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Fetishizing Incandescents

A recent post on a production-related website talked about the gradual shift toward LEDs and fluorescent lighting as a double-edged sword – citing the uncomfortableness of the spectral qualities of fluorescent and LED light as a reason that people will simply leave areas lit with these sources and seek out full(er)-spectrum lighting such as daylight or incandescent. The article offers some of the standard arguments I’ve read over the years about why we like incandescent lighting, its relationship to the spectrum of firelight, and how an office lit with 5,550 Kelvin fluorescents feels totally different than daylight at 5,550 Kelvin daylight.

This is where the author and I agree, perhaps for different reasons. I personally despise fluorescent lighting, especially the common industrial “cool white” fluorescents that populate office buildings and government offices around the world. They have a horrible green cast, the light is unpleasant and harsh and feels, well, industrial. The first thing I did after moving into my current apartment was to change the fluorescent fixtures in the kitchen to the “warm white” variety, and even then I still hate them. I keep them turned off whenever I can in favor of a warm CFL that more closely approximates the look of an incandescent bulb, or open the windows to let in light.

I don’t want to call the author out in particular, because this discussion is something that I hear a lot, and I have no doubt that this designer is a talented and intelligent person, and he did not necessarily focus on incandescent as a panacea for the shortcomings of other sources. However, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with the conclusions drawn later in the post, and these are common things I hear said whenever the discussion about LED / fluorescent vs incandescent come up. In general, there is a “pro-incandescent” stance that seems to dispose one toward an almost irrational love of the spectral characteristics of that source, while disregarding any other sort of emitters using critical yet vague language that conveys a disdain not firmly rooted in any inherent shortcomings. (Although the author doesn’t explicitly identify with this sort of “incandescent enchantment”, if you will, the article seems to endorse it by default.) This disdain tends to get compounded with not-entirely-accurate assertions about other light sources, to the point of elevating tungsten to a mythical status that it simply does not, in my opinion, deserve. Could the aversion we feel to a certain type of light be less about something inherent in the light itself, and more about the emotional connotations a particular place has for us as individuals? Most people associate the DMV with very long lines, unhelpful employees, and general unpleasantness. If you work in a fluorescently-lit cube farm, would you not associate that type of lighting with the nine-to-five daily grind? This is a significant factor, and one I feel is overlooked.

We all have looked at LED or fluorescent sources and said “euughhh.” I know I have. As mentioned previously, I hate hate hate industrial fluorescent lighting. Turn on a cheap LED PAR and you’re likely to wince at the quality of light that comes out of the front. Pink-tinged, makes-people-look-like-radioactive-mannequins light. Cheap white-LED bulbs for the home are similarly displeasing, with a nasty blue spike that reads cold, almost medical. Turn a Source4 LED Lustr2 on that same person, however, and you’ll see a beautiful spectrum of light that so closely approximates tungsten (or any other spectrum you want) that even side-by-side they’re hard to tell apart. Of course, ETC’s technology is expensive, and nobody is going to light their homes with Lustr2 engines for the time being, but the answer to the problem of sources other than incandescent looking unpleasant is not to reject those sources, it is to improve them. The adoption of LED and fluorescent for efficiency and cost reasons is a huge boon to us in the entertainment industry, because 99% of people want pleasing white light for their area and reading and task light, and demand will drive the adoption of processes that produce light sources with pleasing spectral characteristics.

Light, for all of its artistry and beauty and the myriad ways we can manipulate and change it, is still just a form of radiated energy. That light has anything to do with my soul, or that the white from LEDs contains “less coloration” (to quote the original article) than light from other sources are problematic claims, because they’re so vague. Color is a quality we experience through only three types of photoreceptor cells, we aren’t Mantis shrimp with sixteen different types of photoreceptor pigments. You can adjust how much stimulation each cone cell in your eye receives, but you’re still just adjusting relative photoreceptor stimulation between three fundamental types. I sympathize with the author here – the spiky spectrum of certain LED and fluorescent sources can be annoying for certain applications, but there isn’t less coloration, there’s just a different spectrum to work with, which one may find more or less aesthetically pleasing.

There is nothing about the emission spectrum of LEDs or fluorescents that make them inherently unpleasant or unsuitable for home or theatrical lighting, it’s just energy, and this is why I can’t get behind someone when I hear them talk about the je ne sais quoi of tungsten. I love the look of tungsten and daylight, a lot. I spend a lot of time trying to make other sources approximate it. But there is nothing magical about it. There’s nothing in the spectrum that makes it impossible to approximate or even copy using other sources. Difficult, yes. Impossible, no. Even beyond that, there are many good reasons to replace it with something better and more efficient, especially as the technology improves to make the colors look better. A particular spectrum might look good to us for a variety of reasons, and another bad. The answer to the unpleasant light and spectrum valleys and spikes of the newer wave of cheap energy-efficient lighting is not to resist the adoption of those sources, it is to do more research and development, and to encourage manufacturers to use research to make light that looks better. We can do better, and we will. LEDs have not surpassed their societal usefulness, they’ve barely scratched the surface.

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