Lighting for Dummies Home Theater Reviewers

Simple tools to create the ideal lighting environment for your home theater.

When you go to a movie theater, you get your first indication that the movie is about to begin when the lights turn off. So what's the big deal over lighting systems if we only plan to watch movies in the dark?

A good lighting system enhances your theater room in a couple of ways. From a performance point of view, the system needs to provide light so that people can safely move around the room. You should also arrange the light sources so that they don't cast any glare or light on the image, which would wash out the picture. If you have a direct-view or rear-projection display, the folks at the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) recommend that you place a bias light behind the display. This reduces eye fatigue by providing a constant light source, and it doesn't compromise image performance.

Beyond the performance issue, lighting provides an aesthetic benefit. The theater room should be an inviting, comfortable space, and a lighting system that sets the right mood is invaluable. For added wow factor, you could integrate a lighting-control system into your theater's remote system.

A theater system that's integrated into a family room brings a whole bevy of lighting needs along with it. In this situation, you'd need a lighting system that's artistic, good for video performance, and functional enough for playing games, doing homework, reading, and entertaining friends.

Years of experience have taught the editors of Home Theater that lighting is an important issue. Their old listening room, for example, is a dungeon. Even with the lights turned all the way up, you can still barely read a receiver's back panel. The main light fixtures cast a glare on monitors; and, before senior technical editor Mike Wood ripped them out and went back to an old-fashioned switch, there were problems with two different lighting-control systems. Clearly, there was room for improvement.

Lighting Basics
Lighting designers classify lighting into three types: task, accent, and ambient. When you want to do something, you need task lighting. Examples of task lighting are the lamp that lets you find the right button on the remote or the light your spouse uses to read a magazine while you watch that action film for the 50th time. Accent lighting gives your room character by highlighting architectural details or illuminating a favorite piece of artwork. Lastly, ambient light is filler. It's diffuse foundation lighting that fills every corner of the room. For a lighting system that really works, each of these elements needs to be in balance. For flexibility, you should use several different types of light sources. Your light fixtures should also be able to pivot to keep up with new furniture or artwork.

The starting point for every lighting design is a brainstorming session with the family. Make a list of your room's different functions and take note of all of the areas that you'd like to highlight. It's valuable for the whole family to give input. You may want to pick up a few home-decorating or architectural magazines, as well as a copy of Audio Video Interiors, to get some ideas. Steal their ideas enthusiastically and without reservation! When you discuss the room's lighting with your family, you should consider what moods you want to evoke. Even subtle changes in lighting can significantly affect people. The light's color is one consideration. Do you want the room to have the warm, cozy feel of a candlelit room or the strong, vibrant feel of a modern art gallery?

I start with a drawing of the room that maps out all of its seating possibilities and accent interests. The drawing's quality isn't important at this stage; it's just a visualizing tool to get the conversation going with the family. Later, you'll redraw the plan based on the results of this session and take it to a lighting showroom to pick out fixtures and get advice. Most good lighting designs have only a few lights per dimmer. This setup offers maximum flexibility, and your control system will help you manage all of these lighting loads.

Lamp selection is your lighting plan's starting point. Once you've identified your task and accent areas, you need to find a lamp that will get the job done. The most common types of home theater lamps are incandescent, halogen, and fluorescent. LED and fiber-optic are also very popular light sources for special feature applications. Each type of lamp has its advantages and disadvantages. Incandescent light has a warm color with orangish overtones. It's the source of choice for creating a cozy, inviting space. Halogen lights are a favorite for making bold statements. They're great for artwork because their slightly bluish color most accurately mimics sunlight. The idea of using fluorescent lights brings a chill to most people's spines, but the fluorescent lamp has seen radical improvements in quality since its inception. Now it's a viable source for home theater applications. I like to use a fluorescent lamp as a reflected light. This lamp radiates light in all directions, so the fixture or its installation will have to direct light away from you. For an ISF-approved bias light, cover a fluorescent fixture (filled with a daylight-colored bulb) with a Rosco neutral-density filter. This will provide a color-corrected light source to place behind your monitor. Prefabricated units are available from