You can forgive yourself if you choose to ignore this. Lots of people ignore me when I talk about this. It's okay. I'm used to it.
However, that's not going to stop me from saying it again (and I've said it many times before): one of the most essential possessions you need as a photographer —one of the most-needed accessories, both for editing and for printing—is a viewing station. Used to be true in the darkroom, and it's still true in your workspace.
You can buy one of these if you want—if you have a lot of space, and a lot of money (note the price!). We had something like this where I used to work, and it was nice. Although things like this always seem to be around the corner or down the hall, and that's not where you need a viewing station to be—you want it to be right there, easily viewable from wherever you spend a lot of time. It should be easy for you to look at your pictures.
My viewing station is right next to my desk. I need to turn my head ninety degrees to the right. I admit, that's just where it happened to fit (TOP World Headquarters being a tad, um, cramped), but it works.
Like all my possessions, my own viewing station is ultra-deluxe, customized, super-duper, and whoa expensive. Okay, no it isn't. It's cheap, small, and basic. It consists of a $27.99 cork board from Office Max (I really should have bought the bigger one) and a $79.95 Verilux Original Natural Spectrum Deluxe Clamp Lamp.
But actually, this is fancier than a viewing station has to be. Mark Power used to recommend a sheet of 4x8' homosote nailed to the wall and painted. Whenever it gets too many pinholes in it, just paint it again—the pinholes fill in with paint. Cost, maybe $8. Plus paint.
I've had plenty of viewing stations with no special kind of lighting—windowlight works nicely if you've got enough—but the days in Wisconsin seem to be about five hours long this time of year and the light in my office at night is dim and yellow, and I'm doing more color now. At one school where I worked I'd just wander around with the tray with my print it in. I'd look at it under all sorts of light—in classrooms, in colleagues' offices, in the stairwell. Everyone thought I was eccentric.
The best viewing light I ever had, at a school where I taught (long ago and far away) had both a fluorescent tube and an incandescent bulb. I'm sure it wouldn't have measured very well, but it told me what I needed to know.
I just got the Verilux. I like it pretty well. The color seems good, although I have no way to measure it. It's not terribly bright, which actually suits me fine—about three to four feet away puts the right amount of light on the prints, and that's about where I had a handy place to clamp the lamp's clamp.
There can be problems using a 100% fluorescent light source to view pictures with. Mainly, fluorescents can excite brighteners in papers that have them, making them look too bright or giving them a color cast, usually (but not always) bluish. I don't like papers with brightening agents added, so a fluorescent light is a plus for me—if the light makes the paper look wonky, I stop using that paper. After years of evaluating brighteners in darkroom papers, I don't trust any paper with brighteners in it.
The Verilux clamp lamp comes in two colors: "ivory" (off white plastic) or "graphite" (dark gray plastic). The clampy part evidently used to be plastic but is now made of metal. The bulb is supposed to have a life of 10,000 hours, so you probably don't need to buy an extra one.
It's amazing how much you learn about your pictures from looking at them. And presumably you find it enjoyable, too. Maybe I'm narcissistic, but I enjoy admiring my creations.
A viewing station of some sort, deluxe or basic, expensive or cheap, carefully designed or seat-o'-the-pants, is far more important than another lens, a new printer, a bigger card or newer software, or another camera bag or flash unit.
There, that was easy—and now you don't have to worry about me writing anything about this for another year or so.
P.S. I forgot to mention that two further advantages of the Verilux lamp—and note that I am not claiming that it is the best possible lighting option—is that it is flicker-free and, importantly for me, noise-free...that is, it doesn't buzz.
Featured Comment by Antonis: "Looks like the comments to this post will become a very useful list of suggestions and alternative setups for viewing prints. So, let me add a few of mine, for the sake of completeness in the research:
"Solux—worth a read, even if you don't "buy into" it.
"Then there are scores of 5000K fluorescents, such as from Philips, Sylvania, and Westinghouse. [Note that the Philips Colortone 50, GE Chroma 50, and Sylvania Design 50 may be the same bulb. Note too that Philips seems not to be using the name "Colortone" any more—the new "Alto" tubes come in "Natural Daylight" (5000K) —Ed.] These need replacement every few years if you'd like consistency in your lighting. In theory the higher the CRI [Color Rendering Index —Ed.] the better.
"The other approach is to visit a decent gallery and find out what type tungsten bulbs they use in their tracks. Then, take an exposure meter and read the actual luminance at the wall surface. Replicate both the bulbs and the level of light on the print for your viewing 'booth.'
"It's best not to have too hard focused a light (i.e. use a diffuse source or multiple narrow beams) because our eyes are easily fooled. Ditto for avoiding too bright or too dim a light (which will result in darker- or lighter-than-usual prints). Avoiding glare, hot spots or uneven intensity across the surface of large prints or multiple smaller ones can be challenging.
"Ideally the color temp and intensity of the viewing light should be matched to the monitor—even if both are not in the same field of view.
"If you are testing new inks or processes for metamerism, it's essential to also view prints in daylight (and compare to fluorescent and tungsten of different flavors).
"And finally—I am sure this is an old trick—to weed out papers with OBAs (UV brightners) it's easiest to use a black light.
"So, there's my check list...."
Mike adds: I'm of two minds about the gallery-lighting trick. I measured a number of galleries in Washington. D.C. the 1980s and found that there is no resemblance of a standard—different galleries and museums have wildly different types and intensities of lighting, so keying your home setup to just one gallery might end up being misleading. Secondly, I found that for my tastes, gallery lighting is too bright for the home, where ambient light levels are generally quite low at night, and certainly too bright for the darkroom. I tend to use a strong light but one that is somewhat lower in intensity than gallery levels.
Black light is indeed useful for detecting OBAs (optical brightening agents). I once did a test where I washed a number of black-and-white photo papers for one, two, four, and eight hours, looking at them under black light at the end of those intervals. Some of the papers were positively garish under the black light—after two hours, one print had bright streaks across it because the OBAs were half gone! My response was to relentlessly minimize the wet times of black-and-white papers during processing. Ilford now claims that the OBAs it uses do not wash out of its fiber papers under long lead times, but I simply prefer papers that don't have OBAs in them at all—and that goes for inkjet papers too. No good can come of brightening agents, he said darkly.
Featured Comment by Tom: "Another vote for Solux (if you can afford it). I saw the Solux-illuminated Pete Turner exhibit at the Eastman House in Rochester and it was certainly the most impressive display I'd ever seen. Turner's prints with their striking use of color, framed in white, illuminated with spot lighting and hung on a mat black wall. The prints looked more like transparencies on a light table. You can get an idea of the effect at the Solux site.
My own station consists of our 1950s vintage metal kitchen cabinets illuminated by daylight fluorescents. The prints are held by neodymium magnets. Total cost about $20 and an occasional objection from my wife. Here's the display:
Note how well the daylight fluorescent light matches the daylight through the window; the fluorescents around the corner from the prints are standard "kitchen and bath." I can also introduce tungsten from lights not seen. So, after an evening of printing, the first thing I see on my way to the coffee pot is my previous night's work with any lighting source I want. For anyone who wants to use magnets, but is without a handy metal wall, there is magnetic paint available which would allow the use of magnets on any wall painted with same; I haven't tried it yet.
P.S. Mike, I used one your favorite lenses for one of the shots: a 50mm SMC Takumar ƒ/1.4.
Featured Comment by Mike [not Mike J.]: "Great post, as proper viewing conditions has been something I've fought with for 25 years, from (as you mentioned) the darkroom to the computer desk.
"The daylight balanced booths are a standard in the printing industry so that everyone, from the photographer to the graphic artist to the guy running the RIP to the printer can all (supposedly) have a standard light source for viewing the various stages of the project. So if you're in that industry, then great.
"I also figured that it would be better to view by tungsten, since that's what's in most homes. However, I ran around my 80-year-old house with a light meter and discovered that, during the day, boatloads of sunlight are coming in and illuminating the stuff on my walls, even indirectly. So it's hard to establish a standard for seeing what others will see.
"I have a number of daylight CFLs in my fixtures at home, so I'm as guilty as any, but if someone wants to put my work in an office with funky fluorescents, they're on their own. :)
"All that said, I use an Ott Lite next to my desk, and occasionally walk around with prints into other rooms. But the most important (to me) part of having a controlled light source for viewing is to see if my prints match my monitor, and if my inkjet prints match lab prints, because I do both. You really want that viewing source to be the same day after day for consistency. For those of us with home viewing stations, keeping a steady light level is a pain.
"By the way, there are standards for museum lighting, but it depends on what they're displaying. Temporary exhibits of modern photography will be illuminated more brightly than exhibits of old work, or paintings, or especially textiles. You can look up those museum illumination levels if you like, but I guarantee they're much dimmer than in the home. The reason they may 'look bright' in a museum is because the rest of the room is lit even more dimly."