Why Your Lighting Looks Bad - 5 Potential Reasons

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If you've ever wondered why your lighting just doesn't look good, you're not alone. With the proliferation of energy-efficient lighting, consumers are faced with a daunting list of specifications to choose from. With LED bulbs being the dominant technology today, not only do you have to make sure your LED bulb is mechanically and electrically compatible, you also have to know the difference between various CCT, CRI and brightness specifications.

If you're struggling with your lighting, you've come to the right place! As specialists in LED light quality, we've become very familiar with many of the pitfalls that our customers face when looking for LED lights. Below, we've compiled a list of the 5 most common reasons that we have found our customers are unhappy with their existing lighting.

1) You Chose the Wrong Color Temperature

Incandescent bulbs are not available in color temperatures higher than 3000K, simply due to mechanism behind how the filament emits light. In the past, you simply could not go wrong, because consumers only had one choice. Now, with fluorescent lamps and LED bulbs, other colors and color temperatures are freely available.

The addition of more options is a generally a good thing, but this means that you may have purchased a bulb with a color temperature that is not a good fit for your needs.

For example, for a typical residential application, you will most likely want to choose a light bulb with a color temperature of 2700K or 3000K. The emitted color will be similar to that of incandescent or halogen lighting, providing a nice, relaxing atmosphere that most (but not all) of us prefer in our homes.

If you think your lights appear too harsh, blue, stark, or sterile, chances are high that the bulbs have too high of a color temperature. Typically, the bulb itself will be marked with a 4-digit number, followed with the letter "K" to indicate the color temperature value.

Any color temperature higher than 3000K will be bluer and whiter than a traditional incandescent or halogen bulb. If you want to retain that nice, warm and cozy ambiance, be sure to purchase a bulb with a color temperature of 3000K, 2700K, or even 2400K.

Now, on the other hand, if you're looking for lighting in an industrial or task-oriented setting, or your personal preference is for something "crisper," your problem may be that the low color temperatures are giving you too much of a yellow cast. For any tasks that require more visual acuity, we recommend a higher color temperature bulb, ranging from 4000K, or 5000K, and even as high as 6500K. These are color temperatures that better resemble natural daylight, and typically provide a more balanced, neutral and crisp white color without the yellow/orange tinge that incandescent and halogen bulbs give off.

2) Your Bulb Lacks in Quality Control, Resulting in a Green or Pink Hue

When we talk about color temperature, we only describe a light source with respect to its hue along a blue-yellow axis. In color science, there is another axis of green-pink that also plays a role in determining a light source's color.

Believe it or not, two bulbs can have the same 3000K color temperature, but one can have a greenish cast, while the other has a pinkish cast. The two bulbs, despite having identical color temperature ratings, will appear very different due to this difference in hue.

Why does this happen? Inside your LED bulb, there are dozens of individual LED emitters, or tiny "chips" that are mounted onto an electrical circuit. The light you see emitted by the bulb is the result of the individual LED emitters lighting up, and as a result, light quality is determined by the quality of the LED emitters.

When LED emitters are manufactured, there is an inherent variation in their color, so at the end of the manufacturing process, these emitters are grouped into different "bins" that correspond to various color temperature and green/pink hue categories.

High-end lighting manufacturers will have stringent limits on what constitutes acceptable levels of variation in green and pink hues, and as a result, will only use LEDs from premium "bins" that are truly neither pink nor green. LED bulbs sold at a lower price point will typically use the leftover LEDs which have a stronger green or pink hue, but because they are less desirable, they can be purchased by the LED bulb assembly factory at a significantly lower price.

If you see that your bulb is neither too blue nor yellow, but is green or pink, you may have an issue not with the color temperature selection, but with the quality control of the lighting manufacturer over the light color.

3) Your Bulb's CRI Rating is Too Low

The color rendering of a light bulb represents its ability to display colors of an object accurately. It is a specification that exists independently from the color temperature or hue that we just discussed, and could very well be a reason that your lighting is not looking good to you.

LED bulbs will oftentimes trick your eyes into thinking an object has a color that is different from reality. If you are an artist, you may have worked on a painting one evening under an LED bulb, then wake up the next morning only to discover that all of your colors suddenly look different under natural daylight. What's going on?

The reason is that typical LEDs are not full-spectrum light sources. In simple terms, this means that its spectrum does not include certain wavelengths of light, which are necessary to bring out the true colors of various objects. LEDs are particularly deficient in red wavelength energy. The result is that any objects that contain any red element will appear duller or even browner than they would under natural light.

A convenient way to ensure your LED bulbs have sufficient spectral quality is to look at its color rendering index (CRI) rating. The metric evaluates a light source with a numerical score, with 100 being the highest possible. A score of 95 or higher indicates that the colors under the light source will appear the way they do under natural light, and is preferred for any application where color appearance is important.

Most LED bulbs on the market today have CRI values of 80. If you do not see an advertised CRI value, chances are high that the manufacturer does not want to draw attention to it, and the value is likely to be close to the typical 80 CRI level.

If the apparent color of your objects is giving you trouble, this may be because your current lights have sub-par CRI scores. You may want to consider an upgrade to a high CRI LED solution.

4) Your Bulb Isn't Bright Enough

So far, we've talked a lot about the color of the bulb's emitted light. Even with the best color quality, however, a light that doesn't provide enough brightness is not going to be useful. As with anything, quality is nice, but you also need the right quantity, too.

With LED bulbs, the traditional use of wattage to describe the brightness of a bulb is no longer practical. That's because LEDs are simply more efficient, and emit more light per watt than incandescent bulbs. To help consumers with this transition, LED manufacturers will typically provide the wattage equivalency value. For example, a 10W LED bulb may be marked as "60W equivalent" to indicate that you can replace a 60W incandescent bulb with the 10W LED bulb, and get the same amount of brightness.

If you're simply replacing an existing incandescent bulb with an LED equivalent, you might be just fine performing a one-to-one replacement. But if you are looking into a new lighting installation and don't have the budget to hire a lighting designer, you might feel left in the dark(!).

The reality is that without sophisticated lighting models and software, knowing how much brightness you need for a space requires a bit of guesswork or trial and error. If the lighting in a space just doesn't seem right, don't rule out the possibility that your lights are too dim for the space.

Lighting needs can vary by up to a factor of 10, depending on the purpose of the lighting. To illuminate a bedroom, you might be able to get away with just 1,000 lumens per 100 sqft, but the same 100 sqft dedicated for industrial or commercial activity may require 10,000 lumens.

Another thing to note is that for spaces with a higher color temperature, you will want to budget for more lumens in order to create a comfortable atmosphere. This phenomenon is known as the Kruithof curve, and shows the need for higher illuminance levels if a higher color temperature is being used. Compared to 3000K, a 2700K environment will require only 0.7x the brightness, 4000K will require 2x the brightness, 5000K will require 3x the brightness, and 6000K will require 4x the brightness.

Want to know how much light you need for your space? Check out our lumen estimation calculator.

5) The Light Distribution is Too Harsh

If you're certain that both the quality and quantity of your lights is not an issue, but you still feel like something is off, one final aspect of your setup that you may want to evaluate is the light positioning and distribution. This is an area that a skilled architect or lighting designer would be careful to consider, but we also know that not every project has the budget and resources. While no substitute for a professional consultation, we've listed some general best practices that you can consider for your own installation.

Let's say you've budgeted 2000 lumens for your space. You've confirmed the color temperature, hue and CRI are also all on-point. Should you use two 1000 lumen bulbs? Or four 500 lumen bulbs? Where should the bulbs be installed? These are the essential questions that influence the light distribution and potential to introduce glare or discomfort to occupants of a space.

The general guiding principle is to design your lighting to most closely mimic the distribution of natural daylight. As humans, we are most accustomed to receiving natural light from the sky, which is actually a huge, dome of light that shines down on us from all angles.

Why is this so relevant? The reason is that light bulbs are almost the exact opposite of the natural sky in terms of their light distribution. They are single-point light sources that emit lots of concentrated light outwards from a small area. In this respect, they much more closely mimic the sun itself.

If you think back on the unpleasant feeling you get when the sun shines directly in your eyes, you'll understand why a bright, single point light source can cause you problems. Most of us enjoy being under natural light, but we don't find the direct sun in our eyes pleasant. We'll often go as far as to wear a hat or put on a pair of shades.

When thinking about light distribution, as a general rule, the best way to replicate a more natural light distribution is to use a larger quantity of lower brightness bulbs. That way, you will reduce the light intensity emanating from any given point in your space.

If that's not an option, you can also consider using the surface of your walls and ceilings to your advantage. By adjusting your lamps and fixtures to shine against the wall or ceiling, and letting the light bounce back towards the space, you can effectively increase the surface area from which the light shines. This is a common method used in wall-washer and cove lighting applications, and creates a very elegant and comfortable space. If color accuracy is important, be sure that the wall colors are relatively neutral, otherwise you may inundate your space with off-color lighting.

LED strip lights are nice alternative to bulbs, because they can produce a lot of light, but distributed across a longer, linear length. When installing them, it's a good idea to ensure that the LEDs don't shine directly at people, because the bare LEDs are very intense and can cause unpleasant glare. An easy way to avoid this is to use the wall or ceiling bounce method, or to use aluminum channels with diffusers that help disperse the light and reduce the direct impact of glare.

Bonus: Are You Sensitive to Flicker?

If you feel light a space gives you migraines or headaches, this may be related to invisible flicker. Fluorescent lamps and some LED bulbs are prone to emitting light in fast on/off cycles that correspond with the frequency of the electrical grid (50 or 60 times per second). While this flicker is not directly visible, studies have shown that this may cause detrimental health effects, especially in sensitive individuals.

Read more about flicker-free LED lighting here.

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