What Is Ambient Light and How to Use It In Your Home

Made bed with yellow throw pillows surrounded by ambient light

The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

For designer Becky Shea, ambient light is "the crown jewel in a home. Not only does it look beautiful, but the warmth the light casts is inviting and what truly makes a house feel like a home." But what is ambient light, exactly? Ben Marshall, the creative director at lighting company Mitzi, describes it as "the glow surrounding all spaces." He adds, Ambient lighting is best created by the placement of chandeliers, pendants, flush and semi-flush mounts—they set the base layer of lighting and are often the focal point of a room."

Below, learn more about the importance of ambient light within a home and what it adds to a space, as well as how to incorporate it into your home.

Why Include Ambient Light In Your Home?

Ambient lighting is part of a key trifecta that designer Liz Caan always makes sure to implement in her projects. "I think that a space should have layered lighting that creates a few scenarios; overall bright light, dimmed mood lighting, and then ambient lighting," she explains. "I usually combine dimmable recessed and overhead on one switch, add a pendant or decorative surface mount also dimmable on a different switch, and then sconces or picture lights are on a third switch. I also layer in lamps in the room so you have an option to only have lamp light, if you wish."

Also, ambient naturally makes a room feel warmer and more welcoming, designer Mary Jo Major says. "Ambient light is like a warm handshake when you come into the room," she comments. "Its purpose is to light up the room, but it's more than that. It's to help your eye focus on specific areas—the artwork in the hallway, the bookcase by the fireplace, the table lamp on the nightstand to help you find your book."

What Does Ambient Lighting Add to Your Home?

Ambient lighting comes with some other benefits, too, designer Major shares. "My favorite part about ambient lighting is how it can change the color tone of the room," she explains. "Ambient lighting next to a colored wall looks completely different than it does in the sunlight or overhead light. So a light blue bedroom can feel warm and even moody in the evening when you just have a few table lamps turned on." Focus on choosing the proper bulbs, though. As designer Cindy Rinfret says, "Make sure you have warm light bulbs! These give off a yellowish glow versus a cold blue. Cooler light can be sterile and uninviting in a home setting."

Ambient lighting can be a great way to add a moody feel to a room, too. "One of my favorite combos in a powder room is dark walls, either wallpaper or paint, with ambient fixtures on either side of the mirror," designer Allison Knizek says. "Both sconces and pendants bring that intriguing, soft smudge of light that brings symmetrical balance and just enough illumination to create a curious and captivating dark space. Truly it’s the only light that’s needed in a moody room and I always choose warm toned LED bulbs over cool."

The shadows that ambient light helps create are also wonderful, Knizek notes. "What takes you on a mental vacation more then looking up from a bubble bath and seeing a lacy, Spanish iron pattern cast across an entirely white washed room?" However, keep in mind that there are certain rooms of the home in which shadows may not be so welcome. "If your ambient lights are behind you when you're chopping vegetables at your kitchen island or picking out your morning outfit, your body will literally cast shadows over the areas you're trying to see, which is frustrating," says Stephanie Purzycki, co-founder and CEO of The Finish. "Identifying shadow areas can help you decide where to put ambient lights, or counteract shadows with extra task lighting." 

And overall, designer Shannon Eddings says, ambient lighting is just plain calming. "It is more soothing on the eyes and can allow you to alter the mood in your space," she shares. "For example, overhead (or canned) lighting can be really harsh, especially at night, so adding a few lamps in your living space allows you to have a calm 'glow' for reading at night or visiting with friends."

Small table lamp emitting white ambient light next to stack of books

The Spruce / Sanja Kostic

How to Incorporate Ambient Lighting

Try a floor lamp, Knizek suggests. "Height, balance and visual warmth is what a floor lamp brings to the ambient lighting show," she explains. "Ambient lighting takes the chair out of a shadowy corner and places it in a warm, inviting spot."

Designer Brende Marshall is also a fan of the floor lamp. "Here, the picture lights, fireplace and floor lamp combine to create a romantic evening," she says of this bedroom space.

Designer Avery Cox is partial to incorporating ambient light through pendant lights and wall sconces. "Pendant lights and wall sconces that give off light in all directions are great choices for filling a room with light, as they don't create as many shadows and the light source is typically located a bit lower than recessed cans which can be too harsh if not mixed well with other lighting," she states.

Additionally, why not opt for an ambient light option in the form of LED strips? "Ambient lighting is also a great way to reduce stress on your eyes early in the morning or late at night," designer Christine Turknett comments. "By using upward facing lighting on top of your cabinets you can avoid harsh direct lighting and allow for your eyes to adjust more naturally. Similarly, low wattage or dimmable LED strip lighting installed in your baseboards, under toe kicks in kitchen and baths, and in the risers on your stairs will have the same effect."

Floor lamp emitting yellow ambient light in room corner with chair

The Spruce / Sanja Kostic