Indoor Lighting Basics

No one really notices when you get the lighting right, but errors can be glaring (literally!) when you don't. From the type and placement of each fixture to the bulbs in them, you should give careful consideration to the way you light each room. The right mix can help everyone not only feel relaxed and comfortable, but also look their best.

When the options seem endless and you feel overwhelmed, consider these tips for selecting the right indoor lighting.

Get familiar with the basic types of lighting.

In general, lighting can be put into one of three categories: ambient, task, or accent lighting. When you understand the purpose of each, you can start to narrow your options. Keep in mind that you should use at least two light sources in each room.

  • Ambient (ceiling) lighting

    This fill-in lighting brightens the overall space. It is most often supplied by a central fixture that is mounted to the ceiling.

  • Task lighting

    This lighting helps illuminate specific activities reading, applying makeup, chopping vegetables, etc.

  • Accent lighting

    Accent lighting can enhance the visual interest of a room by drawing the eye to a particular area. It can be used to highlight architectural features like a coffered ceiling or arches, or artwork and special collections on display.

Understand the function of the room you want to light.

Where will you work? How will you relax? What do you want people to notice? Will you be standing or sitting when you are performing a particular function? Questions like these help you not only help you understand what kind of lighting you need (see item 1), but also where to place it. For example, you don't want track lighting to shine directly into guests faces when sitting at the dining table. Or if most of your kitchen prep work will be done on a counter with a cabinet over the top of it, undercounter lighting will be much more helpful for that particular task than light coming from the ceiling. And if you read in bed, a wall-mounted reading light-with a switch you can comfortably reach-can dramatically affect your comfort. But if you miss something, don't sweat it. You can always add a lamp here or there to make up the difference..

Bulbs Matter

  • Incandescent

    The most common and least expensive type of light bulb, incandescent bulbs offer a warm light that is particularly complimentary to skin tones. They typically last between 700 and 1000 hours and can be used with a dimmer. However, they are less energy efficient than other options and they are slowly being phased out of use.

  • Halogen

    This type of bulb is a variation of the incandescent. It gives the closest reproduction of natural daylight and colors appear sharper. Though they are more energy efficient than incandescents, they are also more expensive and burn hotter. Most halogen bulbs are used in under-cabinet lighting, pendant lights and recessed cans, and they can be used on dimmers. They require extra care when changing them, as even a tiny amount of residue (oil) from the human hand can create an atmosphere where the bulb warms too quickly when the lamp is turned on, which may cause the bulb to burn out prematurely.

  • Compact fluorescent (CFL)

    These bulbs consume a quarter of the energy that incandescent bulbs do and last 10 times longer. Unlike their tubular counterparts, newer CFLs are quiet, instant-on and offer warmer, color-corrected tones. They can be used anywhere you would use an incandescent. CFLs contain trace amounts of mercury, so you should be careful not to break them and recycle them when they have exhausted their life. Dimmable CFL bulbs are available but require a specific dimmer.

  • LED

    This stands for light-emitting diode, which is a long-lasting and extremely energy efficient lighting technology. LED bulbs are a true game-changer when it comes to lighting, and prices and technology have improved dramatically over the last few years. Today, LED bulbs are available for nearly every application and bulb type. Bulbs can be dimmable or non-dimmable, and they come in a wide array of color renderings, from "bluish" daylight to the warm tones traditionally found in incandescent bulbs. Pricing has improved to the point where LEDs are less expensive than fluorescents, with greater efficiency, in most applications.

  • Fluorescent

    The typical fluorescent bulb, which looks like a long tube, is known for giving off a flat, cold light. Newer versions, however, offer different outputs that may be warmer, cooler, or even special colored. These lights work best for illuminating broad spaces (think garages, attics, basements), as they typically produce a lot of light and they can't be put on a dimmer. Their lifecycle is longer than that of incandescents.

Don't forget the dimmer.

Most designers agree that dimmers are all but essential, particularly for overhead light sources. Not only does a dimmer allow flexibility for mood, time of day, or event, but it can minimize energy consumption and extend bulb life. Specific dimmer types are required for LED and fluorescent bulbs.