How to choose a light bulb

Published 28 Jan 2020

Now that we’ve made it through the shortest day of the year and the days are getting longer, I find myself yearning for the light of Spring. Things just seem easier when we are surrounded by light, so brightening up the dark days of winter is still very much on our minds. We depend on artificial light at this time of year, and the type of light we see can really affect our mood. So how do we get it right and make ourselves feel happy instead of glum? It’s all about the type of lighting we choose, and that starts with the humble light bulb.

A close up photo of a bare bulb in a light fitting.
an incandescent light bulb (frosted)

There are a few things to consider when buying a light bulb - brightness or the amount of light it produces, shape, energy efficiency, and colour temperature. There are so many choices that it can be really confusing, so here’s my quick guide, starting with the types of bulbs available. 

The first commercially viable light bulb was created by Thomas Edison and is known as an incandescent bulb. These became the ones that we are all used to - the typical ‘bulb’ shape we all know and love. There weren’t many choices when it came to shape, style and colour. When we needed to replace one we used to just pop down to Woolworths and buy a 40 watt or 60 watt bulb (or a 100 watt bulb if we wanted the room to be scarily bright). Most light bulbs were clear, or if we wanted to be a bit fancy we would buy a frosted bulb. That was it - it was fairly simple and straightforward, but then the results we got were also simple and straightforward - a bright light with one colour and not many options to create a mood.

A close up photo of a halogen bulb.
a Halogen bulb - the type we tend to use in our kitchen and bathroom spotlights

We started to think properly about energy efficiency in the early 1980s when Halogen bulbs became popular. The first Halogen lamp was actually invented back in 1882, but it took a little while before they were reliable and bright enough to use! Halogen bulbs were slightly more efficient than the incandescent bulb because they lasted much longer, but they also got much hotter and could be dangerous to handle. We got used to using them in places like kitchen and bathroom ceiling spotlights as they didn’t need changing very often. Again, there weren’t many options if you wanted to use lighting to create a specific mood.

A close up of a CFL bulb in a twisted shape.A CFL bulb in a twisted shape

A close up of a CFL bulb in a loop shape.A CFL bulb in a loop shape

The next level energy efficient light bulb was the CFL or Compact Flourescent Lamp. Again, they were invented surprisingly early, in 1939, but didn’t come into general use until much later on (we’ve obviously been trying to crack this energy efficiency thing for a while). Today they come in lots of shapes and sizes, but in the 1980s and 90s they were a twisted or looped shape and the first ones were quite bulky and heavy. When we got married, my husband and I asked our student friends to buy them as wedding gifts for us as they were relatively expensive. We actually still have some of the bulbs! I remember finding that some of them were so big that they would stick out above a lampshade or light fitting. They weren’t the nicest of things to look at and didn’t really give a soft glow, but if we wanted to save the planet, they were the only option.

A close up of an LED bulb which looks like a filament bulb.
An LED bulb, disguised as an old fashioned filament bulb

Concerns about how to dispose of CFL bulbs (they contained mercury) and the expense of production slowly led to a shift towards LED bulbs. Light Emitting Diodes or LEDs were again invented a surprisingly long time ago - 1907 to be exact, but it took a good few decades before the bulbs were cost effective enough to be produced commercially. They are now the most energy efficient light bulbs on the market and are almost a standard choice for manufacturers and homeowners because they come in many different shapes, sizes and colours.

A close up of an LED bulb in a candle style.
A candle style LED bulb, which is dimmable
A close up of an LED bulb in a filament style.
Another filament style LED bulb - pretty convincing

So, where does that leave you if you need to buy a new light bulb? Chances are you’re probably going to buy an LED, because of their efficiency and the huge range of styles available. The next question is usually, how do I know how bright it will be? We all used to understand brightness in terms of wattage as there weren’t many options and you could easily see the differences between a 40 watt bulb compared to a 60 watt bulb.

When the various types of energy efficient bulbs came to the market, they continued to be sold by wattage, but these numbers were much smaller than we were used to. Wattage actually measures the amount of energy the bulb uses to produce the light, not how much light it gives off. So, when the packaging tells us that the bulb we’re trying to buy is a 35 watt one, that leaves us thinking ‘how much light will I get?’ and ‘what’s that in old wattage?’.

A photo of a halogen bulb's packaging, showing that it is 35 watts.
A halogen bulb's packaging, showing that it is 35 watts, but what does that mean?

The answer is to look at the Lumens, which is a measure of brightness. The great thing about using Lumens to compare brightness is that it applies to all types of bulb, no matter what technology is inside the bulb. Once we know the amount of Lumens we need, it makes it all much simpler. Here’s a handy conversion chart, which I still find myself referring to:

A lumens to wattage conversion chart.
This chart is from The Lightbulb Company, and can be found here.

Okay, so now we know which type of bulb to buy and how much light we need it to give us. The next thing to consider is the colour temperature. Think of the colour difference between bright morning light and a pinky sunset. The blue light of the morning sky will make us feel awake and energised, whilst the pinky soft glow of the sunset will make us feel relaxed. It’s the same with bulbs. Do you need a bright, cooler light for say over the bathroom sink (so you can see what you’re doing), or do you need a warmer, softer glow for the lamp in the living room? That’s the colour temperature.

A bulb in a spotlight with a blue glow, or higher colour temperature
An LED bulb in a ceiling spotlight with a blue glow, or higher colour temperature
A bulb in a spotlight with a yellow glow, or lower colour temperature
An LED bulb in a ceiling spotlight with a yellow glow, or lower colour temperature

Colour temperature is measured in Kelvin, named after Lord Kelvin who came up with the measurement. Basically, the lower the Kelvin number is, the warmer or more yellow/orange the light will be, and the higher the number, the cooler or more blue the light will be. Here’s another handy chart to help you buy the right colour:

A chart showing the Kelvin measurements of colour temperature.
A chart explaining colour temperature from Lumens.com, which can be found here

There is one final thing to consider when buying bulbs, which touches on lighting design. The direction and spread of the light you get from your bulb will give you different effects which can be used around your home. The type of light fixture you use will generally determine how this happens, as some shades will concentrate the light in a particular direction, and others will help it to spread around the room. For example, a desk lamp will give you a smaller, more targeted light (perfect for working at a computer or reading with). A lampshade will give a wider spread of light coming from the top and bottom of the shade. The light will be softened or diffused by the fabric, making it perfect for use in the evening when you’re watching TV and want to relax.

A photo of a lampshade showing the soft glow of the light coming out from the top and the bottom.
The lampshade is allowing the light to spread from the top and the bottom of the shade
A photo of a task lamp showing the direction of the light coming out from the lamp.
The shade of this task lamp forces the light in a more focussed direction

If you're anything like me you'll have a mixture of all sorts of bulbs in your home, some old, some new, and some of them not quite doing the job you want them to. But at least now when you need to replace one you'll know where to start.

 
 

 

Welcome to my design blog, where you'll see posts about anything from my current interiors obsession, to the latest fabric and wallpaper collections, and 'how to' guides for all things interiors related. I love colour and pattern, architecture and old buildings, and I especially love the moment when you see something so beautiful it makes you take a sharp intake of breath. Happy reading, and if you have any questions, or would like to chat about anything interiors related, please use the contact form to get in touch.

Thank you,

Louise

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A photo of the new coloured taps from the Dowsing & Reynolds Miami colour pop collection.
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a photo  of the new doorstop from Buster and Punch, with their logo and branding.

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You can shop the range here.

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A photo of the wallpaper made from cork, By Monkey Puzzle Tree
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The front cover of Cardiff Life Magazine issue no.208, Autumn 2019

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The Amara interiors blog awards voting banner 2019.
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My kitchen project featured on the Artifact Lighting blog!

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A view if the contemporary copper kitchen featuring the copper pendant lights from Artifact Lighting.

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You can read the blog page here

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A photo of the new House of Hackney Palmeral print for outdoor use.

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A photo which accompanies the Cardiff Life article about Living Coral
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A photo of the new Componibili Bio.
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A photo of California Shutters new range in ash wood.

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californiashutters.co.uk

My new favourite tile!

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A picture of the Lampas Marint pattern tile from Topps Tiles

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Lampas Pattern Marine tile

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a shot of a coral reef with the description Color of the Year 2019

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a view of the dressed bed, pink walls and blackout lined curtainsMy work has been featured in an article on Homify - one of the leading online ideas platforms for all things interiors. My project is in an article on how to avoid common mistakes when designing a bedroom. The article mentions how important it is to block out light for a good nights sleep - something I addressed by adding blackout lining to the curtains and adding an extra layer of window dressing with the wooden Venetian blinds. To see the article, please use the link below.

Homfy article - Are you guilty of these 8 bedroom design mistakes?