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What Is a Light Table?

By Mal Baxter
Updated May 16, 2024
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Ideas that go back to the drawing board can come up brilliantly if the drawing board happens to be a light table. This simple yet unique product sheds more light on the subject in applications from photography and graphic arts to medicine. Such a table is essentially a box containing fluorescent tubes covered by a translucent sheet of glass or plastic. Bright illumination radiates through pictures, tracings, and more. At home in the draft studio or complementing chic interior decor, the light table can be easily built on the cheap.

Perhaps most commonly, the light table illuminates photographic film and other images from behind. The technology permits detailed clarity for high-quality image reproduction, as in the digital transfer of film media. It works on the same principle that permits close-up medical analysis of x-rays in hospitals. In this case, the table is mounted to a wall and fixed with clips to keep the x-ray images in place. Other applications usually require the table to perform as a horizontal work surface, as for tracing over images.

Essentially a lightbox mounted on legs, and covered with a frosted glass, the light table finds use in many other ways. It helps illuminate natural objects, such as leaves and insects. Artists may use this type of table for viewing slides of artwork quickly and without needing to set up a slide projector.

The box is known as a light mixing chamber; it is often lined with reflective material, while a white translucent pane is placed on the upper surface. Fluorescent tubes provide the light, balanced for optimal results without uneven or uncomfortable brightness. A color rendering index (CRI) above 90 is usually recommended; this means that the reproduced light will not be harsh, but clear, bright, and more natural. This can provide an effect that is ideally a diffuse, even glow pleasant to the eye. The fuller the wavelength band of the light, the closer it mimics the full spectrum of natural sunlight.

Designed for utility or for adding a quality furnishing to a design-conscious space, light table products come in a wide range of designs and configurations. These can run from utilitarian platforms to chic futuristic structures. Dimmer controls and rapid start fluorescent bulbs add further user-friendliness. The table might be designed for easy opening in order to replace the bulb with minimal difficulty.

A historical version of the light table was used for tracing drawings over mimeograph stencils. This was known as a mimeoscope. In newer applications and learning environments, a light table may be used educationally to illustrate optical properties. Variations on the design might permit isolated light beams and movable prisms. Such a table can help educate and illustrate optical properties, as in children's museums.

An essential creative furnishing, the light table finds new creative uses with artists and designers. Interior decor can be enhanced with the futuristic effect of a light box overlain with an opaque, stylish material such as wood veneer. The surface can be etched to emit light through artistic cuts and designs. This use makes the table more than a workstation, but an eye-catching furnishing like a coffee table, and a conversation piece in its own right.

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