Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs

Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs - roomfortuesday.comI’ve shared a lot of lighting posts over the years… in fact, I’ve actually covered this topic before, but thought it was time for an updated post, based on the amount of questions I receive on this topic. Good designers are experts in lighting- they know how to layer fixtures, they know how to adequately light a space based on its function, and most importantly- they know what lighting temperatures look best in a room. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- our home feels most magical and cozy during the evening hours, and I credit that solely to lighting. You can have a beautifully designed home filled with gorgeous light fixtures, and the color of a simple light bulb can really damper the overall look and feel. In today’s Designer Trick post, I wanted to chat about light temperature… how to choose the best temp for your room, expand on the color scale, and share my personal preferences when light bulb shopping. Click through to check it out!

Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs - roomfortuesday.comAs I previously mentioned, there are two main terms you need to know when choosing a bulb: Kelvin and Lumens.

  • Kelvin (K) is the color / temperature of the light omitted from the bulb (warm light to cool light). The higher the number, the cooler the light.
  • Lumens (LM) is the brightness of a bulb… the higher the lumens, the brighter the light.

Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs - roomfortuesday.comEasy to understand, right? My personal preference in terms of temperature (or Kelvin) is 2700 K. Sometimes I’ll even go as low as 2400 K. I prefer a warm, cozy light… I also think it makes my interior look its best. It’s easy on the eyes, never looks clinical, and absorbs nicely.

I do think that your Kelvin preference is dependent on your home and aesthetic. I never use lights during the daytime. Our house gets great natural light and they’re really not needed… not even in my office or the kitchen (unless the weather is bad). Since I only use lights during the even hours or during stormy weather, the warm light feels like a perfect fit for our home. I even prefer warmer bulbs for our exterior lights (porch lights, holiday lights, etc). I just think they’re more inviting! If your house is naturally dark and doesn’t boast much natural light, you may want to consider bumping your temperature to 3000 Kelvin for a more even hue… remember, the higher the Kelvin (K), the cooler the temperature. My 2700 K preference looks warmer than a 3000 K bulb, which would read a bit cooler. Make sense? When you get into the 4000 – 5000 K, I personally feel like rooms begin to take on a clinical or sterile feel, which isn’t my favorite. Again, that’s just my personal preference!

Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs - roomfortuesday.comBrightness (or Lumens) totally depends on the function and the fixture. Are you using a light to cook? Is it the only fixture in the room? How many bulbs does the fixture contain? Is the bulb exposed or concealed? If the fixture has a shade, does it have a diffuser? Is it on a dimmer? All of these things play into the Lumens (or brightness) you’ll want to choose.

Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs - roomfortuesday.comI do have a few lighting tips that should help with your lighting decisions…

  • Always use multiple light sources in a room- read this post on how to layer lighting like a designer!
  • Hardwired, primary lights (that are used everyday) are great candidates for dimmers.
  • When installing recessed lighting, think multiples…  rather than installing two extra bright recessed lights- include four that are less harsh for a more even lighting zone. You’ll also need to consider their positioning.
  • Consider the direction of output (which way the light is cast from a fixture). Here’s an example- installing a super bright bulb in a floor lamp with an open shade that shines down on your face is a bad idea, but installing a brighter bulb in a room with only one flush mount fixture that has a milk glass, fully concealed shade or globe is a good move. That seems obvious, right?
  • Analyze the fixture material- does it have a clear shade, is the bulb exposed or concealed, does it have a diffuser, etc? You’ll need to choose the Lumens (or brightness) based on each individual fixture and its use.
  • Think about how many bulbs a single fixture requires. For example, a chandelier requires multiple bulbs, so I stick to low Lumen bulbs to keep the glare to a minimum. The combination of the bulbs will still provide a nice bright light overall, but won’t be overwhelming or harsh.

Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs - roomfortuesday.comLastly, let’s talk about bulb design and shape. This is a big one for me! I feel like as LED bulbs took over the market (for good reason based on their efficiency), some fast, bad design crept into retail stores. Don’t worry- there are plenty of good bulb styles to choose from, but I also intentionally avoid shapes like spiraled bulbs and odd flattened, flood shapes. Why? Unless your bulb is totally concealed in your fixture and you’ll never see it, I want the bulb to look aesthetically pleasing. If I’m lounging in bed and look up at my sconce or lamp, those little details make me crazy. For fixtures with exposed bulbs, clear globes, or open shades, make sure you choose a bulb shape that looks cohesive with the light fixture itself. I stick to basic white or clear bulbs, standard shapes, round shapes, and vintage shapes (like edison style bulbs). This has nothing to do with performance, brightness, or bulb temperature… it’s purely an aesthetic decision.

Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs - roomfortuesday.comFor more posts & resources on lighting, check out some of these below…

Additionally, you can find the entire Designer Trick series here. I’ve been sharing my industry tips & tricks for almost two years now! I hope these posts are helpful.

Designer Trick : Light Temperature & Bulbs - roomfortuesday.comHit me with your lighting or bulb questions in the comment section below! I’m happy to help. While it can seem daunting, bulb temperature and brightness is really pretty easy! I think it just requires practical thinking. I hope this updated bulb post makes things a bit easier for you the next time you’re bulb shopping! As always, let me know if you have other design questions or topics you’d like me to elaborate on in future blog posts. I feel the best posts are always the reader requests. I’ll drop a bunch of warm bulbs below (in my preference of 2700 K- also called “soft white”), if you prefer to buy bulbs online…

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  1. Ugh. I think I know why you get repeated reader requests for this topic. When I go to the bulb section of my local store, I start to get dizzy with options…and not in a good way. I’ve always just looked for the wattage that my fixture allows, but you don’t even mention that! I have definitely confused coolness with brightness. I’ve been confounded, too, when replacing bulbs that came with a fixture (our range hood). Should I change from halogen to LED? Also, since I favor cool colors, how does warm light affect that? I probably need to go turn on all my lights, see how they look and start ordering new bulbs. Why does lighting make me feel so dim? 🤣

    1. Forget about wattage when it comes to LED bulbs Peggi! The only time those ratings come into consideration for me, is when I’m dealing with a fixture that has multiple bulbs. (Chandeliers/outdoor light fixtures). I’m not going to confuse you with the why on that. For now, follow Sarah’s direction. Pay attention only to the Kelvin rating and the lumens. If you like cooler, look for anything beyond 2700K. 😉

    2. It’s not my favorite (most exciting) topic to talk about, but I really get so many questions about it. Haha! Hopefully I didn’t bore you to death. There are truly a million options at the hardware stores- it can definitely feel overwhelming, even to me. I don’t really look at wattage much anymore since we mostly buy LED. In terms of your range hood… once they burn out or it is time to upgrade, I’d definitely use LED over halogen. They’re more efficient! Double check your range hood specs to make sure it will work, but it should be fine. We have LED (also 2700 K) in our range hood. Do answer your question about color- do you use your lights during the day? I’m of the mindset that super cool lights can look really clinical- especially in the evening. Once the sun goes down, I’d rather have light that mimics candlelight, a fire, a lantern, a soft lamp, etc… as opposed to the sun or “natural daylight”. That just feels more organic to me, BUT- if you use them often during the day and you prefer cool colors, maybe try 3000 K and up. A warm light definitely skews the temperature of your home, and your cool furniture & decor can only absorb so much of the warmth. It’s strictly personal preference. Hope that was helpful! HAH! You are most certainly not dim- far from it :) Hope your Thursday was a good one!! xo

  2. Great tips Sarah! I gave myself a crash course in LED lighting after Jeff came home with 13 “bright daylight” LED bulbs. We went through about three rounds of light bulbs before I got fed up and took the reins. 🤣😂 One of the common mistakes people make when swapping to LED is only paying attention to the wattage equivalent listed on the package. LED bulbs are so much brighter than incandescent bulbs-it almost always spells disaster. I too prefer the 2700K bulbs (indoors and out)- the warmth and inviting tone of the light is pure beauty in my opinion. Where we haven’t had much luck making the swap is with some of our recessed lighting. Our living room has halogen bulbs, and they are such an odd size. We’ve yet to find an LED to actually fit; the same is the case with our bonus room. It drives me crazy to look from the kitchen to the living room and see two different sized bulbs in the recessed lighting.
    I love all of your tips and tricks. I never thought to consider the type of globe/shade on a particular fixture, but it makes total sense. We don’t have a ton of shaded fixtures, but it’s good to know for when I begin to add more. What is a diffuser? You mentioned it a few times, and I’m not sure I know what you’re referring to.
    In other topics- congrats on passing your dive test! I knew you had it in the bag! Want to know my interesting news of the week? Our odd desk area-turned coffee station is my “test area” for deciding the direction for the rest of the kitchen. It had some really worn spots, scratches and discoloration- I sanded it down on Tuesday to fix those issues and figure out a direction. Turns out the face trim on my cabinet boxes and that “solid surface” are oak veneer. Womp womp. I accidentally hit the core of the plywood in one small spot, but I grabbed a cabinet door and went to a local paint store to match the stain in the kitchen, stained it…it looks better than it did when we moved in, even with my small error. Today I’ll put the poly on to seal it. I told Jeff: “I’m not touching anything else in this kitchen unless it’s with a sledgehammer”. Now I know not to put the effort in that room beyond updating the wall color and styling. I’m happy I found out sooner than later that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze on that one. I’ll be focusing my attention on more fruitful projects moving forward, and dreaming of “demo day” in the meantime! Ha! Happy Thursday! Xo

    1. Thanks, Lauren! HAHA!! I am cracking up over here because that was my exact experience. Emmett and his “bright daylight” bulbs that were blinding and bright enough to perform surgery under. Ha! After some failed attempts and a quick design lesson, he finally knows what bulbs I like. It took a bit though. Such a good point about wattage. I definitely think that is confusing- like comparing apples to oranges… it’s not the same thing. I wonder if that was a marketing tactic to get people to buy or understand LED when they were first introduced to the masses? Soft white is also my jam… 2700 K for the win! I just think it feels so much more natural than the cool hues that try to replicate daylight. In the evening, I don’t want to see daylight or bulbs as bright as the sun… I’d rather a light mimic candlelight or softer tones that radiate from lamps or lanterns. That feels more organic to me. Our friends went through the same thing with their recessed lighting- they couldn’t find bulbs to fit, so they ended up replacing all of the cans completely. It was kind of a nightmare for them, but my friend is a designer and she was super bothered by it. Hopefully you don’t have to do that! As for the diffuser… we’ve only had a few fixtures with attached diffusers. They’re common on arched lamps and sconces with drum shades. It’s a piece that fits under the shade to diffuse the light (the nicer ones are fabric, but others are plastic). Here is an image, so you can get a visual. It softens the light so it doesn’t shine directly in your eyes. Thanks for your kind words about scuba! Emmett and I are already planning lots of fun dives… we have family vacay in July and we’re all signed up to tour an underwater art exhibit at 60 below. Haha! It’s going to be fun. Oak veneer?! Womp womp! Way to find the silver lining though- hellllloooo new kitchen (someday). Your “I’m not touching anything else in this kitchen unless it’s with a sledgehammer” is spot on. That sounds like me. Lol! At least you know now. When it comes time to renovate that space, let me know if you need a second pair of eyes :) Hope you had a great day! xo

      1. Unfortunately, we probably will have to swap all the recessed lighting from the living room into the kitchen (whenever we demo that mistake😂). Picture this: 14 recessed lights between the two rooms, two separate sizes (at least in each room they’re consistent), and NONE of them in a complete visual line with the others. Jeff says I have an eye for things being crooked, or out of level, and that he never noticed until I pointed it out. Since the first walk through I noticed it, and I can’t unsee it!
        Ok! Now I know exactly what you’re referring to with the diffuser. I thought I did, but wasn’t sure! Yes, I think the watts to LED conversion was a *failed* attempt at helping the masses understand. There really is no way to compare. It’s only helpful to me when I have a fixture with multiple bulbs. For example, our outdoor lights have two bulbs each, each bulb rated for maximum 60 watts. When selecting my bulbs, I purchased two LEDs whose ratings were for the equivalent of 30 watts each, totaling the equivalent of 60 watt output. Since LEDs tend to be much brighter than incandescent bulbs, doing this has helped get the exact amount of light without it being too bright. Many people would select two bulbs each with the 60 watt rating, get them home and it looks like the sun is rising in your front yard.😂🤣A lot of people don’t consider what their outdoor lights look like from passing cars- since our house is at the end of a very blind curve, I didn’t want our outdoor lights to be excessively bright (even though they’re all on dimmers). That is literally the only time that rating is helpful to me! It worked perfectly, and the front of the house has more than enough light to provide that lovely ambiance.
        I definitely will need your eyes and brainstorming when it comes time to renovate the kitchen. I’ve mostly figured out what makes sense to me-but there’s one area that is a conundrum. I appreciate you offering your eyes (though it will likely be a few years from now). It’s nice to have someone who understands to discuss these things with though!! Have an awesome weekend in the sun Sarah! Xo

        1. Ahhh bummer! 14 lights and none of them are in a line?! Ooof. I’m sorry! Haha! You just eyeballed all of them? Lol!! You are cracking me up with your references and that story. Hope your long weekend was the best!! :) xo

  3. Great post Sarah! Are lumens and kelvin numbers usually on the bulb packaging? I’ve only ever bought bulbs by wattage. Does that still factor in?

    1. Thanks, Karen! Lumens and Kelvin are located on all bulb packaging. You should also be able to find that info in the product description if shopping online :) Wattage is still printed on LED packaging so it can be compared to previous incandescent brightness, but it’s not something I really pay much attention to these days, since we buy all LED (for the sake of efficiency). It’s like comparing apples to oranges. LM and K are the two numbers I’m looking for when buying bulbs. I hope that helps!

  4. My years of working in a print shop where they check color under 5000K bulbs probably influences me but I prefer the whiter light – especially when color matters (for putting on makeup or anywhere I do crafts)

    Our house doesn’t get good daylight because of deep porches front and back – so we use lights all day and the whiter light just seem more natural. We decorate with reds, blues and pinks so the warmer “soft white” bulbs look dingy to me – it might be different if we used earth tones. I think you can avoid the clinical or office feeling by how you decorate – especially in your use of fabrics and natural wood.

    But any color bulb used consistently is better than the mix of color temperatures, incandescent and swirly compact fluorescent bulbs, sometimes mixed in a multi-light fixture, that we encountered in our new home. My husband has gotten very good at sourcing LEDs to fit various fixtures as bulbs burn out and we convert everything to 5000K LEDs.

    1. Yes!! Such an amazing point, Cheryl… consistency is key! I definitely should have mentioned to make sure you choose a temperature and try to stick with it in a room or spaces that are connected. It’s really nice you’re converting everything to LED (congrats on your new home, BTW). They’re so much more efficient! I also agree with your points about different temperatures working best in different homes, and decor influencing and absorbing color as well. Thanks so much for weighing in!

    2. I found that 2850k works best for the paint colors I chose for the interior of our house. Especially in our kitchen, which doesn’t get a lot of natural daylight. I love a warm light too, but if the bulbs are too warm it made my pretty Oil Cloth BM paint color go khaki. So I figured out after some trial and error that 2850k is the best light color for keeping our walls what I expected when I chose the paint colors!

  5. I forgot to add my question. I’m confused by outdoor light bulbs. Must the bulbs be rated for outdoor fixtures if the fixture itself is totally enclosed? I just don’t see the range options for my preferred light bulbs in terms of Kelvins in an outdoor bulb. Thank you!!

    1. It depends on the fixture. Each fixture should specify the rating and what type of bulb you need. I’ve used regular bulbs outside before with no issues, following the fixture rating :) Some of our outdoor lights are also solar powered, which I usually try to buy the “soft white” version. Hope that helps!