Ambient Lighting: Definition and Examples of Ambient Lighting

Allie Ogletree
Written by Allie Ogletree
Updated August 10, 2022
Man installing overhead light
Photo: Halfpoint / Getty Images


  • There are three main residential lighting types: ambient, task, and accent lighting.

  • Ambient lighting is the main light source in a room.

  • A small room may only require one ambient light in the center. 

  • Consider factors like temperature and location when choosing ambient lighting. 

  • Customize ambient lighting for different rooms in your home.

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Although lighting is often an afterthought, the right lighting will beautifully elevate your aesthetic and solidify the mood and tone of your space. It's also key to helping you get things done throughout the day. Few lighting types make a bigger impact than ambient lighting. Use this guide to learn what ambient lighting is and how to optimize it for your unique needs and aesthetic. 

What Is Ambient Lighting?

There are three basic lighting types used to create a welcoming home environment: ambient lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting. Combine them to create different ambiances for various spaces.   

Ambient lighting, also called general lighting, is the primary light source in a room. It lays the foundation on which to layer other light sources to create your desired effect. Ambient lighting typically includes the main lights you use to illuminate a room, so ambient light sources are often overhead light fixtures, like chandeliers, track lighting, and recessed lighting.

Why Choose Ambient Lighting?

Bright, harsh lighting can completely ruin a room’s ambiance (you know the kind). But when you implement ambient lighting, you can create a softer environment that replaces traditional ceiling fans and lamps. 

Ambient lighting is great for taking the edge off of an otherwise bright room and helping you wind down. If your vision board includes a calming reading nook or a moody dining room for upscale dinner parties, ambient lighting can help you make the most of your space.

Benefits of Ambient Lighting

There are several advantages to choosing ambient lighting, such as:

  • Creates a calming environment

  • Illuminates walkways in your home

  • Highlights focal points

  • Reduces glares

  • Produces more natural lighting 

  • Adds moodiness to a room

  • Brings out the architectural design of a space

  • Plays with light and shadows for added dimensions

How to Optimize Ambient Lighting In Your Home

Ambient lighting plays a major role in how your home looks and feels. The following considerations can help you create the best ambient light for your unique space and needs. 

Consider the Room's Use

Before committing to ambient light fixtures, consider the room’s main purpose. Certain spaces lend themselves to brighter lights than others. For example, you might want ultra-bright light to enhance productivity in a home office, while softer lighting might work better for places where you relax, like your bedroom. 

Lumens are a measurement of the brightness of a light source. The more lumens your light source has, the brighter it will be. For residential lighting, lumens typically range from 450 to 1,600, depending on how bright you want a particular room.  

Pick the Location

You can strategically place ambient lights to provide optimal lighting for a given area. The best ambient lighting is also well balanced. Ideally, light fixtures illuminate the space evenly rather than crowding one side of the room or another.  

If you're lighting a small room, then a single ceiling light fixture in the center of the room is often enough to provide adequate ambient lighting. Larger rooms might require two, three, or more ceiling light fixtures to create a balanced, well-lit space. If you have high ceilings or require assistance with electrical work, call in a local light installer or an electrician in your area

Choose Your Temperature

Color temperature significantly affects the ambiance of your room. Lighting temperatures range from cool to warm. Lights with cooler temperatures have a subtle blue tint, while warmer temperatures feature a yellow tint. 

Cool light sources tend to energize a room, so they're great for home office spaces and playrooms. Warm light sources create more relaxing, cozy environments ideal for spaces where you unwind, like your den or bedroom. 

Kevins are the unit of measurement for lighting temperature, typically ranging from 2,000 to 6,000 Kelvins. The higher the number, the cooler the temperature. Ambient lighting temperatures usually fall between 2,000 and 3,500 Kelvins.

Think About Adjustments

Different moments throughout the day often call for different lighting. For instance, when you're studying in your den or living room, you probably want brighter light than when you're relaxing after a long day. That's where task and accent lighting comes in handy. 

Layering task and accent lighting on top of ambient lighting allows you to adjust the lighting depending on your needs. When you want to feel energized, you can turn all the lights on. When you want to relax, maybe you only turn on a task light. Adding dimmers to your lights can also help you adjust the lighting and control how your room feels.

Sources of Ambient Lighting to Add

There’s no shortage of lighting strategies. From moody wall sconces to extravagant chandeliers, here are some of the most popular ambient lighting sources you can add to your home.

Floor Lamps

Don’t underestimate the power of a discreet floor lamp in the corner of your room. With the proper placement and the right lamp shade, you can customize the amount of lighting and cater it to your specific needs. For a lighter ambiance, opt for a clear lamp shade; for a dimmer ambiance, consider a thicker cloth shade.

Wall Sconces

Modern meets traditional with wall sconces. Place sconces in a hallway to create the allure of a  mysterious passageway. Or, brighten up your home’s exterior by illuminating focal points around your home, like garden beds or other lawn ornaments.

Pendant Lights

Allow that hip coffee shop in town to inspire your use of pendant lights. These units provide the right ambiance for fine dining, making them perfect for kitchen spaces. Since pendant lights hang from the ceiling, you can place them anywhere, allowing you to add as many lights as you like in just the right places. 


For rooms with tall ceilings, chandelier lighting is the perfect stylist element for adding depth and luxury to your space. It won’t serve as a true light source, but it will provide a stunning and soft light throughout the room.

LED Lights

LED lighting—in all its colors and styles—is the perfect customization element. Place circular LED lights under kitchen cabinets to avoid stumbling around in the dark on your way to get a midnight snack. Use strip or recessed LEDs in your dining room or bedroom to set just the right mood. Some LED lights even connect to smartphones, so you can change the color or brightness depending on your mood.

Ambient Lighting vs. Task and Accent Lighting

Couple reading kitchen table light
Photo: Maskot / Getty Images

Task and accent lighting complement the ambient lighting in a space. A well-lit home often incorporates all three lighting types to create a dynamic ambiance that you can adjust depending on the mood you're after. 

Task Lighting

Task lighting is commonly known as the second layer of home lighting. Aptly named, task lighting optimizes the light for various tasks, like reading or cooking. Kitchen task lighting makes it easier to see detailed activities like chopping and measuring ingredients. Common task lighting fixtures include table lamps, vanity lights, and adjustable floor lamps. 

Accent Lighting

Accent lighting is the third layer of home lighting. It solidifies the overall mood of the space and showcases certain architectural features or home decor. Common accent light fixtures include wall sconces, cabinetry lighting, and good old-fashioned candlelight. Accent lights surrounding a bathroom mirror, for instance, enhance mood and highlight decorative pieces.

Today's kitchens serve as places for friends and family to gather. Layers of lighting can provide warmth and brighten the space.

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