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Starry ceilings & beyond | The magic behind home theater lighting

A luxury home theater is all about creating an immersive experience where every detail helps to enhance the look and feel of the room. The design process can feel a bit overwhelming with decisions to be made about all sorts of equipment, cinema seating, and lighting. It’s easy to get distracted with more exciting elements of the room like picking out screens and forget all about the lights. But neglecting the importance of a lighting plan could make or break a custom home theater.

The tone and ambiance are both set by the lighting. Lights chosen with careful consideration can lift the design to the next level. The magic of proper lighting is more than just aesthetics; it’s also one of the best ways to make home theaters fully functional.

One of the biggest design mistakes in home cinemas is assuming that as long as the room is dark, it will work. Blocking out exterior light is an important step, but it is only the first step towards genuinely magical lighting. Which is why we’ve put together this handy guide to help navigate the types of lighting you should include and those that are best to avoid.

Make a lighting plan early in the home theater design process

Lighting often requires a lot of electrical work and so it’s best to map out lights during the home theater layout phase, long before the construction begins. That way electricians can work to make sure the right wiring is in place to accommodate the lighting. Adding lighting post construction is possible; it just gets a lot more complicated and will require more work.

For those still in the planning phase, here’s a blog on the best way to layout a home theater

Block any outside light

Followers of our custom home theater series will know that many home cinemas are installed in basements as they’re naturally dark and often have fewer windows. That doesn’t mean basements are the only place a home theater can go. It’s possible to use any room, as long as any outside light is blocked. High-quality blackout shades that are remote operated are one way to prevent light filtering through the windows. It may also help to build a wall or room around a window; this can often double up as a way to conceal and ventilate a/v equipment.  

If you’re interested in how to block light by building a small custom room in a home theater, check out this blog.  

The types of lighting that work in home theaters

Home theater designers need to think in practical terms when it comes to selecting lighting. Anything that will interfere with the viewing experience must be set aside. That means no hanging or suspended light fixtures. Not only does this type of lighting cause reflections on the screen but anything that dangles or hangs may rattle when the speakers kick in. The same goes for any lighting that’s not fixed in place.

Avoid mounted fixtures on the ceiling. These can get in the way of the projector, cast shadows and cause a glare. There are plenty of design blogs that feature side lamps, mounted lighting, and elaborate light fixtures, but it’s best to forgo these trimmings.

Most designers will choose lighting that puts the functionality of the room first. It’s still possible to get creative with sconces, cove lighting, LED strips and even fiber optics. Most luxury theaters will have a tasteful mix of lights to accentuate the space. We recommend mixing it up for best results. Below is a list of the best type of lighting for home cinemas:

1. Overhead ceiling lights

Most rooms use overhead lighting of some description, and home theaters are no exception. However, choosing an overhead light that doesn’t overpower the room can be tricky. It’s best to think of a home theater as needing custom overhead lighting. We suggest using LED lights that are dimmable to 1% in two strips along the length of the room. Another way to tackle overhead lighting is to use any ceiling coves to conceal LED strips.

2. Fiber optic lighting

Fiber optic lighting can be used to create a starry ceiling in high-end home theaters

Luxury home theaters often have a starlight effect on the ceiling which is achieved by fiber optics lighting. It is a beautiful touch and is worthy of a gasp or two when the other lights dim. Fiber optic lights are usually set to white and typically installed in a black or dark navy ceiling to enhance the night sky feel. It’s one of the trickiest types of lighting to install, so we recommend getting an experienced professional to work their magic.

Pro tip: Fiber optics are not for every home cinema and require a simple ceiling to work. If the ceiling is uniquely shaped or slanted, this might be too tricky to install.

3. Sconces

Although sconces will never be the primary light source, they’re one of the most popular lighting elements in a home theater. It’s a type of light that is attached to, and supported by, the wall. The light is never direct and tends to shine a soft glow up or down. Although there are design-heavy sconces with lots of trimmings, it’s best to be careful and avoid anything too elaborate. Sconces with dangly bits will intrude on the home theater experience, so select wall sconces that are simple in style. This sort of lighting creates a softer glow and gives a classic feel to home theater designs.

4. Cove lighting

Cove lighting is popular in home theaters where there are architectural details like molds or arches to create a soft glow that doesn’t result in any glare on screens or projections. Install the lights in strips using architectural coves to conceal them,  creating a soft, diffused glow.

5. LED strips for floor lighting

Led light strips are used to create floor lighting in home theaters

LED light strips that don’t emit heat are the best way to light up the floor of home theaters. They can be used to map pathways through the room that have a soft enough glow to ensure they won’t disturb anyone else if you exit mid-movie. They’re often used to highlight steps, risers, and provide clear paths for those nipping out to the washroom or grabbing a snack.

6. Recessed light fixtures

These lights are partially concealed in the ceiling and are an elegant way to create overhead lighting. They’re an excellent alternative where fiber optics might not be suitable. They can be tricky to install and once again we recommend hiring a professional.

7. Backlighting or bias lighting

Backlighting behind the screen can reduce eye strain and help create better color intensity and contrast. Bias lighting is not for every home theater and should be simple and white when used. Avoid colored lights or anything overly bright and try to stick to strips that are under 5000K.

Before we go! Check those building codes

As with all electrical installations, it’s essential that the lights chosen meet all building and safety codes. If this sounds like too much hassle, it might be wise to get a consultation from a lighting professional. Check out CEDIA for a comprehensive list of home theater professionals who are happy to give consultations.

This blog is the first of two articles on choosing the right lighting for home cinemas. In our next installment, find out about the importance of lighting control for custom home theaters.