Lighting Basics: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Illumination

Table of Contents

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of any space, yet it’s often overlooked or misunderstood. If you’re new to lighting or just need a refresher, our beginner’s guide to lighting will give you the basics you need to know about lighting

What can lighting do?

Light plays a critical role in shaping our perception of the world, as it’s the medium through which we receive the vast majority of our impressions via our eyes.

Lighting encompasses the application of light in a given space. Factors such as the position, intensity, and direction of light can significantly impact not only visual comfort and acuity but also human perception. In addition to light, the choice of lighting fixtures can also have an impact on the atmosphere and occupants’ experience of the space.

Color perception:

GU10 CRI98

Generally, for an object to perceive a specific color, it must reflect that color in both itself and the light that illuminates it. Designers are particularly interested in color appearance, which is typically measured by correlated color temperature (CCT), and color rendering, which is measured by color rendering index (CRI) in comparison to a standard light source, usually sunlight.

A higher CRI indicates better color rendering and stronger color reproduction of the object, while the lighting industry is exploring an index that captures saturation. Altering CCT, CRI, and saturation can have a significant impact on the appearance of people, objects, and spaces, potentially enhancing, weakening, or even changing their original colors.

Focus Focus:

The human eye has a natural tendency to gravitate towards the brightest areas in a field of view. This phenomenon can be utilized by directing higher intensity light towards specific features within a space, making them a focal point, drawing attention to them, and establishing visual hierarchy. For example, key merchandise can be highlighted by focusing higher intensity light on it to enhance its display.

Spatial perception:

By using different light patterns in a space, one can evoke diverse psychological responses, as demonstrated in the table below. For instance, a lobby area can appear more communal and visually expansive with bright and uniform lighting directed towards the walls or ceiling. On the other hand, a restaurant can establish an intimate atmosphere by utilizing low-level lighting and a few peripheral lights.

Psychological shock Lighting effects Light source distribution
Nervous Strong direct light from above Uneven
Relaxed Low overhead lighting, some light around the perimeter, warm tones Uneven
Work/Visual Clarity Bright lights on a work surface with less ambient light and wall lighting with cooler tones Uniform
Sense of Spaciousness Bright lights on the walls and ceiling Uniform
Privacy/Intimacy Use low-level lighting in event spaces, add a small amount of perimeter lighting, and keep the rest of the space dark Uneven

The light in a space defines its personality and how people perceive it, which in turn affects how people feel there.

Dialogue of light

Providing light to space involves the process of lighting design. This process entails discussing the needs of the space’s owner and user, including who will be using the space, their lighting requirements, and the space’s spatial characteristics. Additionally, the process considers the business goals that the lighting should meet, the owner’s desired ambiance, and the importance of energy efficiency and ease of maintenance. Finally, the process must also factor in any restrictions, such as energy regulations and budget limitations.

Layers of light

Generally speaking, the layering of space lighting includes “general/ambient lighting”, “task/focal lighting” and “accent lighting”.

General Lighting:

Lighting Basics

The primary function of this layer is to provide enough light for visual tasks, safe circulation, or both. It is typically provided by overhead fixtures and is diffuse and uniform in nature.

General lighting can be classified into three categories based on its luminous condition: direct lighting, indirect lighting, or a combination of both.

Direct lighting is characterized by the projection of all or almost all light onto a particular area and can be either concentrated or diffused depending on the optics utilized. Although it is highly energy efficient, it is susceptible to direct glare, scalloping on nearby walls, and significant shadows.

Indirect lighting, on the other hand, directs almost all light upward towards the ceiling and adjacent walls before reflecting it into a designated area. This produces a very soft and comfortable distribution of light, but it may also make the space appear less three-dimensional.

Auxiliary Task Lighting:

Auxiliary Task Lighting

The main purpose of this layer is to provide increased light intensity during events, which can highlight important elements of the space or draw attention to the center of the event. Typically, this is achieved using localized equipment, such as different types of focal lighting.

Accent Lighting:

Accent Lighting

Precise focusing of intense light on objects such as murals, artwork, buildings, and areas is achieved by providing high relative intensity light. Devices such as directional lighting with different beam spreads provide precise control over what is projected. Flexible lighting is recommended in scenarios where moving displays are required, such as retail stores. The frame is formed by specific accent lighting techniques, and recessed or surface-mounted spotlights, paired with adjustable shutters, allow for precise focus of intense light.

By individually controlling these layers at different intensities, various scenarios can be generated, providing flexibility to meet various spatial needs.

Lighting technology

Apart from the fundamental layers of lighting, there are several methods to create specific lighting effects. These methods comprise of downlighting, wallwashing, cornice lighting, uplighting, silhouettes, and flashes.



The technique of downlighting is widely used and involves placing light underneath a light source. Different types of lighting fixtures, including downlights and recessed shades, can be used to achieve this effect. The light can be either soft and diffuse to ensure visual comfort in spaces with important visual tasks, or intense and non-diffuse to create visually stimulating ambience.

When not balanced with other light sources, downlighting can produce unwanted shadows on surfaces. For instance, if a downlight is mounted close to a wall, it can create a tall and narrow scallop, which is generally considered undesirable.

Wall washing and wiping:

Wall washing

To create a visually smooth and shadow-free surface on a wall, lighting is evenly distributed from top to bottom in a technique known as wall washing. This method is ideal for flat walls, but to ensure effective wall washing, light sources must be positioned at a distance from the wall and be spaced close enough together.

Wall scrubbing is a lighting technique that involves placing the light source closer to the wall than in wall washing. This proximity creates more pronounced shadows, which accentuate textures, making it an ideal technique for textured walls like brick and stone. Varying the distance of the light source from the wall can produce different degrees of shadowing.

Cornice lighting:

Cornice lighting

The primary function of cornice lighting is to highlight architectural features by projecting light onto the ceiling, which is then reflected into the space as indirect ambient light. This technique mainly illuminates the recesses in the surrounding walls.



When using uplighting, the light is positioned above the object to be highlighted. While not a commonly used technique, it can be effective in situations such as creating a candlelit atmosphere on a table or accentuating the architecture, greenery, or landscaping of a building.


Silhouette, which involves illuminating the object from behind and reducing or eliminating frontal light, creates a shadowy outline of the object. Depending on the level of backlighting, the silhouette can be sharp or hazy. This approach is frequently employed for aesthetic purposes in the decoration of artwork, architecture, or branding.


Glare spots, which are small areas of brightness included to add visual appeal and sophistication, can be found in various objects. Examples include chandeliers and glitter on silverware in dining rooms.

Lighting aesthetics

The visual appeal of lighting fixtures can impact how people perceive a space and those within it. For instance, a sparkling, decorative chandelier in a hotel lobby can suggest sophistication, while a series of linear suspended lights in an office in place of recessed ceiling fixtures can evoke a modern, techy vibe. Additionally, the placement of lamps contributes to the aesthetic impression. It’s essential to position light fixtures in a way that they don’t impede the visual experience.


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Lighting is more than lumens and watts; it’s about the strategic use of light to achieve the specific goals of space owners and users. By becoming familiar with the various techniques and principles used to create different lighting effects, homeowners can approach marketing conversations with greater lighting basics and a clearer understanding of their needs.

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