How to Use Your iPad as a Lightbox for Drawing


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We all know that iPads are great for digital drawing, but it’s a little known secret that they’re great for traditional drawing as well. If you don’t have a lightbox, using your iPad is a great alternative. 

To use your iPad as a lightbox for digital photos, adjust the settings that increase your brightness and prevent your iPad from falling asleep and auto locking. You can also download apps that allow you to use your iPad as a lightbox with physical photos or drawings.

I’m a HUGE fan of using my iPad for drawing. Procreate is a powerhouse of a digital drawing program that I couldn’t live my art life without. But, you don’t have to be a digital artist in order to enjoy everything that your iPad can do for you as an artist.

Watching tutorials, finding reference photos, taking Skillshare classes, and, yes, doing traditional art by using your iPad as a lightbox.

You might be thinking that this is a simple topic. Put your paper on top of your iPad and you’re ready to go. Or, maybe you found this post because you tried that and realized it’s a little more complicated than that.

We’re going to dive into all of the settings you need to adjust in order to properly use your iPad as a lightbox, both for digital photos and for physical photos. We’ll also talk about apps you can use that will relieve you of the hassle of adjusting your settings and give you a great lightbox experience with one click. Lastly, we’ll talk about instances when you’ll want to ditch your iPad and buy a tried and true lightbox.

Let’s get started.

How to Set Up Your iPad to Be a Lightbox for Digital Photos

To set up your iPad as a lightbox to use with digital photos, you’ll need to adjust the settings within the Display and Brightness tab. First, turn your brightness up as high as possible. Next, click on the auto-locking feature and set it to “Never” to prevent your iPad from falling asleep.

Here’s a step-by-step of that process.

1. Click on the Settings button in your iPad

2. Click on the Display and Brightness button

3. Use the slider to bring your screen brightness up as high as possible

4. Click on the Auto-Lock button and set it to “Never”

You can also adjust the brightness by swiping down on the top right corner of your iPad screen and using the shortcut menu that pops up there. But, you need to go into the Display and Brightness settings to adjust the auto-lock anyways, so you might as well adjust the brightness there too.

Now, let’s get your photo ready. 

Navigate to your photo library and open the photo that you’ll be tracing in full screen mode. If you’ll only be tracing a portion of your photo, zoom in until you’ve isolated the part you need.

Here’s where experimentation comes in. At this point, you might be able to put your paper on top of your iPad and find out that you’re ready to go. 

Or, you might find that your photo looks dull and murky. Not ideal for tracing.

If you’re not happy with the results of your makeshift iPad lightbox after doing the settings adjustments, there are some additional steps you can take to edit the photo to make it brighter and more vibrant.

Firstly, make a copy of your photo. We’re going to make some edits to it, which you won’t want to do to your original photo.

Open the copy of the photo you’ve just made and start editing it. The low hanging fruit here is increasing the brightness and contrast. Bring those up as high as you can without completely washing out your photo.

You can also play around with the brilliance, saturation, shadows, highlights, and more. Just go through every editing feature and see how it can make your photo pop.

Remember that our goal isn’t to end up with a great looking photo that we can hang on the wall. In fact, you’ll probably make your photo look worse. Our objective is to make the elements and details in your photo standout as much as possible so that we can see them through our paper.

Alright, so the strategy above is great if you are tracing a digital photo. But, what do you do if you have a physical photo? Or, you have a drawing that you need to recreate and clean up? Let’s talk about how to turn your iPad into a lightbox that you can use with physical reference photos or drawings.

How to Turn Your iPad Into a Lightbox for Physical Photos or Drawings

If you want to use your iPad as a lightbox with physical photos or drawings, you’ll need to make your iPad screen as bright and white as possible. There are a number of apps that can do this for you, plus a DIY option.

1. Trace Table

The Trace Table app has a setting that will turn your screen into a bright white light, just like a lightbox. Simply open the app, choose the correct setting, and you’re ready to go. 

This app also has settings that you can use with your digital photos. So, if the strategy we talked about earlier relating to tracing your digital photos doesn’t jive with you, check out what Trace Table can do for you. Lastly, you can also use the app to digitally trace your digital photos. If digital art is your thing, this is something you’ll want to check out.

At the time for this writing, Trace Table can be purchased for 99 cents in the Apple App Store.

2. Lightbox Trace

The Lightbox Trace app is very similar to the Trace Table app. You can use it to turn your iPad screen into a glowing white light that you can put a physical photo or drawing on top of. Or, you can import a digital photo and trace it in the way that we described above.

At the time of this writing, Lightbox Trace is free in the Apple App Store.

3. DIY Lightbox iPad Screen

Open Google’s image search and search for the color white. Find an image that’s just a pure white blotch and take a screenshot of it. Find the screenshot in your photo gallery and open it in fullscreen. 

Follow the same steps you would to trace a digital photo. Adjust your Display and Brightness settings so that your iPad brightness is at its max and your auto-lock is set to “Never.” 

Now you have an iPad screen that’s a makeshift lightbox! 

DIY iPad lightbox

Even though we’ve talked about great ways to turn your iPad into a lightbox, there are definitely times when you’ll want to ditch your iPad in exchange for a bonafide lightbox. Here’s why.

When Should I Use My iPad as a Lightbox or Get a Real Lightbox?

You won’t want to use your iPad as a lightbox if you have any concerns of damaging your iPad with the materials you are using. You will also want to revert to a traditional lightbox if your iPad screen is too small and you can’t realistically move your paper around your iPad screen.

First, let’s talk about your drawing materials. If you’re worried that you’ll somehow damage your iPad while using it as a lightbox, don’t do it. Traditional lightboxes are much cheaper than iPads so, if you’re worried about damage, it’s actually cheaper to buy a bonafide lightbox instead of having to replace your iPad that you were trying to experiment with as a lightbox.

Another thing to keep in mind is the size of your iPad screen. 

If you’re doing a large drawing or piece of art, it might not make sense to constantly reposition it on top of your iPad when you need to trace new sections of it. There are traditional lightboxes that come in large sizes, which means that you don’t have to readjust your paper at all as you’re working.

Using your iPad as a lightbox is a great art hack. I especially think it’s great for random lightbox needs that pop up here and there. That said, if you plan to use a lightbox all of the time, it’s best to buy a tried and true lightbox.

Luckily, they aren’t that expensive. You can check out my list of the best lightboxes to find one that works for you.

Diana Fitts

Diana has been an artist for over 25 years and has training in drawing, painting, digital drawing and graphic design. Diana's latest obsession is digitally drawing with Procreate and creating t-shirt designs with Canva. Diana has experience selling her art across a number of platforms and loves helping other artists learn how to make money from their art as well.

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