Lighting Categories Defined

What's the point? Lighting is lighting, after all. This brief article is a straightforward attempt to get you to think about lighting from a functional point of view. That is: What is it supposed to accomplish? Start with one room or outside area and think about what the lighting in that area should be like to make the area as useful, functional, attractive and safe as possible.

What do you want to be able to see? Do you want attention focused on certain areas or objects in the room or in the area? Do you want the visitor to this area impressed with the entire area so that they pause a moment before walking in? Or, do you want the area to have a taste of mystery that may invite the visitor to discover "treasures" located there? Is your primary goal to keep visitors safe as they travel through the area?

I believe too many homeowners think about lighting as an afterthought and consequently miss what will really bring a room or an area alive.

So, when you are planning your lighting scheme, use the following four general categories as a guideline to help you decide how much of each type of lighting would best serve the purposes you are trying to achieve.


This is just a fancy term that means the light that is naturally available. The most typical ambient light is from windows or other openings to the outside world. It is also known as available light and is to be considered the "base" lighting for a room or an area. This type of lighting comes from a variety of directions as opposed to the other types of lighting. Ambient lighting (or general lighting) is typically seen as the starting point for lighting a space or a room.

In addition to natural light, ambient light can also include any other types of lighting that gives an area overall, more or less, even lighting. This includes built-in fireplaces, recessed ceiling lights, surface-mounted ceiling fixtures or even floor lamps and table lamps. The basic function of ambient lighting is to diffuse lighting throughout a room or an area, eliminating shadows and reducing lighting contrasts throughout.

In larger areas such as garages and utility rooms, ambient lighting can be provided by strategically placed fluorescents. Fluorescents can also be used in kitchens as a substitute for the natural ambient lighting provided by windows during the daylight hours.

Not to confuse the issue, but ambient lighting can, in some cases, be achieved by the combination of the other types or categories of lighting mentioned in this article.


Accent lighting is really a subset of decorative lighting. Its function is to focus attention to the special features of your home such as plants, statuary, other artwork such as paintings, collectibles and anything else you want visitors to pay special attention to.

This is directional lighting, which highlights an object or attracts attention to a particular area. The job, in using this type of lighting, is to create a sense of separation from other areas in the room. Fixtures that serve this purpose are spotlights, floodlights, sconces or any type of fixture that can be adjusted and focused. Small collectibles or high-quality books can be highlighted with a strategically placed table lamp with a shade that is narrow enough to keep the light directed where you want it directed.

If you have a "trophy" kitchen and you want to highlight special features, accent lighting will fill the bill.


Just as it implies, task lighting should be designed to make certain things you routinely do around the house easier. Food preparation is a task that can usually benefit from task lighting. The eating area (s) are also good locations to consider task lighting (perhaps on dimmer switches). Reading, doing homework and working in a home-office also need specially directed task lighting to make the various jobs easier to do and to avoid eyestrain. Desk lamps, special appliance lights and ceiling pendants are all examples of lighting fixtures that are frequently used as task lights. Again, dimmer switches are often useful, allowing task areas to be turned back into ambient-lighted areas when not in use.

It's important to position task lights, particular those used for reading, in such a way that glare is avoided. This can sometimes be accomplished by using dual light sources that provide cross lighting that will minimize or eliminate glare and shadows.


When the functional lighting has been completed, it's time to get to the fun stuff: Decorative Lighting. Although this is where you can really put character in your home, you have to be careful not to overdo it. If you have an entryway or foyer that is large enough to accommodate a chandelier, by all means, use one. Consider wall sconces in hallways and on stairways.

You do need to keep in mind that decorative lighting can, if not done with care, overpower the other lighting sources that you've worked so hard to develop. A word to the wise is to use a few very high quality decorative pieces rather than a large number of "nice" pieces.

In closing, please remember that careful planning in your lighting design will provide a very functional and comfortable living environment as well as showing off the features in your home that you are particularly proud of.