A Practical Guide to Lighting a Room

A longer piece done in a more literary style for a local print-only magazine.

A practical Guide to lighting a room

from Actually People Quarterly 



Light is uncanny. It’s so commonplace we simply flip it on and off and use it to ignite our joints and cigarettes, yet light encompasses all that we do and truly is all that we are.

In San Francisco most of all, unless it is Paris, light is our obsession. We receive ideal natural light throughout the year. Our western exposure to the Pacific Ocean gives us a low-lying strata of fog, that despite the decay of our environment is relatively clean and therefore free of filters that might otherwise skew the balance of color in our light. Suffice to say, those of us learning to light a room to our personal aims in San Francisco face even higher stakes.

Briefly, I must mention that when discussing light, it is possible—even likely—that one will be bogged down. The unutterably infinite number of affects that light is able to refract and multiply make it a very tricky thing to discuss and a very tricky thing to plan for a party. But I believe that to be bogged down in light would be remembered as a great tragedy. Therefore, I must create confines for this piece in order to leave the world with something simple and useful: a practical guide. Practicality rests on limits, and so we shall set them to a single room—one’s own room, perhaps.

On The Room

Most rooms are cubes, reader. This is because human eyes are round, and we find it settling to put neat corners on our peripheries. It is also practical, as ready-made dimensional building materials can easily be shipped to a construction site. This guide, being as practical as it is, will use a square room in its subsequent discussion of light. 

 It is not practicality, as one might suppose, that makes human designers default to a single fixture placed dead center in a ceiling. Rather it is a laziness of imagination: there is little thought given as to where to place our electric sun, and so it is most commonly found at high noon. If your aim is to create a room in which daylight is at its most vibrant and harsh, then go no further; simply flip on your overhead. Under this light, I suggest only labor and prostrating oneself on the floor. Performing other tasks and activities could do terrible physiological damage.

Types of Light

Whereas humans generally receive one type of light from the sun and the other from an electrified grid, one is tempted to distinguish sunlight as natural while classifying light from other sources as artificial. This is a grave mistake in learning to light a room. Whether for good or for bad, electric light comes from stored energy from the sun. For our purposes then, as the sun is natural, light is natural.  

Light from the sun is filtered through our atmosphere appearing red at sunrise and sunset, yellow in the morning and evening, white at midday, and at dawn and dusk multicolored, as soft pink is met across the horizon by cool purple light. To create ideal light for the day, one need only locate the windows of a given room, address their direction, and work to balance the light throughout the room.

Utilizing Windows

A South-facing window in the Northern Hemisphere is a beautiful thing to have. White walls and simple white curtains are all that are required to perfectly light the room for day. As the sun rises, cover part of the window with the sheer curtain, blocking out only direct rays. As the sun moves so should you adjust your scrim, diffusing direct light while allowing the already diffuse light from the sky into your room.  

North-facing windows will still offer light throughout the day, but in a large room or a room with a small window, the light is feeble and needs some nursing. A mirror on the opposite wall can increase the amount of light dramatically. A high-gloss floor will bounce the light from the window up toward the ceiling. A bright and lightly-colored piece of upholstery below the window offers a much more pleasant effect than a dark carpet. Light from northerly windows needs reflection and balancing, and the windows themselves should be left as unobstructed as possible. 

East- and West-facing windows offer extremes. In an East-facing room with many windows, total diffusion is needed from the hour just after dawn to the hour after high noon, depending on the season. After which a very pleasant daylight settles in. If there are not many windows, supplemental light may be needed for day. Place them in the farthest reaches in the room. If the room faces West, the above advice is still true, you’ll simply have to switch the directions around. 

The Light of Your Fires

Light from other sources is a trickier matter. Electric lights, candles, fires: they will never light a room as efficiently as a the sky and the sun, and they will never be as complicated or as beautiful. An atmosphere, however, remains the most useful metaphor in lighting a room with electricity. In practical terms, this helps us decide where to place our lamps. To create a well-lit room, one needs multiple sources of light. A beautiful collection of lamps can take years to accomplish, but is truly crucial in a city. In suburban settings modern designers have often taken bolder visions to fruition, in which case I suggest thinking of this preordained vision as a set of constraints under which a room’s denizen and the unnamed suburban designer must together create magic. No matter where the abode, when placing lamps one must consider the use of the light and of shadows being created.

Three Uses

Reader, be practical. First imagine your lifestyle. Is the room used for relaxing? Do you use it for entertaining? Solely for working? A darkened room with a brightly illuminated work table might be conducive to intense study. This bright, narrowly focused light would be an utter catastrophe in a room used to entertain friends. What follows is a discussion of the three main types of indoor light and their uses.

Ambient light should be thought of as the general level of light within a room. The two characteristics that must be considered are brightness and contrast. Brightness should be thought of as the amount of light. Contrast is how much diffusion it is given. Ambient lighting that is medium bright, and quite diffused will offer a good level of comfort. We will feel safe in this light. We will relax in this light, laugh and feel inclined to talk. Tone down the brightness while keeping a steady diffusion creates light that assures us that we know all that is in the room, yet allows us to feel somewhat hidden. This light will make us feel bold, sexy. Diffusing the light less will result in the narrow beams of light creating long shadows; an air of mystery will ensue. Go too far and risk turning sex to murder and one’s possessions against them. Going further than this, say, a naked bulb placed low in a corner of a room will result in honest-to-goodness madness. 

Your ambient light should be placed high in a room, perhaps a corner, or centered on a wall that anchors the room (to determine this, one might stand stock-still in the room and consider their nerves as they sway in each direction).  In a large room, a lamp on a table or desk near the center of the room can create excellent ambient light, while offering a sense of depth to the room around it. A lampshade is a thing of beauty because it offers good diffusion and pleasant color. Look for golds, pinks, even black shades. When assessing the brightness level of ambient light, remember that the other two types of light in the room will increase the amount of overall light and must be accounted for. 

Mood or accent light highlights architectural details, objects in a room, and can help cordon off spaces. Contracting to have Italian sconces installed on either side of a fireplace is often not possible; for those of us living under more modest means, a strand of lights placed over a doorway offers the same principal. A lamp placed in a seating area, a picture light, or a line of candles on a table will serve to accent existing elements of the room; to direct people to interact with the objects arranged in the room, and to create dimension in the space in which one lives. Look for nontraditional lighting sources: etagere lights, small-scale candlestick lamps, stone candle shades. Always keep in mind the size and scale of the object you wish to animate.

Task lighting is bright, narrowly focused, and almost always shines downward. Whether your task is reading, writing, or something more illicit, your task lighting should offer you a good deal of light for your activities, without interrupting or overpowering the other lights in your room. When a sculptural reading lamp is placed over a chair, it becomes both a task light and accent, creating a well-lit space, and an anchor for the eye in your room. Use sparingly.

Beautiful Light

Once one has addressed the kinds of light needed, and the ways in which the room in question will be used, it is time to being arranging. The classic setups for all portraits follow this premise: a triangulation of light with the subject in the center, and a small light above for the hair and the crown of the head. If the backlight is off to one side, and the two other lights (one narrow and bright, the other softer and more diffused,) are shining on the face of a beautiful person from the front, the person will suddenly appear as seductive as Garbo. If the lights before a handsome subject are almost evenly split, one on each side, this person will become instantly more heroic. 

The lights in one’s room will be dictated by the architecture one lives with; the collection of lamps each of us have found; the sockets in our walls; the objects dear to our hearts, the tasks immediately at our hands. If one is able (and you certainly are,) create a triangle of lights in your room placed at varying heights, and place a very weak bulb in the fixture overhead. Each time the people and objects in your room pause, it is likely that they will be cast under the dizzying spell of glamour so made famous by The Motion Picture Industry.

And now, reader, I should finish with some practical rules to help you on your way. Light at least two corners. Electricity is not free, so use light in more than one way. Use high-efficiency bulbs in lamps with very warm-colored shades. Light the focal point of your room. Light your favorite pieces of art. Sit in the room. Stand in it. Watch the effect that staying conscious of your lighting scheme has on your lighting scheme. Change it. Move it. When you have found the correct arrangement of light and objects, from day to night, you will go places you may not yet understand very quickly. These are the markers in the labyrinth, the cities of the imagination—I know you’ll do your best to light these, too.