Make Lighting Work for a Room
The proper lighting can enhance both the feeling and function of your home. The first thing that should be done when considering lighting is to look at each area and take stock of what activities take place there. The nature of the activity will determine how much light you will need, what types of lighting are ideal, and how the lights should be placed. Don't forget to factor in what time of day you are most likely to occupy the room, and, if applicable, how much natural light that part of your home receives. Especially if you're designing the lighting scheme for your entire home at one time, you may find it useful to walk through and keep notes of your observations.
The different purposes that lighting can serve are separated into four basic categories: general or ambient, task, accent, and utility. Standard terminology like this will be useful to you as you look into different options for lighting, and make final purchasing and installation decisions.
General lighting is the amount of ambient light that is present in a room. This light isn't directed at a specific area, but fills the room with enough light to comfortably move around and perform basic activities. All rooms and passageways will need general lighting at night, and some may even need it during the day if sunlight is insufficient. Centrally placed fixtures that provide ambient light are also a great opportunity to use decorative fixtures like chandeliers and sconces.
Task lighting is for specific activities that require attention to detail, like cooking, crafts and reading. These levels of light are generally in addition to whatever general lighting is present, resulting in the extra light that's needed. Key lights can be placed close to directly above the workspace for the additional light strength, and additional lights can be put nearby as fill to help eliminate glare and distracting shadows. It's nice to have task lighting that can be adjusted, so that you can reposition and adjust the level of light as needed. The main goal with task lighting is to prevent eyestrain.
Accent lighting serves a more visual than functional purpose, highlighting architectural details and decorative items. The level of these lights should highlight, without being overpowering or distracting - but can be about triple the level of ambient light in the room to help provide that noticeable kick. Recessed lighting is a popular choice, as is track lighting.
Utility lighting is a purpose-driven category, and can include such varied areas as security lighting for outside the home and interior lighting for closets and cabinets. For security lighting outside the home, consider the possibility that diffuse, low levels of light may actually be safer than having a few bright lights. Bright lights can create areas of deep shadow as well as distracting glare, resulting in security concerns.