If you’re a designer, illustrator or architect, you’ll probably find that a lightbox or light table saves you a good deal of time. By providing illumination from below, they allow you to trace images from one piece of paper to another with ease.
This article will explain what lightboxes and light tables are, how they work, and what architects tend to use them for. It will also give you some hints on how to choose the right product for you, since the range on sale today can be quite overwhelming.
What is a lightbox / light table?
When you were a child, you probably used tracing paper to copy your drawings. It involved a lot of flipping and a lot of smudgy graphite, but you could pass more or less the same image from one sheet of paper to another. If there was no tracing paper to hand, you probably also figured out that holding thinnish sheets of paper to the window let you do a similar thing. In short, lightboxes and light tables are the modern, grown-up equivalents of these processes.
How do lightboxes and light tables work?
Lightboxes are ‘boxes’ with a clear screen at the top and a light source inside. When they are switched on, it’s easy to see through (almost) any paper that is laid on the screen. So to trace an image, the original is laid directly on the screen, secured with a clip, and then covered with a blank sheet of paper. The lower image will be visible through the second piece of paper, ready to be copied.
In truth, these days, lightboxes aren’t really boxes at all; they’re more usually slim tablets with LED backlighting. And light tables are the same thing, but on a larger scale and with a stand or even legs.
How are lightboxes and light tables used?
The most obvious function of a lightbox or light table is to transfer an image from one piece of paper to another – for example, to turn an initial drawing (perhaps on rough paper) into a finished one (on art paper) – but they can also be used to combine two original images, since the light can generally penetrate more than two sheets of standard paper. Additionally, a light box allows you to reuse one master background – the interior of a room, say, or a streetscape – and rearrange elements within it in different ways.
Other creatives have other uses for lightboxes and light tables; for example, photographers use them to view negatives, and embroiderers use them to transfer patterns onto fabric.
How to choose a lightbox or light table
There are lots of lightboxes and light tables on the market today to suit all needs and budgets. The following things are worth bearing in mind when choosing one:
Most lightboxes are roughly A4 (210 x 297mm) or A3 (297x420mm) size – perhaps a little larger, on occasion. Clearly, the smaller your device the more portable it is, so if you’ll mostly use yours on the go, think small! At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re routinely working on A2 (420x594mm) paper or bigger, consider investing in a heavier-duty light table rather than a thin tablet.
Traditionally, the screen of a lightbox or light table was made of glass. After some time, these tended to crack from the heat of the bulb, which is why today most screens are made from shatterproof acrylic. However, you may still find some devices with glass screens.
Light boxes can be powered in one of three ways: USB, AC adaptor, and battery. The first is the most flexible, as you can connect your device to a power source with a standard USB cable or use your power bank, laptop etc to run it. Using an AC adaptor has the advantage of stabilising the light source, so if you’re going to use your lightbox for long periods, it’s best to have the option of plugging it in at the mains. And finally there are batteries, which allow for maximum flexibility – for example, if you need to work outdoors or in a library with few sockets – but will of course need regular charging, and may result in flickering light.
Screen luminosity (inc paper)
All but the cheapest devices will have an adjustable brightness setting; better models will even remember your most recently used settings. There may be fixed settings (e.g. one to five) or a wheel that lets you choose precisely how much light you want.
You’ll need to select different levels of brightness depending on how light your room is – the darker the room, the less light you’ll need – and how thick your paper is. While most mid-range light boxes will penetrate thick watercolour paper and even card, cheaper ones may struggle even at maximum brightness. (Try to use energy-saving bulbs to avoid them burning out too quickly.) Conversely, using very thin paper and a very bright light will soon tire your eyes.
If you intend to do a lot of detailed, technical work, look for luminosity of 3,000 lux; for general purposes, between 1,500 and 3000 lux will suffice.
Light boxes are not usually heavy, weighing around 3.5 kilograms at most, but if you know you’ll need to carry yours a lot then look for a lightweight model. Three or four kilograms in a rucksack might not feel like much; the same weight stuffed into a tote bag will.
You can pick up a student’s lightbox tablet for as little as £20, but a professional light table could set you back thousands. It really depends what you’re going to use your device for, and how long you intend to keep it. In the following section, we’ll look at some of the most popular lightboxes and light tables currently on sale, so you can compare what you get at different price points.
Some popular lightboxes and light tables (2020)
These are five of the most popular lightboxes and light tables on the market today.
LitEnergy A4 Tracing Light box
A popular entry-level device, which has adjustable brightness and includes a USB cable.
Huion A3 LED Light Pad
Huion LA3 Portable USB LED Tracing Light Box Dimmable Brightness Tatto Light Pad ShenZhen Huion Animation Technology Co., LTD
A step up in both price and size, this lightbox is a favourite than includes an AC adaptor and metal clip for securing papers. Huion claims the device will provide 24 hours of continuous use. This is an established brand that sells a range of products in various sizes and at various prices.
Daylight Wafer Lightbox
Daylight Wafer 2 Lightbox Daylight Company LLC
This lightbox comes in three sizes A4, A3 and A2, which is highly rated by users and claims to emit less heat than most.
A lightbox is a fairly inexpensive device than can make your life as an architect, or an architecture student, much easier. It eliminates the need for traditional tracing paper, allows closer attention to detail, and is better for your eyes than working under a desk lamp. If you choose yours wisely, it should be a friend to you for years to come.