What is Downlighting?

What is Downlighting?

  • ECO LED Staff

Downlighting is a type of lighting that is directed downward from a ceiling or wall. It is often used to provide general illumination in a room, highlight a particular feature or object, or create a particular atmosphere.

There are many different types of downlighting fixtures, including recessed lights, track lights, and pendant lights, which can be used in a variety of settings and for a variety of purposes. Downlighting is a popular choice for both residential and commercial spaces because it is versatile, efficient, and can create a range of effects. 

Types of Downlighting

As we mentioned earlier, downlighting is used to provide a variety of effects in a room, and create different atmospheres depending on how the space is being used. Regardless, any downlight will fall into one of the following five categories.

  • General Illumination
  • Task Lighting
  • Wall Washing
  • Wall Grazing
  • Wayfinding

As you can see in the picture above, there are three multiple types of downlighting being used in the same room that have different purposes.  There was an opportunity to have all five in this space but this coffee shop elected not to.  We will dive deeper into all these types of downlighting and their use cases.

General Illumination

General Illumination , also known as Ambient lighting, is the overall illumination of a space. It provides a basic level of light that makes a room or area usable and safe. It's the type of lighting that allows you to move around comfortably and see the overall layout of the room.

Ambient lighting can be provided by a variety of sources, including ceiling lights, wall-mounted fixtures, table and floor lamps, and even natural light through windows or skylights. The idea behind ambient lighting is to create a well-balanced, functional lighting plan that makes a space feel comfortable and welcoming.

It is usually soft and diffused, and not meant to be the focal point but to complement it and create a desired atmosphere. Its main purpose is to fill the room with light and to make it usable and safe.

For most well designed space, general illumination is the primary source of light, while the other types of downlighting discussed in this article serve as a secondary source of light for more specific applications.

Pairing ambient lighting with other types of lighting, such as task lighting, accent lighting, and wall washing will create a more comprehensive lighting scheme.

An example of general illumination that we are all used to is the typical ceiling lights in our home. This type of downlight is there to provide us with a soft source of light that will illuminate the entire space so we can use it for coming in and going out and as well as performing general undefined tasks.

Commercial fixtures on the other hand tend to be slightly different. These fixtures t3end to have brighter lighting that is also more directional. Since directional lights are more concentrated, it does a better job of brightening up the space. However, the beams are often tighter.

As a result commercial lighting fixtures often use lenses to diffuse the light and spread it out more evenly. LED Panel Lighting that is used in commercial offices are a great example of this type of use case.

Another way that commercial light fixtures provide general illumination is by using multiple fixtures in the same mount point in multiple directions to fill out the whole space. A parking lot is a great example of this application.

Task Lighting

Task lighting is a type of lighting that is designed to provide focused illumination on a specific area or task, such as reading, cooking, or working at a desk. It is usually brighter and more directional than general or ambient lighting, and is designed to reduce shadows and improve visibility for the specific task that is being performed.

Task lighting can come from a variety of sources, such as desk lamps, under-cabinet lights, pendant lights, and wall-mounted fixtures. It can also be achieved by using recessed lights with adjustable focus or by using a combination of light sources. A common example of task lighting is a desk lamp that provides a concentrated beam of light on a book or computer screen, making it easier to read or work.

Task lighting is essential in spaces where precision or detailed work is performed, such as in a workshop, laboratory, or home office. It also can be found in the kitchen, where it's commonly used under the cabinets to illuminate the counters while preparing food.

It's also commonly found in bathrooms to provide light for tasks like grooming, shaving, and applying makeup. It's important to note that task lighting should be independent from ambient lighting, so that the light level can be adjusted to the task at hand, and avoid glare and eye strain.

As we mentioned before, task lighting should be used in conjunction with general illumination for best results. After all, it's not productive to sit in a dark room with your desk lamp turned on to try and get work done. Your eyes will have to adjust and strain to see, making it uncomfortable and less productive. The right combination of downlighting will help you create an atmosphere perfect for any task.

That is why there are lighting design guidelines to provide the ideal contrast between ambient and task lighting. This is referred to as the Ambient to Task Lighting ratio. As a general rule of thumb, the ideal Ambient to Task Lighting ratio should be 3:1.

Wall Washing: A type of Accent Lighting

Wall washing is a type of downlighting that is used to evenly illuminate a wall or other vertical surface, creating a diffuse, even light. The goal of wall washing is to make the space appear larger or create more depth by eliminating shadows and dark spots.

Wall washing can be achieved by using a variety of lighting fixtures, such as recessed lights, track lights, and wall-mounted fixtures. It is often used to highlight artwork, architectural features, or to create a particular ambiance in a space. For example, wall washing can be used to make a feature wall or an artwork stand out while creating a subtle and soft ambiance in the room.

In order for wall washing to be as effective as intended, it's important for the light to be pointed at a plain and neutral surface free of any textures or imperfections. This is important for commercial spaces, like a lobby area of a hotel as it creates the illusion of a larger space especially when paired up with high ceilings.

It is important to note that the angle of the lights, the distance between the fixtures, and the spacing of the fixtures can all have a significant impact on the final result of wall washing. To best achieve an evenly lit wall, it's best that the fixtures are not placed too close to the wall or with enough spacing in between.

Wall Grazing: Another type of Accent Lighting

Wall grazing is a type of downlighting that is used to create a narrow beam of light that is directed across a wall or other vertical surface. Unlike wall washing, which aims to evenly illuminate a surface, wall grazing is used to create texture, depth, and visual interest on a surface by highlighting its natural features. It can be used to create a dramatic effect and bring a sense of depth and dimension to the space.

Wall grazing can be achieved by using a variety of lighting fixtures, such as recessed lights, track lights, and wall-mounted fixtures. Unlike Wall Washing, the Wall Grazing fixtures are typically placed close to or on the wall itself, with a down light projection creating a dramatic grazing effect that highlights the interesting features and textures of this vertical space.

One common example of wall grazing is in a restaurant or a bar, where it can be used to highlight the texture of a wall or to create a relaxing and soothing ambiance in a dining area. In a residential setting, it can be used to highlight the texture of a wall or to create a dramatic effect in a living room or entrance hall.

Like wall washing, it's important to work with a lighting designer to get the desired effect as the angle and distance of the lights play a crucial role on how the final outcome will look like.

It's important to note that the general term for both Wall Grazing & Wall Washing is referred to as Accent Lighting. The general rule of thumb for Ambient to Accent Lighting ratio should be around 5:1.


Wayfinding lighting is a type of lighting that is used to help people navigate through a space, such as a building or parking garage. Its main goal is to assist people in finding their way and provide a sense of direction and orientation within the space.

Wayfinding lighting is usually low intensity and directional, and is used to highlight pathways, exits, and other important features. It can be achieved by using a variety of lighting fixtures, such as recessed lights, wall-mounted fixtures, and floor-mounted fixtures. It can also be achieved by using contrasting lighting levels or colors, such as highlighting an exit door in red, to make it stand out.

One example of wayfinding lighting is in airports, hospitals, or large office buildings, where it helps guide visitors through the complex and unfamiliar surroundings. It can also be found in parking garages, museums, and other public spaces where it's important for people to know their location and how to find their way around.

Humans are naturally attracted to illumination so it's quite common for us to naturally navigate the lit space subconsciously as the light subtly guides us through the path the building designers want us to follow.

It's essential that wayfinding lighting is not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing, so it should be designed carefully to blend seamlessly with the overall design of the space. Also it should be highly visible, easy to understand, and intuitive to follow for all users, including those with disabilities.

Unlike the other types of lighting, it's not uncommon to see wayfinding light fixtures lit in a dark space as this is quite common in an outdoor setting especially in a long dark pathway.

Types of Downlighting Fixtures

Now that we've gone through the three common types of downlighting, let's look at some of the most popular types of downlighting fixtures. 

Types of Fixtures for General Illumination

As mentioned earlier, there are a wide variety of light fixtures that could be used for Ambient Lighting as this can be achieved by one single fixture pointing downward like a residential ceiling light, or a number of bright and more directional commercial fixtures pointed at different directions to fill up the space evenly.

  1. Ceiling lights: These include flush-mount and semi-flush-mount fixtures, chandeliers, and pendant lights. They are mounted to the ceiling and provide general illumination to the entire room. They can come in different styles, designs and could be using different types of bulbs.
  2. Recessed lights: Commonly referred to as "downlights", these are installed into the ceiling and shine light downward. They can be used to provide general ambient light, or they can be used in combination with other fixtures to create a well-balanced lighting plan.
  3. Wall-mounted fixtures: These include sconces and wall-mounted lamps. They can be used to provide ambient light and can also be used to add visual interest to a space.
  4. Table and floor lamps: These are portable fixtures that can be placed anywhere in a room to provide ambient light. They can be used to supplement overhead lighting or to create a cozy and inviting atmosphere. Think of your typical hotel room, that is typically equipped with a shaded table lamp.
  5. Natural light: Large windows, skylights, or other architectural elements can be used to bring natural light into a space, providing ambient light and helping to create a sense of connection to the outdoors.

Types of Fixtures for Task Lighting

Below are the common fixtures that are typically used for task lighting.

  1. Recessed lights: In addition to providing general ambient light, they can be used in task lighting as well; they come equipped with adjustable focus to direct the light where it's needed.
  2. Desk lamps: These are portable fixtures that can be placed on a desk or other surface to provide focused light for reading, writing, or other tasks. They come in different designs, styles and can use different types of bulbs.
  3. Under-cabinet lights: These are small, low-profile fixtures that are installed under cabinets or shelving to provide task lighting for tasks such as food preparation or reading recipes. They can be LED or Fluorescent, and can be either hardwired or plug-in.
  4. Pendant lights: These are lights suspended from the ceiling by a cord, chain, or rod, and are usually positioned over work surfaces such as kitchen islands, desks or other work area.

Types of Fixtures used for Wall Washing

While most of the fixtures mentioned above can be used for wall washing, there are a few that are designed specifically for this purpose.

  1. Track lights: Track lights typically come in straight lines and provide adjustable directional light when mounted on walls or ceilings. For Wall Washing purposes, we would want to direct one or more lights directly to the wall from a distance. This feature would need to have a wider beam and since track lights are flexible, that should not be a problem.
  2. Recessed Lights with tilted Lenses: Another option are recessed lights with tilted lenses. This type of downlights have adjustable lenses which can be tilted at an angle to provide focused light on the wall.
  3. Flood Lights : Flood lights are powerful fixtures that produce a wide, bright beam of light and are typically used to illuminate large outdoor areas for security or other purposes. Another common use for flood lights is to highlight large outdoor signs. This is done by using the same wall washing technique we used for the indoors. Unlike the other fixtures, flood lights can be used as a downlight but are sometimes also mounted below the sign to achieve the same effect.

 Types of Fixtures used for Wall Grazing

Wall Grazing is a niche use case and as such , there are not many fixtures that are specifically engineered for this purpose. The most common fixtures used to achieve wall grazing effects are tape lights and wall grazing fixtures.

  1. Wall Grazing Fixtures: These are a type of light fixture specifically made for that purpose and as such are made by some niche manufacturers focusing on art, and the hospitality industry.
  2. Tape Lights: Tape lights are small strips of LED lights that are typically used to provide a decorative effect. They can be cut into small sections and mounted on the wall in order to achieve a grazing effect with the aid of some accessories.

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