Creative Lighting

Using Lighting to Create Drama: A Q+A with Lighting Designer Steven Rosen

SGR headshot smallThe hallmarks of a good story include build-up and drama. The same is true of homes. Steven Rosen shares his tips for using lighting to create drama and contrast for some beautiful results.

Q. How can lighting create drama in a home?

A. That’s a big question! Here are some thoughts:

  • Avoid glare – there’s is nothing that kills drama and is more annoying than lights in your eyes. It sounds so simple but as a defense mechanism we often adjust to glare rather than actually getting rid of it. Good lighting is all about geometry, and getting an angle of light that illuminates a target without creating glare is always a good thing.
  • Another good word for “drama” is contrast. Everything we visually perceive is based on contrasts of both highlight/shadow and color. Our eye tends to be attracted to the brightest area in our plane of view so it makes sense that the most important thing—a work of art, a beautiful piece of furniture, a bouquet of flowers, etc.—is lit to the highest intensity. This leads us to:
  • Establishing a visual hierarchy. Once we know the most important subject in a composition we can begin to create a lighting composition that truly adds drama, interest, and clarity to an environment. In many ways developing a visual hierarchy helps to tell a story.
  • Light in layers! Nothing makes an architectural space more dull and flat than a single giant floodlight. Rather than using a lot of wattage on a single big source, think about the environment and how it will be used. Do you need a lot of light in circulation spaces between furniture? Probably not. Your personal lighting composition will be far more intriguing if you put just the right amount of light, from the most comfortable or flattering angle, on each specific task (i.e., reading in a comfy chair, prepping food on a kitchen counter, gathering at the dining table, or relaxing outdoors).

Q. Are there certain fixtures/sources that are better suited for this than others? What effects are possible?

A. Every task has its own unique requirements, so there is no blanket answer. But, by way of example, a concentrated spot of light might make a painting look great, but it probably is not the best source of light for cutting up an onion or putting on make-up. Any effect seen and enjoyed in a theatrical production can be intelligently scaled for residential use. From washing a ceiling with color (rather than just white light), to projecting a pattern (like dappled leaves) across a path, to grazing a textured surface (like a stone wall) with raking light to celebrate the texture by enhancing the contrast between lighting and shadow are all great ways to enhance drama in your home.

Q. What do you recommend for a house with low ceilings? With lots of natural light? 

A. The best way to “open” up a space (both height and width) is by making the walls and/or the ceiling the source of light. What I mean is to light these surfaces and allow the reflected light of the wall to actually illuminate the room. If you have a low-ceilinged room with recessed downlights, both walls and ceiling may be relatively dark—this will only increase the feeling of a cramped or claustrophobic space. I often tell my clients that brightness is perceived by illuminated vertical surfaces (i.e., walls). When the average person walks into a room they do not look up at the ceiling or down at the floor; they look straight ahead. So if the walls are generally bright (and the finish is relatively pale in color), than the space will be perceived as bright and open.

Lots of natural daylight penetration can be a blessing and a curse. Daylight is both cheerful and healthful but if large amounts of direct sunlight (from windows and/or skylights) can enter a space you may increase the contrast ratio (the brightest brights to the darkest shadows) to uncomfortable levels. This may be great for a circulation space that is not inhabited for long periods of time but, in a home office for example, this style of lighting could become unbearable very quickly. You also need to think about controlling our old friend glare. Direct sunlight can hurt! If the direct sun is striking your glossy magazine or flatscreen TV you are likely to be unhappy. Also, direct sunlight can increase heat gain in a space, meaning you are likely to reach out and turn the thermostat down, thereby increase your AC bill. There are lots of ways to control and manipulate daylight so you can enjoy the benefits while mitigating the downsides. A few daylighting control examples include:

  • Curtains (both opaque and sheer)
  • Frit on windows or skylights (a frit is some sort of pattern on the glass substrate that proportionally reduces how much direct light can enter a space while still making the glass transparent)
  • Louvers that are either interior (an adjustable alternative to curtains) or exterior (parallel wooden or metal slats that keep large amounts of direct light from entering a space)
  • Pergolas or other structures adjacent to fenestration
  • Window films that are something like putting sunglasses on your windows. (Although this can be problematic at night or on dark days because once the film is installed, it’s there all the time.)

Q. What are some common pitfalls that homeowners run into when lighting their homes?

A. Not to harp on a subject but ill-considered lighting (whether it is penetrating daylight or electric light) can create glare—and glare is the enemy. Also, in this brave new world of energy-efficient and long life LED retrofit lamps it is natural to run out to your local home improvement store and stock up on LED light bulbs. But there is a lot misinformation out there, and you may end up not having enough light, having lots of different colored white light, and/or having premature failure because the lamp is not used properly as described in the fine print hidden somewhere on the packaging (for instance, many retrofit LED lamps are not meant for enclosed fixtures, like recessed downlights, because heat cannot properly escape). Another issue to be discussed with LED lamps is dimming. Most manufacturers will tell you the lamps can be dimmed. But there are lots of dimmer types out there and, like a good wine sommelier, if you do not pair the proper dimmer to the specific LED lamp type and manufacturer, lots of bad things (like incessant flicker) can happen.

Q. What about creating drama outside?

A. Creating nighttime drama outside with electric light presents the exact same challenges discussed earlier on the subject of interior lighting. Look for primary focal points followed by secondary targets, avoid glare, don’t be afraid to do something sculptural and creative rather than just washing the outdoors with a flood of light. Think about the limited use of color.

Real success comes when ALL your residential lighting is considered at one time. If you are lighting landscape to be viewed from windows, then you need to balance the interior lighting so the landscape is not overwhelmed. Nothing kills the view out a window more than the reflections of objects or light sources in the glass. These reflections can make the window feel opaque rather than transparent. It is by deploying individually controlled layers of lights for varying, and sometimes contradicting, tasks that will allow you to get the most enjoyment and efficiency from your lighting system.

Steven Rosen, IALD, is the Principal and Creative Director of Available Light, an award-winning lighting design firm specializing in museum exhibition, architecture, and corporate communications. He can be reached at .

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