The lighting in a room isn’t just part of the decor; it can affect everything from your sleep schedule to your brain power. So it’s understandable that you want your home, the place you presumably spend a big chunk of your life, to be lit nicely. But there are so many different options to choose from!
Certain types of lighting serve a specific purpose, and when it comes to your home, you want the right type, depending on the purpose of your room. To optimize your home’s lighting, first consider how you’re using each room.
Generally, lighting function falls in one of three categories: ambient, task, and accent.
- General or ambient lighting acts as the overall lighting of a room. It illuminates all of the room and is considered the room’s “natural light.” You might use a chandelier, pendant light, track lighting or wall sconces to create ambient light that fills the room.
- Task lighting lights up a work or reading area. You want this lighting to be brighter than your ambient lighting, so the contrast focuses the light in the specified area. Desk lamps and under-cabinet kitchen lights are common task lighting options. But pendants and track lighting can be used for task lighting, too, but it depends on how you layer the lighting in your room, and how bright your bulbs are (which we’ll cover in a bit).
- Accent lighting highlights a particular area, like a work of art or a bookcase. It usually creates shadow around the object for a dramatic effect. Wall lights and landscape lights are common accent lights.
To properly light your rooms using these techniques, consider how you’re going to use each room and whether there’s anything you want to accent in the room. Then, start layering. HGTV recommends you start with ambient lighting, then consider task and accent lighting:
“I like to move from general to specific when planning the lighting for a room,” says lighting designer Markus Earley of Providence, R.I. With rooms that are heavily task-oriented, however, such as home offices, some designers focus on task lighting first. And in a hallway that doubles as a photo or art gallery, accent lighting might be the first consideration.
Then, think about where that lighting will go in the room. Don’t worry about the fixtures yet, just think about where you want different lighting to fall in the room. If you’re not sure where to start, consider these general, room-by-room suggestions:
- Living room: In addition to ambient light, Real Simple suggests using an accent light in one corner of the room. Focus on an object, like a piece of art or a chair.
- Kitchen: Add your ambient light overhead, then add lower task lighting to illuminate the counter space where you work. If possible, the sink is also a good spot to add task lighting.
- Bedroom: It’s common to have task lighting in your bedroom on nightstands. Real Simple also recommends pointing any light away from the bed. They suggest angling overhead ambient light away from the bed and toward the dressing area, specifically.
- Bathroom: Bathroom lighting can be tricky. You want task lighting for the mirror, but an overhead task light can create shadows. Consider lighting the mirror on either side. Then, use an overhead ambient light to fully illuminate the room.
Of course, if you’re a renter, you may not be able to do much about some of the lighting position in your home or apartment. But these general guidelines can give you an idea of how to work with what you’ve got.
Your bulb is your light source, so the type of bulb determines what the light will look like. Different bulbs perform differently, and there are four basic types:
- Incandescent: These are the traditional bulbs most of us have used for decades, and they’re starting to phase out in favor of more energy-efficient options. They produce a warm, glowing light.
- Compact florescent bulbs (CFLs): These use 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb. They also last longer. They usually emit a cooler tone, but you can find them in a range of brightness levels and temperatures. It’s worth noting that CFLs do contain mercury, and while the amounts are small, they still require more careful handling and disposal, says National Geographic.
- LEDs: These are just as efficient as CFLs, but they can last up to three times longer. They used to be mostly used for task lighting, because they only provided a harsh, direct light, but like CFLs, they’ve come a long way. They now offer the same look as incandescents, but they’re efficient, less hot to the touch, and last a long time. For these reasons, they can also be more expensive, but there are utility rebates available.
- Halogen: These give off a bright, white light, similar to natural daylight. Great for task lighting. They also use 10-20 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb.
There are other types of bulbs, but these are the most common you’ll use in your home. And for the purpose of this post, we’re only concerned with how bulbs look. If you want to learn more about how they work, check out this helpful post from the American Lighting Association. The FTC now requires bulb packaging to include information about brightness, how long the bulb will last, how much energy it uses, and whether it meets Energy Star requirements. (Here’s a sample label from the NRDC.)
When discussing appearance, we’re concerned with brightness—which is measured in lumens; and light appearance—which is measured in Kelvins.
The more lumens, the brighter the bulb. A typical home bulb produces about 800 lumens, which is the equivalent of 60 watts. So how many lumens do you need for each room? That’ll depend on how big your room is, what color your walls are, and, obviously, intensity of lighting you prefer. Use this calculator to come up with a specific number, based on your home and preferences. But here’s a general breakdown, via HouseLogic:
- Kitchens: 5,000-10,000 total lumens
- Bathrooms: 4,000-8,000 total lumens
- Bedrooms: 2,000-4,000 total lumens
- Living rooms: 1,500-3,000 lumens
- Dining rooms: 3,000-6,000 lumens
- Home offices: 3,000-6,000 lumens
Keep in mind, these are rough estimates and account for the use of different types of bulbs and lighting options in each room. Kitchens are typically brighter and include a mix of ambient light and task lighting, for example. Bedrooms and living rooms are typically less bright.
If you know how to light your room in terms of watts, here’s a wattage-to-lumens cheat sheet.
Beyond brightness, you also want to consider the color temperature of the light. CFLs weren’t great years ago, because they mostly only produced a very blue, cool light. But they’ve come a long way, and you can now find them in warmer, yellower tones. The package should tell you the color temperature of the light, from warm to cool, measured in Kelvins. The higher the Kelvins, the cooler the light. Lighting blog Batteries + Bulbs explains how bulb boxes typically refer to different bulb temperatures. The also add where these temperatures are best used in your home:
- Soft white/warm white (2700 Kelvins): Best for bedrooms and living rooms; providing a traditional warm, cozy feel to them.
- Bright white/cool white (4100 Kelvins): Best in kitchens, bathrooms or garages; giving rooms a whiter, more energetic feel.
- Daylight (5000-6000 Kelvins): Best in bathrooms, kitchens and basements; good for reading, intricate projects, or applying makeup—provides the greatest contrast among colors.
You can also try this interactive tool from Energy Star, which suggests what kind of bulb to get for different lighting options in every room.
It helps to have a basic idea of how bulbs work. This way, you can pick and choose a bulb to your liking. Also, dimmers are a great option if you want to vary the intensity of your lighting. We’ve covered how to install a dimmer switch yourself.
Now that you know the function of your lighting, how bright you want it, and what temperature you prefer, it’s time to pick the best type of fixture for optimizing all of those factors. Here are some common fixtures, along with how (and where) they’re typically used:
- Ceiling mount fixtures: Pretty standard for ambient lighting. The House Designers say they’re ideal in entry foyers, hallways, bedrooms, task areas, stairways. In hallways, they recommend spacing out fixtures every eight to 10 feet for adequate illumination.
- Chandeliers: When used for general or ambient lighting, they’re best used in dining room or or bedrooms.
- Wall-mounted fixtures: These are usually sconces. They can be used in any room for ambient, task, or accent lighting, depending on where you put them and what kind of bulb you use.
- Pendant lighting: Used for task or general lighting, they hang from the ceiling and are equipped with shades to avoid glare. They work best over dining room tables, countertops or other work areas.
- Recessed lighting: Again, recessed lighting can be used anywhere for general, task or accent lighting. It all depends on how bright they are and where they’re located.
- Track lighting: You can use track lighting for pretty much anything, too. It’s especially versatile because you can often move the individual lamps around and point them in whatever direction you want. This might be as an accent to highlight some artwork, or you might just use them to illuminate the whole room.
- Table lamps: Great for accent lighting in a living room or task lighting in a bedroom.
The Lighting Research Center offers detail about some additional light fixtures, including how to install them and what sort of lighting effect they have. Remember: different fixtures call for different types of bulbs. So as you’re picking a fixture, consider what type of bulb it requires.
This is more of a design rule than a lighting rule, but when picking the right fixture, you also want to consider size. A fixture that’s too small or too big can make your room’s proportions look odd. LightsOnline lists some guidelines for choosing the right size fixture, but here are some highlights:
- Table lamps: A great general rule of thumb is that the lamp should be no more than 1.5 times the height of whatever the lamp is sitting on and lampshade diameter should be no wider than the table top.
- Chandeliers and pendant lighting: Measure the width or diameter of your table. Then subtract 12” from that number. That’s the maximum limit for the width or diameter of a hanging light. Keep in mind that a fixture with a busy or complex design will actually appear larger, so if that’s what is catching your eye, you’ll want to scale your maximum width down slightly. Assuming you have 8-foot ceilings, the bottom of the fixture should hang between 30 and 36 inches above the tabletop. But if your ceilings are higher, the suggestion is to add 3 more inches above the table for each additional foot of ceiling.
- Sconces: The closer you will be to whatever the sconce is lighting, the smaller the sconce should be. So for example, in bathrooms where you will be close to the mirror, go for tiny ones of about 9-10”. In bathrooms, mount sconces 36 to 40” apart, flanking the mirror, 18” from the sink’s center line. If the sconces have shades, put the bottom edges of the shades a little below eye level (60 to 68” from the floor).
For some, home design comes naturally, and it’s easy enough to eyeball your lighting when decorating. For the rest of us, it can take following a few rules and guidelines, and these should get you started in the right direction.
This story was originally published in June 2015 and was updated on Nov. 30, 2020 to include updated links and a new header photo.