Be Aware Of The Light Source Hitting Your Screen

Be Aware Of The Light Source Hitting Your Screen


Pop Quiz: What is the color temperature of the light hitting your monitor right now?

Followup Question: Do you know why it matters?

Many people do not give much thought to the light hitting their monitor while editing photos. Yet it is critically important if color accuracy is important in the least.  Let me show you the importance with a few shots. See if you can guess the color temperature of the light hitting the each screen. Know that my office is a small 5′ x 8′ room, off-white walls and a skylight overhead. (Exposure of each shot was balanced in post production with only the exposure setting itself increased to match other shots.)

Ready for the answers?

  • Indirect Daylight off to the side, from above (4650K)
  • Cloudy light from above (5450K)
  • Direct Daylight (5001K)
  • Direct Daylight with a white fabric placed over the skylight opening (4100K)
  • Indirect Daylight with a white fabric placed over the skylight opening (4300K)
  • Direct Incandescent/Tungsten light bulb at night (2750K)

Each photo is clickable for a larger 1200 pixel wide shot. I balanced the shots according to a white card test of the light (shot separately) except the last image which was left at the camera chosen 5250K, otherwise the 2700K renders far too blue.

Our brain takes the light coming in and, in essence, auto corrects it. If viewed in a complete black environment, a screen can be color calibrated and show colors as true. This is fine and should be done. How our brain perceives colors coming from the screen will also be influenced by the color temperature of the light available at the time. Most manufacturers suggest calibrating your screen with the anticipated ambient light sources available (and the best calibration tools are able to balance for this light).

For the first image, I was going to use the shot without my reflection as a more pure example. But I thought it important to leave in because most of us don’t realize what effect we have our images. If light is coming from behind you (in this case, there was direct sunlight on the wall to the side of the iMac, which was reflected off the rear wall as well) then your shadow can make a large difference. I could have done the same for the last shot, where the bulb is clearly visible in the corner.

Some suggestions to help make sure colors stay true:

  • Calibrate your screen in, ideally, a black environment. If your calibration tool of choice does not measure ambient light, just ensure there is not an over abundance of one light source or another. If it does measure ambient light, use the source you anticipate being available while editing (or make multiple profiles for each light source).
  • Edit your photos in the likely light source they will be viewed under when printed.
  • Be aware of the color of your walls.
  • Only have one light source hitting your screen at a time while editing.
  • Use indirect light when possible and do not place your light source behind you.
  • Realize light reflected off items viewable from the screen’s reflection will influence results.

The second item can be very important. If your screen is calibrated correctly and you edit photos with a tungsten light source, your brain is adjusting for that source. In that case you make white look as you percieve white to be in that instance. Now, when you print that image (let’s assume the printer is properly calibrated and you used an ICC profile to soft proof) and present it in indirect day light, the colors will not match what you saw on your screen. Likewise if you took it into direct sunlight. But it will come closer when viewed at night with a tungsten source.

It’s important to edit, on a calibrated screen, with a light source as anticipated when the print itself is viewed. Baring a known source, Indirect Daylight is the best bet.

If you need information on calibrating your monitor, DPS has a post for that here.

Read more from our Post Production category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • xBris August 18, 2011 06:34 am

    I'm definitely with Ryan O. Hicks here: Just get a better (matte) screen! Apple used to build superb equipment for any visual professional, like designers or photographers. But since Apple nowadays only builds toys for apple-kids, they are barely usable. Glossy screens might look good for presenting shots to customers, but for serious photo-editing? No way!

  • George Johnson July 7, 2011 09:15 pm

    What a superb article!

    I have noticed this. I edit pictures at all times of the night and day, whenever I get time. Sometimes in the early hours when it's still twilight outside and the indoor lights are on. Sometimes in the early evening when the sun is still lighting the room, though never directly as the PC is in a corner. I notice when I view my pictures on my work PC or a friends machine, they sometimes look quite different from what I remember when I edited them!

    I think I shall be a little more consistent in future with the lighting when editing!

  • Niki Jones June 28, 2011 10:31 pm

    Great article, will be taking some of this on board.
    I spent a lot of our lovely, sunny spring sat in the dark with the curtains closed for a lot of the reasons printed here.

  • Ceci June 27, 2011 09:46 pm

    I also have a small office and my desk and computer (iMac) is set 90 degrees to the window. I calibrate my monitor at night with the door to the hall, curtains and blinds closed and lights off. I just had my office painted a neutral gray in a flat finish to limit affecting the colours perceived on my monitor, and the light bulbs in my ceiling fixture and desktop lamp are 'daylight' compact fluorescents. I rarely have any lights on when editing unless it's at night - and even then I'll often just have the hall light on outside my office.

    You cannot effectively edit photos on a laptop - the screen just isn't big enough to work with in my opinion. I do have a MacBook Pro and use it to display photos to customers or when on vacation to download images and perhaps do some minor editing; but my serious work is done on the desktop. It's also easier on my neck, shoulders and wrists.

  • Katia June 5, 2011 07:53 am

    Darren, where can I accept cookies? What kind of cookies are they? I especially like Reese's Pieces cookies, as well as triple chocolate.

    All jokes aside, gosh I really need a new monitor. Mine is not calibrated as editing on a 13" laptop is suuuuuuper annoying in the first place! Photos usually come out well when they are printed, however. But if there is room for improvement I would love that in the future! I am eventually going to get an iMac, do they offer anti-glare screens?

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 5, 2011 12:30 am


    Great artical and food for thought. I always work with a calibrated monitor, keep all lights in the room in the same location, intensity, amibient to minimum, and angle of viewing to the screen the same. So far, I have had good results that are repeatable. I think monitor calibration is paramount, but this article describes yet another factor. I will have to investiagte this myself before I change my work space. Thanks for pointing this out.

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • shaun/tenzenmen June 3, 2011 02:51 pm

    what is this pop you keep talking about? i've never seen it. is it a setting you can adjust on your browser. seeing your comment on your replies is annoying to me ;-)

  • Darren Rowse June 3, 2011 12:34 pm

    Martin and Jason - just a quick note about the popup.

    We use it to direct people to our newsletter which has enabled us to grow a lot over the last couple of years. That growth keeps the site free.

    In terms of you seeing it every time you visit - that can be easily solved. We actually have it set to show once per reader.... ever. The exception is when people block cookies with their browser. If you accept our cookie (which we only use to determine if you've seen the popup before) you should never see it again - ever.

  • Joseph June 3, 2011 11:28 am

    I highly recommend getting a hood for your monitor - can make one from black foam core pretty easily too

  • ScottC June 2, 2011 04:33 am

    Though I agree with the need to properly calibrate a monitor (and a device is not necessary to do so), I don't agree with the premise that the light source hitting the monitor is a major factor in making proper adjustments to photos.

    The human eye is not nearly so limited as a camera, and the example photos in this article are from a camera. Photos of a computer monitor, which are never true to color.

    I have both flourescent and tungsten light sources hitting my screen, and this photo was processed under those conditions:

    Does the WB look off in this photo to you?

  • Martin June 1, 2011 06:43 pm

    Yes, that pop up is a real pain. I hate it.

    Good article, OP.

  • Brandon June 1, 2011 02:38 pm

    Good article, I need to invest in a good calibrator. Btw I do find the popup annoying too St. Petersburg,

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer June 1, 2011 11:47 am

    This is why I have two matte screens, my main monitor is a 24" Dell which is connected to a 15" MacBook Pro (secondary screen) that is also matte, what they call "anti-glare" nowadays. Even my HDTV is matte (a Sony).

    dPS please stop using the incredibly annoying fadeout popup begging visitors to your site to sign up for the newsletter. This ruins every reading experience for every post I read on this site. I know of no other site that uses such an obtrusive practice. It makes me angry every time I visit your site. Is that a feeling you want to cause your visitors?

    If others find this annoying, please comment on it as well.

  • Ryan O. Hicks June 1, 2011 11:00 am

    Your first mistake was buying a mac with a glossy screen. Or any laptop with a glossy screen.

    These screens are over saturated, and have the contrast pumped up.
    If you want true color accuracy a matte screen is needed.

    Not to mention the horrible glare that comes from any glossy screen in nearly every environment you're in.

  • Chio June 1, 2011 07:45 am

    Couldn't agree more. We have black, home made corners around the LCD monitors when we really want to get the proper color, brightness and contrast. Kind of looks like in the old days when photographers had black blankest on top of them to take pictures, heh.