Everything You Need to Know About Ambient Lighting

Whatever your needs, there's a type of ambient home lighting to fit them. We'll show you all of your options, including sconces and lamps—and everything in between.

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Most rooms have some kind of dominant lighting. These fixtures help define the space while adding crucial function. As important as these lights may be, they're not all that a room's light plan has to offer.

Ambient lighting supports the room with softer, gentler light. It's the light that helps set the mood for whatever activity is on hand, whether that be a romantic dinner or a movie night. Ambient lighting can generally be broken down into three main categories: sconces, lamps, and other fixtures. We'll walk you through all of your options for this type of light and help you decide what fixtures are best for your home. 

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Types of Sconces

The two types of electric sconces (wall lamps) are direct-wire and plug-in. Most sconces fit close to the wall and direct light up or down. Up-lighting enhances the room; down-lighting brightens specific areas.

Direct-wire sconces have no exposed cords and are permanently wired into power in the wall. An electrician is needed for installation. Some direct-wire sconces operate from light switches in the room and turn on and off with the ceiling lights or from a separate switch. Others have a switch attached to the sconce and are turned on independently. Determine your needs before purchasing. If it is to be a part of the room's total lighting, select one that turns on at the switch. If you want to use it independently, such as for bedside reading after the main light is turned out, choose the kind with its own switch.

Plug-in sconces hook to the wall with brackets and plug into an existing outlet. Although these are easier and less expensive to install than direct-wire sconces, the exposed cord from the fixture to the outlet can be unsightly. Plug-in sconces operate by a switch on the lamp. To turn the sconce on and off at the wall, plug the cord into an outlet controlled by a wall switch.

Similar to the sconce is the hinged arm or swing-arm wall lamp. A swinging bar allows these lights to be positioned against the wall or to extend away from the wall. These work well when there is no room for a side table and lamp but additional light is needed for tasks such as reading or needlework. Swing-arm lamps come in both direct-wire and plug-in styles.

Types of Lamps

Because ambient lighting doesn't cover the entire room, table and floor lamps usually provide additional light. These fixtures cast light in specific areas for certain jobs.

For the most comfort, place a table lamp so that the bottom of the shade is approximately at eye level. When the shade is higher, the glare from the bulb causes eyestrain; when it is lower, the light hits the table instead of the work. Table lamps should also be kept in proportion to the table. As a general rule, the shade should be approximately two-thirds the height of the lamp base, deep enough so that a small portion of the neck (the fitting between the lamp and socket) is visible, and about one-and-a-half times the width of the lamp base.

Some retailers code lamps and shades to make it easy to mix and match shades and bases successfully. Rules and proportions vary with each lamp base and shade shape. Also keep in mind all of the different light bulb options you have. Soft white bulbs are better than the clear or colored variety. If you experience glare, the wattage is too high. Three-way bulbs or a light controlled by a dimmer switch can adjust the light level.

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Other Types of Lights

Accent lighting draws attention to an aspect of the room, such as art. Recessed spotlights and track lights are the most common accent lights, but sconces, uplights, decorative spotlights, and some table and floor lamps also can provide accent light. To draw attention to a specific item, such as artwork, place an accent light at a 30-degree angle and focus its beam on the object. This is called spotlighting, and approximately three times the room's normal light level is required to create a spotlighted focal point.

Wall washing works well when a wall or multiple objects on the wall are the focal point. A row of accent lights that evenly brightens the entire area should be placed on the ceiling 2 to 3 feet from the wall. On an especially high ceiling, this lighting should be 3 to 4 feet from the wall.

Stone or brick walls, fireplaces, and textural areas can be emphasized by skimming a row of lights down the surface. This trick is called wall grazing. To get the effect, place track or recessed lights 6 to 12 inches from the wall and aim them down and across the wall.

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How to Vary Light Levels

Varying light levels can enhance almost any room of the house. Dimmers are commonly used in the dining room; however, kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, and entryways can benefit from bright light, which is needed for everyday tasks, and softer light that creates an intimate mood.

Dimmers are available in toggle, rotary dial, or touch-sensitive styles. Before purchasing a dimmer switch, check to see whether your overhead light can be dimmed. If it can, buy the switch to match your light style.

Some dimmers have two components: One automatically turns the light to full power or a preset power; the other adjusts the light. Deluxe models automatically adjust lighting to preset positions or control multiple lights from a single switch.

Dimmer attachments (on-line, socket, or plug-in dimmers) also are available for floor and table lamps. These are available at hardware, home improvement, and lighting centers.

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