below are some tips on both ideal scenarios and scenarios that are more realistic for most of us!

Your Work Room

Ideally your environment should be as neutral as possible. The ideal is a room painted neutral grey (a neutral grey with a defined spectral output across the visible spectrum being better yet).

Of course not everyone wants to paint their work room neutral grey. It's worth being aware, though, that strongly coloured walls can have a fairly big effect on how you will perceive your screen and print colours. For example, if you have warm yellow walls, it is likely this will cause you to create images with a bias towards cool as you will, subconsciously, compensate for this overly warm light.

To overcome this, rather than paint your walls, you could alternatively consider using equipment like a monitor hood and a print viewing box to control the light more directly in the relevant areas of your work room.

If you do want to paint your walls, here are some popular paint companies in Australia and their formulas for neutral grey - please note these figures are just a good starting point and you should test small quantities yourself (preferably using a spectrophotometer) before committing to any substantial order:

Dulux

Use the following formulas for one litre (and choose a low gloss level paint):

For Light Grey (CIE Lab approximately 80)
Base: Vivid White
Tinter Formula (in shots, 1/64)
    M (Black) 9
    G (Red Oxide) 2
    EE (Yellow Oxide) 2

For Mid Grey (CIE Lab approximately 65)
Base: Vivid White
Tinter Formula (in shots, 1/64)
    M (Black) 48
    G (Red Oxide) 7
    EE (Yellow Oxide) 12

Taubmans

Use the following formulas for one litre (and choose a low gloss level paint):

For Light Grey (CIE Lab approximately 80)
Base: White
Tinter Formula (in shots, 1/64)
    B (Black) 7
    F (Red Oxide) 0.5
    C (Yellow Oxide) 1.5

For Mid Grey (CIE Lab approximately 65)
Base: Light
Tinter Formula (in shots, 1/64)
    B (Black) 27
    F (Red Oxide) 1
    C (Yellow Oxide) 5

Wattyl

Use the following formulas for one litre (and choose a low gloss level paint):

For Light Grey (CIE Lab approximately 80)
Base: WHT
Tinter Formula (in shots, 1/48)
    B (Black) 7.5
    F (Red Oxide) 0.5
    C (Yellow Oxide) 1

For Mid Grey (CIE Lab approximately 65)
Base: LTB
Tinter Formula (in shots, 1/64)
    B (Black) 19
    F (Red Oxide) 0.75
    C (Yellow Oxide) 1.75

Lighting

Perhaps the easiest and most important change you can make is to change the colour and brightness of the lighting in your work area. You can either change all the lighting in your work area using your existing fittings, or buy a print viewing box, or indeed build your own print viewing box or area.

Most lighting in most homes is a long way off the ideal light for digital imaging work, but there are often inexpensive and very effective solutions available that can drastically improve the situation. You may well be quite stunned at how good well made prints can look under really good lighting!

First, the colour of your lights

First, remove any strongly coloured lighting – that means absolutely no normal fluros (the daylight balanced tri-phosphor types are better but still not wonderful). If you have tungsten lights, try swapping them for ‘cool white’ versions balanced to 5000K, and the same goes for 'down lights'. The idea is to make sure the lights are not adversely affecting your perception of your screens colours by outputting light of fundamentally the wrong colour (i.e. far too warm or too cool).

5000 Kelvin is chosen as the ideal colour temperature for print viewing as it is a happy average between indoor (typically 3000 to 4000K) and outdoor lighting - (can be anything from maybe 4000 to 9000K depending on the weather and the time of day).

5000 Kelvin is representative of a mix of indoor and outdoor light, or the light typically found in most homes and offices during a large part of the day - the sorts of places where people will actually be looking at your prints! At night, when daylight is no longer part of the light mix, the light will typically be warmer than 5000K indoors, but the eye is quite tolerant of shifts to warmth, and this is not typically a problem.

If you want to go a step further, then look specifically for lights that have a high CRI value - CRI stands for colour rendering index. The idea is to get a light source that is as close as possible to the D50 lighting standard (5000 Kelvin with a defined spectral output curve). A CRI of 100 is perfect. High quality lights can achieve a CRI of 98 or 99.

If your work or print display area has down-lights (i.e. halogen lights) It is generally recognised that Solux make the best bulbs (of any type) that are currently available. These are the bulbs that serious museums use - places like the Guggenheim and the Van Gogh museum. They can be purchased from the Image Science colour accurate lighting page. Generally the 4700K black back bulbs are regarded as having the best match to D50, but there is quite a lot of information on their website that you may find useful. The CRI of these bulbs is over 99.

If your work area has fluorescent lighting, then we sell GTI colour accurate tubes that are very good (again see our colour accurate lighting page. Whilst still flourescent and thus not quite SoLux quality, they're very often used in commercial proofing environments and a very good option.

I am not currently aware of any lights for standard fittings that are particularly good. This does not necessarily mean they don't exist, just that I am not aware of them. If you have information on any this, I'd be very happy to hear about it.

Second, the brightness of your lights (around your monitor and for viewing prints)

Secondly, the level of lighting should be considered. Colour management systems for screens are based around your screen being the brightest element in your field of vision. This means the ambient lighting level in your room (and specifically around your monitor) should be below that of your screen (generally around 30 to 50% below). This is one big advantage of LCDs – they easily go much brighter than CRTs and therefore you can work in a more comfortably lit room.

However, when viewing prints, there is no one standard for brightness. Generally, colour management systems are built around scenarios where prints are viewed under strong, bright lighting (D50 at 2000 lux). Print viewing boxes typically have dimmer controls so that they can simulate different lighting levels. However, lighting levels within buildings (and of course outside!) can vary dramatically. A typical room in Australia during the daytime is about 500 lux in brightness, but many with large windows will be significantly brighter than this (as much as 2000 lux), while at night under artificial light the level may be as low as 200 to 300 lux.

How do you decide? Well, it depends on the context you're aiming for - 500 lux is probably a nice average for most scenarios, but exhibitions and galleries (and photographic competition judgings!) are generally significantly above this level. Obviously you can't control the final environment your prints will end up in (unless it is your own home), so the best approach is to print for a reasonable average and accept that this is fundamentally out of your control. A very effective print viewing area for not too much money...

Print viewing boxes are very nice, and very professional looking, but certainly expensive (you won't get much change on $1000 for a small, basic unit with many being a LOT more than this). You can, however, build your own print viewing box/area for a lot less money quite easily, or invest in a simple but effective Grafilite system for $100 to $200. See buying guide below.

If you choose to build a print viewing box, then build a box with white or neutral grey walls (from something like MDF, and using the paint formulas above, perhaps). Then install in this box some 12 volt, 35 watt halogen fixtures (available from any lighting store or even Ikea!). Add Solux bulbs and you're done. Total expense should come in under $300.

Or, for something a little more attractive and convenient than a box, you could perhaps paint a feature wall in your home in light grey (formula above) and install a track based lighting system, again with 12 volt and either 35 or 50 watt halogen fixtures. Add Solux bulbs, and a gallery hanging rail system, and you're got yourself a gallery quality print display area (better in fact than 99% of galleries in this country!).

Remember, all electricity work involving 240 volt power must be performed by a licensed electrician!

A note on your computer’s desktop...

One of the cheapest and most effective things you can do to improve your colour perception is to get rid of background images, gradients etc. on your computer's desktop. Just set your desktop to black or a neutral grey (I wouldn't recommend white, it is simply too tiring on the eyes).

Looking at anything colourful around your Photoshop window, or immediately before you start using Photoshop, will have a big effect on your ability to see colour accurately.

Equipment Choices - Monitors & Printers etc.

Because equipment changes so frequently, we recommend you refer to the following articles on our website for up to date recommendations on actual equipment selection: