DIY a Professional Print Viewing Station

For about ten months, Douglas Dubler has very generously shared his color management and print making expertise with me.  Douglas implores his students to view their test prints under proper lighting conditions.  To that end, Douglas highly recommends various products made by Graphic Technology Inc. (“GTI”).
GTI is the only company that makes print viewing stations that are worth investing in.  Unfortunately, because their products are so specialized, they are quite expensive.

Here’s the model I lust after.

It costs $2,895 for the base model, without dual illumination sources and without dimming capability.  Adding those features brings its cost to $5,430.  A smaller desktop viewing station with dual illumination and dimming features costs $2,225.  These are sophisticated pieces of equipment.  There are no budget alternatives on the market (as near as I can tell). 

In order to work with Douglas, I had to invest in a high-end monitor, a high- end printer, good papers, and some relatively expensive print processing software.  My budget was exhausted, but I was missing a critical part of the work flow.  I had no way to view my prints in conditions that would allow me to determine whether the results matched what I saw on the monitor.

Trust me when I tell you that Douglas is correct that you cannot properly evaluate a print under your kitchen lights or next to a window.  I did not fully appreciate this until I built a DIY print viewing station, largely out of desperation, but happily, with very satisfactory results.

I am happy enough with the results that I decided I should share my project “design” for you to consider.  If you are struggling to view your prints like I was, and if, like me, you don’t currently have the budget for a GTI beauty, read on.

The design is VERY simple.  I painted a basement wall neutral gray, mounted a gizmo to hold the prints on the wall, mounted two LED lights to the ceiling, ran them through a dimmer switch, and pointed the LED lights at the wall.

Here’s the parts list:

Two Lumicrest Pro Series – High CRI Dimmable LED PAR20 bulbs, with the 4000K temperature and 60 degree flood lens options.  $20.88 each.

One Leviton Sureslide Dimmer.  $23.37 if you buy it from Lumicrest.

One American Metalcraft AOR24 24" Aluminum Ticket Rack (you might get a wider one if you make really large prints, they come in a variety of lengths).  $11.99.
These are the devices diners use to hold order tickets for the cook.
You stick paper in and ball bearings hold it in place with just enough pressure that you can easily pull the paper back out without any damage.

A fixture to hold and aim the LED bulbs.  I used a very basic Sigma Weatherproof Gray Lamp Holder.  $15.00.

One pint of white primer, and one pint of neutral gray paint.  About $15.00.  For the latter, I used Benjamin Moore’s Silver Chain, which has a light reflectance value of 57%.  Close enough to neutral gray in my opinion and experience with this design.

  Don’t be tempted to skip the primer.  It’s very important for getting an even light reflectance on the wall.

One 12 foot three prong extension cord.  $12.00.

Various painting and electrical supplies (including a switch box for the dimmer and a receptacle box for the floodlight fixture).  About $35.

I am omitting shipping costs since yours will vary.  Apart from the bulbs, dimmer switch and ticket holder, I got everything at my local hardware store (I now know I could have gotten the same dimmer switch at the hardware store, too, but I bought it from Lumicrest to be sure I got one that matched their bulbs).  Shipping aside, the total materials cost is about $155.  

I used two LED lights to try to emulate the even illumination offered by the dual illumination versions of the GTI units.  If you will illuminate prints larger than 24 inches wide, you should consider getting two fixtures to allow for more distance between the bulbs and greater coverage on the wall.  You might also consider Lumicrest’s larger PAR30 bulbs rather than the PAR20s listed above.  On the other hand, if you want to make the design even simpler, you could opt for one PAR30 bulb and one fixture, since the PAR30s offer greater coverage than the PAR20s.

CRI stands for Color Rendering Index.  Lumicrest has a great “Lighting 101” tab on its website, which includes this excellent explanation of CRI.  By far, the high CRI bulbs from Lumicrest are the most critical component on the parts list.  You cannot accurately evaluate a print without clean, color-accurate light.  Lumicrest delivers this light with bulbs specifically designed to illuminate wall-mounted art in museums and galleries.  With gallery display in mind, the bulbs are fully dimmable, and feature interchangeable lenses (purchased separately) so that you can easily switch between spot and flood spread without the need to buy multiple bulbs.  They are remarkably sophisticated given their $21 price point.

Given the sophistication of the bulbs, use care to order the correct options.  They come in several temperature configurations, and you will want the closest to daylight balanced that Lumicrest offers, which is 4000K.  This is not as close to true daylight balance as is delivered by a GTI unit, but I have found it very satisfactory.  For my design, the 60 degree flood lens worked perfectly, but you might consider other lens spread options depending on your design.  UPDATE (3/19/2018):  After reading this article, Douglas Dubler called me to let me know that he uses a setup similar to my design for displaying prints in his gallery.  He reports that 4000K is actually the optimal temperature for this type of viewing.  For his lighting, Douglas uses bulbs by SORAA in traditional track lighting fixtures.  A comparable SORAA PAR20 bulb can be seen here.  Like Lumicrest, SORAA offers remarkable lensing options for their bulbs, and Douglas recommends warming the SORAA PAR20 bulbs slightly with a warming lens.  Douglas also recommended a true neutral gray paint offered by GTI, which can be found here.

You will almost certainly have to vary the design to suit your particular space, but the process is very straightforward.  Paint the wall.  Mount the ticket holder.  Mount the light fixture on the ceiling so that it is aimed at the wall at about a 45 degree angle, and about three feet of distance from the bulb to the center of the beam on the wall.

Chop the female end off the extension cord and wire it into the fixture, and chop it again at the right spot to wire it through the dimmer switch box (depending on where you plan to mount the dimmer switch).  Leave the pronged end on so you can plug it into the wall (or at least that’s how I got power).  I recommend mounting the ticket holder first, so that you have the viewing height where you want it, and then adjust the fixture location and bulb aim to ensure that you get a nice even light spread on the area where the prints will be viewed.  I wired my whole set up before I mounted the fixture so that I could test various positions with the bulbs on.  The fixture that I used allows the bulbs to be re-positioned, which I found very helpful for fine tuning the spread after the fixture had been mounted.

Good luck and let me know if you have any questions or comments!

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