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How to Choose the Right Lights

Updated March 23, 2022

Holly H.

By Holly H.

No matter the size of a space, how you light it can make all the difference in its function. A well-placed ceiling light fixture or lamp can provide pleasant and functional ambient light. In this article, we’ll explain the different types of lighting and where they’d work best in your home.

Layers of Light

A chart with lighting types and the rooms where you should use ambient, task or accent lighting.

There are three layers of light: ambient, task and accent. The size of your room and room type will determine which types you need. In general, you want at least two layers to properly light a room. Sometimes simply adding a layer of light can dramatically increase your home’s quality of light. The chart on the right outlines the layers of light and where they should be used.

Ambient Lighting

Ambient, or general lighting, is needed in every room. It provides a comfortable overall level of light. Ambient light sources are typically overhead lighting, such as ceiling light fixtures, and as a general rule it’s the best place to start when lighting a room. Ambient light sources to consider for your lighting plan: ceiling fans, chandeliers, flush mount or semi-flush mount ceiling fixtures, pendants, recessed lighting, torchiere lamps, track lighting, vanity lighting and wall sconces.

Task Lighting

Task lighting allows you to see while you’re performing a task. It supplies the intense, direct light needed for detailed work — reading, cooking, prep, applying makeup — in places like the kitchen, office and bath. Task light sources to consider for your lighting plan: desk lamps, island or mini pendants, track lighting, under cabinet lighting, vanity lighting, and work lamps.

Accent Lighting

Accent lighting allows you to spotlight interesting features in your home décor, such as a painting or a mantel. It also serves as a secondary light source to augment ambient lighting in a room. Ambient lighting mainly provides overhead lighting, and accent lighting helps illuminate parts of the room where ambient light can’t reach. Accent lighting sources to consider for your lighting plan: recessed lighting, track lighting and wall sconces.

Select a Fixture Style

Brass globe wall sconces, a geometric black and brass pendant and a polished nickel chandelier.

If you’re selecting a fixture, start with a favorite element in the room and look for a light that complements it. If you have a modern sofa for example, lighting with clean lines will enhance your space. Another tip is to look at the cabinet or door hardware in the room and choose fixtures in a complementary finish. If you need more ideas and inspiration, our lighting trends guide can help you select the best light fixtures for your space.

Now that you’ve thought about style, it’s time to look at the best lighting types by room.

Foyer

A rustic farmhouse entry with a padded bench, coat rack, shelves and a metal flush mount light.

The foyer creates the first impression of your home, so you’ll want ambient light with a couple of accent light sources. You can’t go wrong with a flush mount light or a semi-flush mount light. If your foyer has a vaulted ceiling, go bold with a chandelier or pendant lantern for a more dramatic entrance. If you have a side table, a table lamp can provide a secondary light source.

Living Room

A neutral living room with wood ceilings, a cream sofa, a beaded chandelier and a wooden floor lamp.

The living room is the place for hanging out, relaxing, cozying up with a book or watching a movie. Lots of daily activity occurs here. That means you’ll need a variety of lighting.

If your living room has areas with no light or the current light casts shadows, you’ll need more ambient and accent lighting. Recessed lighting and flush mount or semi-flush mount lights are good options for ambient lighting. Track lighting provides accent lighting, allowing you to direct light toward paintings, glass vases or whatever you’d like to showcase. If you have a focal point in the room, like a mantel, add wall sconces to either side for additional accent lighting.

Other ambient lighting options are ceiling fans, chandeliers, pendant lights with a drum shade and torchiere floor lamps. A torchiere floods the ceiling with light. These lamps work well if you’re not in the market to install permanent lighting or if you need to light a small space like a loft or apartment. Some ceiling fans can also offer perfect LED lights for home spaces like the living room.

Watch This Video: How to Choose a Floor Lamp

Kitchen

A kitchen with blue cabinets and an open black pendant light over an island with wooden stools.

A kitchen requires multiple layers of light. Recessed lighting is great ambient lighting for both big and small kitchens. If your kids do their homework at the kitchen island while you chop veggies for dinner, hang an island pendant or individual mini pendants in a row over the island for both task and accent lighting.

Under cabinet lighting provides additional task lighting and takes up little space. It’s also helpful for the holidays when you have lots of chefs in the kitchen. To light a breakfast nook, a pendant or a chandelier works perfectly.

Dining Room

A dining room table with French bistro chairs, a blue rug, pillows and two rattan pendants.

Besides mealtime, the dining room can be a place for arts and crafts or family game night, and it needs to be lit accordingly. Chandeliers are still a classic option and serve as a good ambient light source. Try placing table lamps on a server or framing the server with wall sconces for extra ambient and accent lighting.

Watch This Video: How to Choose the Right Chandelier

Good to Know

Add a dimmer switch in the dining room. This allows you to turn up the light when the kids are at the dining table doing homework and turn it down when you’re having friends over for a dinner party.

Bedroom

A neutral bedroom with blue pillows, blankets and a lucite and brass ceiling fan.

Bedroom lighting should evoke a feeling of calm, but you still need ambient lighting, such as a ceiling fan or a flush mount light. Bedside table lamps or wall sconces mounted above the bedside table provide task lighting for things like reading in bed. Wall sconces are a great space-saving trick for smaller bedrooms or for a guest room. If you have a sitting area or workspace in your bedroom, table lamps work best.

Tip
Check out our Wall Sconce Buying Guide for a look at different lighting options.

Bathroom

A gray-blue bathroom with a brass mirror and brass and glass globe wall sconces.

While a vanity light above the bathroom mirror is still a traditional option, many homeowners are installing chandeliers for a more glamorous, spa-like feel. A bathroom fan with light provides ventilation and overhead light.

Wall sconces or pendant lights on either side of the bathroom mirror paired with a vanity light above create the perfect ambient and task light combo. The sconces provide cross illumination, making activities like applying makeup, shaving or flossing easier. Recessed lighting works well to light a shower or water closet.

Watch This Video: How to Light Your Bathroom

Need to Know

If you decide to use a chandelier or pendant light in your bathroom, ensure that it's damp rated or wet rated so that it’s suitable to hang in an area that’s exposed to water and humidity.

Office

An office with a white and wooden desk, black framed artwork and a white pendant light.

In an office, you need to be able to focus. If you’re squinting to see your computer but you don’t need glasses, you may need more light. Invest in an adjustable desk lamp so you have plenty of task lighting. Recessed lighting can provide ambient lighting for the whole room and can be put on a dimmer switch. A pendant light or a ceiling fan are other overhead lighting options. If your desk is positioned against a wall, mount wall sconces on either side to help illuminate your workspace.

Watch This Video: How to Choose a Table Lamp

Light Bulbs

Five seeded glass pendant lights in front of an olive-paneled wall.

Don’t forget light bulbs. Color temperature, lumens and wattage all play a factor in your room’s quality of light.

In general, consider the following:

  • Warm white color temperature for living rooms and bedrooms
  • Bright white color temperature for kitchens and workspaces
  • Daylight color temperature for reading nooks and studies

For more information on light bulbs and the right LED lights for home, check out the Light Bulb Buying Guide.

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