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Lighting a Space Effectively and Efficiently

By Jim Benest

The following is partially excerpted from Andrew Darlow’s "301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques: An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers" (Course Technology, PTR).

There are many ways to light artwork. You can choose different types of light (traditional halogen, fluorescent, LED and others), and many different strengths and focus types (direct, indirect, spot, flood, etc.). These tips offer some suggestions for lighting a commercial gallery, but the suggestions can be used for any location where artwork will be displayed, such as a doctor’s office, home or office building.

TIP 229
Determine how many pieces you will put on each wall.

Depending upon whether you will have one piece in the center of a wall or three or more stacked (like in our gallery), your lighting will be different. Also consider the mood you want to have in the space. You can choose from dark ambient lighting with dramatic spotlights on every piece of art, or you can select a more broadly lit effect, as we use in our gallery.

A view of one side of The Collective Fine Art Gallery, with multiple types of lighting shown in the track lighting system. Photo ©Andrew Darlow

Another section of the gallery with both track lighting and an overhead fixture. Photo ©Andrew Darlow

TIP 230
Choose a good quality lighting system.

There are many lighting systems available, from track lighting to individual lighting with an art light above each framed piece. After much research, we chose to install a track lighting system by Nora Lighting. Our lighting contractor was given five main objectives: The lighting needed to produce a believable color spectrum; it had to be energy efficient; it had to produce minimal heat; it needed to make the art look its best; and it had to be flexible in an ever-changing gallery environment. He accomplished all five and exceeded our expectations.

TIP 231
Check with your local or state government to see if incentive programs exist.

Unless you plan to use only sunlight, there is a considerable amount of electricity needed to light artwork day and night. When we moved into a larger space, we decided to do some research and learned of the “Lighten Up” program. It is a joint effort between the Platte River Power Authority, which is the main source of electricity for our area, and the City of Fort Collins, which buys and distributes the electricity for our city. We applied for the program and qualified, which has resulted in a number of benefits, including a one-time rebate, a projected annual savings of nearly $700; less heat generated, resulting in less need for air conditioning in the summer months; and piece of mind knowing that we are consuming fewer of the natural resources required to produce the electricity.

The overall material costs were initially higher than that of a less efficient system, but the bulbs will last longer, and we estimate that the cost difference will be paid for over the first 3.5 years of use. Many local governments have similar programs for small businesses and homeowners, and even if there are no incentive programs, consider replacing some of your inefficient bulbs and fixtures with more efficient lighting.

TIP 232
Mix halogen with fluorescent (or LED) lighting.

In our gallery, we primarily use a combination of the following: (20) 32-watt Compact
Fluorescent (CFL) type T2 fixtures; (6) 39-watt Ceramic Metal Halide (CMH) type T3 fixtures; and (70) low voltage 35-watt MR-16 flood Halogen in a type T1 fixture. The CFLs and CMHs together serve as a broad fill light source. The MR-16s add the highlights where they are needed, and even though they are floods, they punch up the light just enough without being too hot, harsh and narrow like many spotlights.

I was very skeptical about mixing these three light sources and being able to maintain a similar quality of light. The CFLs burn at 2700K, the CMHs at 3000K and the Halogens at 3000K. To my surprise, when mixed and blended, the result is a light system that is very natural and inviting. A similar combination of halogen, fluorescent or LED lights can help to reduce energy consumption in your studio, home or office, while still allowing you to nicely illuminate your artwork. Keeping a set of halogen spotlights on a separate switch, for example, will allow you to highlight your work when you want, but at the same time, the separate switch will help you to save energy (and money) when the lights are off. Here are a few good sources for LED light bulbs and energy-saving lighting success stories: LED light bulbs on, lighting success story on, DDP LED lighting success stories.

A close-up of the three types of lights that combine to light most of the artwork throughout the gallery. CFLs are circled in Red, CMHs are circled in Blue, and Halogens are circled in Yellow.
Photo © Andrew Darlow

TIP 233
Have a plan for lighting at night.

If you have a gallery or store with windows that allow people to look in even when you are closed, you can effectively promote the location and light much of the work without wasting a lot of energy. In our case, we installed a two-circuit track system, with one track on a timer. The timer allows us to have only a few selected lights on throughout the gallery during the hours that we are closed. This allows us to showcase key areas while providing additional security. The same approach can be taken in a home or office by setting a timer to control the number of hours that certain groups of lights are on.

A view of the front of The Collective Fine Art Gallery. A moderate amount of natural light enters the gallery during the day, and the entire gallery can be seen by people after hours through the windows. Photo © Andrew Darlow

TIP 234
Protect fragile artwork.

Some types of art, such as acrylic painting and some inkjet prints, are more susceptible to fading than others. I recommend keeping fragile artwork away not only from
direct sunlight, but also from bright artificial light. All of our MR-16 Halogens are equipped with a UV filter to help protect the artwork from daily exposure. In any home or office setting, you can observe whether artwork on the walls is getting a significant amount of exposure from natural sunlight, and if so, consider adding blinds or replacing the art if you are concerned about it fading.

Jim Benest has been photographing people, places and things for over 20 years. His professional photography career began in 1987 when he opened Moments to Remember Photography, a wedding and portrait studio. Over the years, Jim’s love of shooting landscapes and florals has led him to travel to South America, Italy, and the American Southwest. In 2004, he opened The Collective Fine Art Gallery in downtown Fort Collins, Colorado. The 1,900 sq. ft. gallery represents approximately 30 local and national artists, offering a diverse selection of art originals, photography, bronze sculpture, pottery, glass, jewelry and furnishings. Benest’s canvas prints, which he exhibits at the gallery, are printed and coated by Fine Print Imaging. For more information, visit

Andrew Darlow is a photographer and digital imaging consultant based in the New York City area. He is editor of The Imaging Buffet, an online resource with news, reviews and interviews covering the subjects of digital photography and printing. Portions of this article were excerpted from Darlow's book, "301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques: An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers" (Course Technology, PTR), which covers tips and techniques for prepping, printing and displaying prints made using inkjet printers.

For free chapter downloads and Darlow's color management/printing workshop and lecture schedule, visit