With the proliferation of the digital printing press and availability of low cost stock images there are many different producers of products to decorate fluorescent or LED light panels (light covers). The main areas that differentiate one company’s product from another are:
- Image Quality: The quality and artistry of the images they possess with which to make a decorative light panel.
- Print Medium: The media used for prints, i.e., acrylic and/or film.
- Custom Sizing: The method in which they accommodate custom sized orders.
1. Image Quality
There are several properties of an image that one should consider when purchasing a decorative light diffuser panel.
Image Light Transmission
There are many stunning images available that produce dramatic results when back-lit, yet they make a poor light due to the amount of visible light absorbed by the ink on the prints. Following are two good examples. Though both of them are attractive as an image, neither is well suited for a light panel application since they are too dark. That high contrast, colorful image on your computer screen, will result in a dark print that blocks most of the useful light from the fixture. The light will be interesting to look at, but will not produce an overall positive effect on the room, unless a dark room is the goal.
Image Suitability “As a Light”
Though this topic is subjective for sure, some images are more applicable and believable for an overhead light than others.
- The dark sky panel, shown above, is the wrong viewing aspect for an overhead light panel. The photograph is taken from the side, yet you will find countless images like this one for sale as a sky ceiling light cover.
- There are many companies offering stock images and photography for sale as light panels, yet the number of stock images that produce a credible, quality lighting installation is limited. We love the Las Vegas image from our high resolution wall mural collection shown here, and would be happy to produce it as an overhead light if that is your desire. In the lighting world, though, the artistically hand crafted Stained Glass 11 and SkyView 8 images (for example) offer a more appropriate decorative result.
2. Print Medium
Following are the print media used for the production of decorative light panels, sky ceiling panels, etc. We will discuss these in order of increasing quality rank, including the overall result that they produce in the final lighting .
Decorative Film Insert
On the low-end of the quality scale for lighting decor, Back-lit Film is a translucent white substrate that is printed using a roll-to-roll digital printer.
Back-lit Film Advantages
- This flexible material is used to print high resolution for signage and display light boxes. It is normally sandwiched between clear layers of acrylic to support and protect it in a flat position.
- It’s easy to trim using scissors or a razor blade.
- It’s commonly rolled up in a tube and delivered to a customer at a very low shipping cost, with minimal risk of damage.
Note – Back-lit film was the material used at Fluorescent Gallery back in 2008. For the reasons given below, this method of producing decorative light covers was discontinued by 2010.
Back-lit Film Disadvantages
- It does not replace the existing lens, nor can decorative film inserts be used with a white diffuser panel. Placing one in back of a white acrylic panel would produce a very faded and poor result.
- Though the film itself is capable of displaying high resolution imagery, in a lighting application the image must be viewed through a clear prismatic panel of the fixture. The bumpy texture of these clear panels significantly degrades the artistic presentation to the viewer.
- Without a panel laying on top of the film, the material can curl somewhat in the lighting fixture. Any space at all between the film and the lens, will produce a blurred effect.
- Light fixtures need regular cleaning. With a light panel lens and a film insert gathering dirt, dust, grease, insects, etc. the cleaning job is much more difficult and unmanageable in many environments.
Light Gauge Polycarbonate
A printed option producing a better result than back-lit film are the many forms of light gauge polycarbonate, typically .045 inches thick. Many manufacturers of decorative light panels choose these materials for the advantages that they offer in mechanical durability, but there are trade-offs.
- Light gauge polycarbs replace the existing light panel diffuser, thus producing better image presentation to the viewer than film with a clear diffuser in front of it.
- The material, though flexible is very ductile and resists breaking. It can be cut to size using a pair of tin snips or other means.
- Since the material may be rolled up, it can be delivered to the customer using fairly inexpensive (and smaller) shipping materials and low delivery charges.
Disadvantages of Polycarbonate
- The trade-off for flexibility is that the material sags more than thicker acrylic panels. It typically comes in a thickness of .045 in. The resilient nature of the material allows for a thinner panel, but the droop is more noticeable in some applications and does not have sufficient rigidity to span openings larger than 48″ x 24″.
- Polycarbonate panels will yellow over time. According to Wikipedia “The yellow color formed after long exposure to sun can also be related to further oxidation…“. Since fluorescent lights emit UV, polycarbonate will yellow compared to premium acrylic.
- The material has a shiny surface, which is not noticeable when illuminated. It does show the non-printed (white) areas quite noticeably at some viewing angles when, the light is off. You can see this clearly in the comparison below. A Fluorescent Gallery panel is photographed against a polycarbonate panel, at the same angle with respect to the light.
PMMA Flat Acrylic for Lighting (Best)
Acccording to Wikipedia PMMA Acrylic is often chosen as an alternative to polycarbonate (PC) when tensile strength, flexural strength, transparency, polishability, and UV tolerance are more important than impact strength, chemical resistance and heat resistance.
Translation: When it has to effectively span an opening without sagging, effectively conduct light, and not turn yellow, acrylic is a better choice.
Fluorescent Gallery offers only premium quality acrylic materials – .060″ Matte White, .080″ and .125″ Lumieo), because they are designed specifically for lighting applications, effectively hiding the bulbs, and lying flat in fixtures with minimal sag – see Acrylic Panel Options.
PMMA Acrylic Advantages
- It has excellent light transmission, while effectively diffusing the bulbs in the fixture.
- It will NOT yellow over time. If you see something marketed as UV resistance treated, it is not Acrylic.
- Designed specifically for lighting, these materials with their slight matte finishes produce good adhesion for the ink from a digital press, while smoothly blending the white (unprinted) areas of the design with the areas of color. The result is a panel that appears to have the ink embedded into it rather than printed on it.
- No glare is visible from the side when the lights are off. Many acrylic sheets do have a glossy finish, but we have chosen a custom matte finish specifically for print.
- These stiffer panels lie flat in the fixtures, and are able to span larger openings than Polycarbonate with very minimal center sag.
PMMA Acrylic Disadvantages
- Designed for optimum light transmission and maximum bulb diffusion and no reaction to UV, this material is slightly more breakable than the other two print media mentioned. It is very durable compared to standard panels found at home improvement stores, although it must be securely packaged for shipping.
- It cannot be rolled up into a small box. This means that a larger more expensive box with advanced protective capabilities must be used to safely transport it. Additionally, the shipping companies have a box threshold penalty for all containers over 48 inches in length.
- It is not as easily cut to a custom size, although it can be done with a bit of deftness.
3. How Custom Sizes Are Produced
There are only a few ways to meet the custom size requirements for decorative fluorescent light covers.
The Low Cost Method
- Many manufacturers print decorative light panel covers at one standard size on a thin enough material to be cut with some type of scissors or blade.
- With this low cost benefit comes the extreme drawback: A good portion of the design is cropped off. For any design, other than a sky panel or landscape image, this approach visually damages the final result.
The Best Method of Custom Sizing
- The image chosen by the customer is graphically modified by the artist, maintaining all perimeter detail. In the case of sky ceiling panels, choosing the best areas of the scene, coupled with some mild resizing of the photograph.
- The customized image is printed onto the panel cut to the exact size specified, custom packed, and shipped to the user such that it is ready for installation right out of the box.
- Images are never stretched to meet an unreasonable aspect ratio for a given piece of artwork, unless specifically requested to do so by the customer.
Custom Size Examples by Fluorescent Gallery
These Tuscan Iron-Copper panel images show the actual print files created for a few of the different size light panels requested by our customers. They illustrate how we carefully preserve the integrity of the original 2×4 image for each customer’s unique aspect ratio.
How Not to Do Custom Sizes
As these images illustrate, cropping or stretching the original artwork produces very bad results in almost all cases. For this reason, all of our custom sizes are delivered by adjusting the original artwork to perfectly fit the requirements, as illustrated above.
There are many ways to decorate flat panel lighting installations. As the very first company (since 2007) to deliver fluorescent light panels that make lighting look like fine lighting, Fluorescent Gallery has always been serious about delivering light panel covers that are a work of art. They are durable, will last for years or decades without fading or yellowing, and in many cases a one of a kind panel designed specifically for you.