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How to Use Recessed Downlights

If you ask a lighting designer on how to use recessed downlights, they very often have a different opinion to an electrician. The downlighter is a powerful medium that so effectively creates light that they are commonly used everywhere as an efficient source but unwittingly interiors can be robbed of their full potential. Uniform illumination steals the sophistication that considered and restrained placement of light brings, the essence of good lighting design and the downlight is the ideal tool to deliver it.

Advice on Using Downlights

To know HOW to use a downlight you would benefit from knowing the important differences there are between the many models and what exactly you need to know to specify them properly and achieve the level of detail you hoped for. For example, we answer just why are professional LED downlights considerably higher in price than an LED lamp in a downlight body.

Looking for the best downlight for your property? We’ve put together our buying guide for anyone to understand: The Best Downlights in 2021 – Buying Guide & Reviews

Watch this 2 min video on our top tips on how to use a downlight

Where to Use a Recessed Downlight 

Successful lighting design will consider the layering of light, the building up of levels of light from different sources in different positions throughout the room for a variety of reasons. It can be described as painting with light by considering these key types of lighting.

General Ambient Lighting

Downlights are useful to help increase the overall level of lighting in a room when all the other layers have been created and some areas of the room just have no other way to be lit.  Consider where the light needs to be though and only use the downlight to deliver it and not be tempted to create grids to make uniform patterns in the ceiling.

Focal Point

Specific features such as artwork, architectural features, pieces of furniture, even an arrangement of flowers can be highlighted efficiently with a concentration of light over them from a downlight. Use a tighter beam width to isolate the light over the object and create contrasting low levels of light around them to help make them the brightest parts of the room and be seen first. 

Task Lighting

Delivering light onto work orientated spaces can be done very effectively from downlight task lighting. Medium to wide beams of light directly onto a work surface such as kitchen counter tops and kitchen islands.

Accent Lighting

Using downlighting to create an accent layer of light by illuminating parts of the room that deserve to be lit as they contribute some interest, but are not the feature that needs to stand out first. This can be done by washing light onto furniture fabrics, across curtains or washed down walls.

Techniques of How to Use Downlighters

To avoid the downlight ceiling grid, also refer to these downlighting techniques:

Downlight Beam Width Tips

Consider using wider beam widths on downlights that are on the general lighting circuit and near the edges of a room, to help spread the light onto furniture and walls to assist in the ambient lighting level without being too direct and highlighting objects you do not intend on drawing attention to. 

Use tighter beam widths towards the centre of the room to highlight objects or the centre of a table to create a strong visual contrast against lesser lit general surfaces. These lit targets can act as task lights but are predominantly a lighting technique to create an emotive atmosphere.

Check out: Tips on Choosing Beam Angles for Better Lighting

Lighting Artwork

Artwork downlighting is a useful method to light a picture. Placed 2ft (600mm) from the wall and adjusted back towards the artwork with a soft lens, with good colour rendering and a beam width appropriate to the size of the picture draw, a strong illumination will bring out the colours of the artwork and become a strong accent light.

Check out: Ultimate Guide on How to Light Artwork & Pictures in Your Home

Where is the Best Place to Position Downlights?

The advice on how to position downlights will need to adapt to the requirements of where the light needs to be. However, there are particular positionings to avoid.

Should a Downlight be Positioned Directly Overhead?

Downlighting is predominantly downwards vertical illumination, and that light can be unflattering when overhead by casting heavy shadows under the eyes and nose of the person below.

What is the Best Downlight Position to Light Furniture?

Preferably a downlight should not be positioned over seated people. The exception to this is if the downlight is being dimmed well and other accent lighting from table lights for example can counterbalance the light horizontally and reduce the contrast.

What is the Best Downlight Positioned to Light a Mirror Over a Sink?

A mirror is often in a washroom or over a bathroom sink where downlighting is required to light this task orientated area. Sinks will always benefit from being lit, but the downlight position will be over the head of the person using the mirror. Counterbalance the downlighting with horizontal lighting from wall lighting placed around the mirror, negating the shadowing over the face.

Should a Downlight be Positioned in the Middle of a Shower Cubicle?

The shower is one place that shadowing is less important and the direct light overhead is useful for carrying out another task activity, washing your own body. However, large walk in showers and wet rooms can look better with the downlight positioned closer to the tiles to reflect the light into the space.

Downlight Spacings 

Where the downlighter is really the only option to create a uniformly lit environment, then the spacing between them should be calculated. Typical examples are task orientated spaces like laundry rooms & indoor gym lighting – where the light is being created more for functionality than to bring drama and beauty. 

A general rule of thumb for residential downlight spacing in rooms with an average ceiling height is approx 3ft-4ft (1m-1.2m) apart and no closer than 600mm to a wall.

How Far Apart Should Downlights Be gives you a useful quick estimation process.

Andrew Orange , the owner of Orange Lighting qualified and worked as an interior designer in 1993 before specialising in lighting working on high profile projects based in London. Since starting Orange Lighting Ltd in 2003 he has been sharing his knowledge and unique teaching style mostly to his designer clients, offering practical real life advice born from running a busy consultancy and lighting supply business. Launching in 2020, his blog has evolved into Quick & Easy Lighting, curating some 25 years design experience into making the lighting choice and design process achievable and easy to understand for all.