The Ultimate Guide To Kitchen Lighting [2023]

So you’ve decided to redo your kitchen lighting or are building it from scratch. Or you’re simply super interested in lighting tips and just looking around (in which case you’re my favorite person).

Well, look no further because, in this guide, we will talk about *everything* kitchen lighting. From start to finish, you’ll learn how to design the perfect kitchen lighting to suit your taste. Let’s get into it!

Kitchen lighting

Before we get started, let’s clear up some details about the content of this guide and how to use it.

I only focus on light design, so this is not an installation guide. Although we will discuss some tips regarding power, cords, and switches, I advise contacting an electrician to help you with the installation processes. I do not give professional advice and you should not attempt to install heavy fixtures or do complicated wiring yourself.

Also, this guide is made as a generic blueprint that can apply to most kitchens. Perfect lighting can only be achieved if I see your kitchen and speak with you to get a sense of your character, needs, and preferences. However, I’ve done my best to help you understand how light designers think when preparing lighting plans.

Do go step by step and return to this article after completing each step. This is not mandatory but will certainly help you get a sense of what we’re going for and then allow you to improvise during the final touches.

How Can I Achieve Balanced Kitchen Lighting?

When we say balanced lighting, we mean lighting that does not overwhelm us and is consistent throughout the room, while at the same time allowing us to focus on one thing at a time without being too intense.

It is often seamless lighting, so it alters your feelings without you even being able to recognize it. It must be simple and practical but unique and dramatic at the same time. It’s versatile so we can light up the kitchen in several different ways, depending on our needs.

If that sounds complicated or hard to achieve without the help of an expert, fear not because I have one magic word for you: LAYERING!

All of the above can be easily achieved if you do layering right.

What is layering?

Put really simply, layering is the use of different fixtures and bulbs for different purposes. Many people think that we only need light to be able to see but that’s far from true.

The three main types of lighting used in layering are:

  • Ambient
  • Task
  • Accent

Ambient light is used for the ambiance of the room. Well, isn’t that helpful?

But really, it’s the main light, the light that illuminates the entire room. Its purpose is to help us see when it’s dark outside, so it should be evenly spread and easy on the eye.

many ambient lights kitchen
A combination of pendants and recessed can lights works great for ambient light!

Think of the main light source in your kitchen, like a chandelier – that’s your ambient light.

Task lighting, as the name suggests, is light used for tasks. For example, in the kitchen, task lighting would be a light source directed to the cooking bench or sink, to help you cut your veggies or do the dishes with ease.

In such cases, ambient light might not be strong enough, or it might be positioned in a way that you cast a shadow on your working space.

Kitchen sink with under-the-cabinet LED strip

This is a cool example of task lighting that can help you see in specific circumstances, e.g., washing the dishes when the ambient light sources is behind you.

Accent lighting is quite special to me because it allows you to add your own personal touches and I love it when people get creative with light.

This would be for example light over some wall art or around your kitchen island to set the mood.

Modern and cute uplight for kitchen shelves
Up-lighting in shelves is an interesting choice for accent lighting, also practical!

To make it even more clear, let’s look at the table below to see which common fixtures can be used for each layer of light.

AmbientTaskAccent
Recessed Can LightsPendantsLED Strips
ChandeliersTrack LightingLED Puck Lights
Flush/Semi-flush Mount LightsUnder-the-cabinet LED StripsPicture Lights
Certain PendantsWall SconcesWall Light Art

As you can see, there is some overlap between the layers that each fixture can be used for. What decides whether the fixture is used for e.g., ambient or task lighting is you! Specifically, the placement and purpose you have given to that fixture define the layer it belongs to.

Lumens and color temperature

The second trick to achieve balanced lighting is to pay close attention to the lumens and color temperature of your bulbs.

Lumens measure the brightness of the bulb (what used to be explained by wattage), while color temperature indicates how white or yellowish the light is.

Brightness can be different for each bulb depending on its purpose and position. In the next section, I will tell you how to estimate how many lumens you need to properly light your kitchen.

Color temperature is measured on the Kelvin scale, with lower values (2700-3000 K) being warmer or more yellowish, and higher values (4000-5000 K) being cooler or more blueish.

White bulbs of increasing color temperature showcasing the difference between warm white and cool white light

In general, kitchen lighting should be between 3500 and 4500 K. Ambient lighting can be on the lower end of the spectrum while task lighting can be on the higher end of the spectrum. The size and style of your kitchen can broaden this range a little bit, so read this guide to determine the perfect color temperature for your kitchen.

How To Determine Lumens

Although lumens are very important for balanced and comfortable lighting, they’re simply a bulb property so it’s easy to adjust them by replacing some bulbs. However, this can be costly and wasteful, so consider buying dimmable LEDs.

Remember: It’s better to over-light than under-light your kitchen!

As a general guide:

  • Ambient light should be about 35 lumens per square foot (or 380 lumens per square meter).
  • Task lighting should be 70 lumens per square foot (or 750 per square meter).
  • LED strips should be 200-500 lumens per foot (600-1600 lumens per meter).

These numbers though depend a lot on factors such as your kitchen’s size, colors, ceiling height, etc., so if you’re detail-oriented with your lighting, check out this guide to lumens in the kitchen.

Perfect! Now you know what you need to look out for before making your lighting scheme. Let’s see how to choose your fixtures and bulbs and where to place them.

How To Create The Perfect Ambient Light

Start off by deciding what fixtures you will use for ambient light. Chandeliers and recessed can lights are the two most common options but flush and semi-flush mounts can be more practical, especially in small kitchens. Let’s look at them one by one.

Chandeliers

Chandeliers are actually a lot more versatile and stylish than most people think. If you’re thinking of putting a chandelier in your kitchen, start by answering the following questions:

chandeler modern
  • Is your kitchen small or connected to the living room (open kitchen)?

If yes, maybe a chandelier would look better over the dining table in your case. In small kitchens, it might take up too much space and make it feel even smaller, while open kitchens don’t usually have a central focal point, which is necessary for chandeliers (e.g., a kitchen island).

  • Are you planning on using pendants?

Pendants don’t go well with chandeliers—it’s quite hard to integrate different hanging lights close to each other without making them look tacky. If you like pendants and want to use them for task lighting, stick with recessed can lights for ambient light.

  • Do you already have more than 2-3 chandeliers in your home?

An interesting lighting scheme is one that incorporates many different fixtures. Your fixtures should work well together but not match because that takes away from the intensity of each light source. If you already have or plan to install some chandeliers around your home, consider something different for your kitchen.

Recessed can lights

Recessed can lights are a very safe choice for your kitchen. They go with all other fixtures and furniture, and they simply get the job done—not too much fuss about them.

To figure out how many recessed lights you need, divide your ceiling height by 2 and that’s the distance you should aim for between two lights.

So for example, if your ceiling height is 8 feet, your recessed can lights should be spaced 4 feet apart. The exact number of lights you will need depends on the area of your kitchen/ceiling.

Don’t install them near the walls and make sure cabinets and stuff are not in the way because that would create weird and unflattering shadows! However, try to leave no dark corners.

I advise you to call an electrician for the installation, but you can also read this DIY guide.

recessed cans
This kitchen could use a few more recessed can lights since there is no other ambient light source.

Extra Tip

Many designers will prompt you to buy white cans because kitchen ceilings are usually white and so the lights will blend in with the ceiling. You might hear that colored cans will draw attention upwards or make your ceiling look shorter.

While this is true, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. Black or wooden recessed lights can work amazingly in some kitchens, especially in contemporary and minimal aesthetics. As always, use only one type of recessed lights—you want them to be uniform.

Flush mount lights

Flush mounts are an excellent choice for ambient kitchen lighting. Although they don’t go with chandeliers, they can definitely work together with recessed can lights. You should consider flush mount lights if your kitchen is small or you have a low ceiling.

Their selling point is that they’re not as intense as chandeliers but also not as simplistic as recessed cans. So if you want a fixture that gets the job done and adds a stylistic touch without being too over the top, then flush mounts are for you.

Another cool thing about flush mount lights is that they come in so many different shapes, sizes, and colors that you can certainly find one to match your kitchen without worrying about whether it fits in well.

How To Add Task Lighting

Task lighting will make your life A LOT easier, so you definitely want to nail this one. Also, it’s in the sweet spot between functionality and design, so this is your time to shine!

Just to reiterate, task lighting is the light you need in specific areas of your kitchen to illuminate your working space. And by working space, I mean the sink, a kitchen island, the stove or the cooking bench, and even your cupboards!

How to light your kitchen sink

One of the best options for your kitchen sink is a pendant that directs the light downwards. Keep in mind a few key points:

  • Use a pendant only if you have no cabinets over the sink (obviously)
  • Avoid the use of a pendant if there is a window over the sink (it will obstruct natural daylight, which we want to maximize)
  • Aim for a maximum diameter of 6-7 inches (15-18 cm)
  • The pendant should hang about 30-40 inches (75-100 cm) above the countertop, but this also depends on your height and the height of your countertop
  • If the sink is against the wall, place the pendant no farther than 6 inches (15 cm) from the wall

I have written an entire article on this topic which goes into a lot more depth, so do check it out if need more information.

pendant sink

Another option for your sink is wall sconces, which look very cool but it is tricky to use them properly in kitchens.

How to light your kitchen island

If your kitchen has an island, there’s a few ways you can light that. We’ve already seen how you can use a chandelier over the island, which would then work mostly as ambient light.

If you prefer targeted light over the island (e.g., for food prep, reading, etc.) then maybe pendants are a better option for you.

The number of pendants you need depends on the length of your kitchen island. In general, the pendants should start 12-15 inches (30-38 cm) from the edges of the island and have about 30 inches (75 cm) between them while spaced evenly. For example, a 7-foot island (215 cm) needs about 3 pendants.

Sink in kitchen island

Also, they should be hung about 30-36 inches (75-90 cm) above the island so that they don’t obstruct anyone’s view but again this depends on the particular dimensions of your kitchen (and yourself!). 

See, kitchen lighting is not as simple as it might seem at first.

I’ve prepared a thorough guide on how to light your kitchen island if you wanna go more in depth.

If you don’t have an island, your island is hugging a wall, or your walls are already taken, you can consider ceiling track lights.

How to light your countertop

By far the best way to light your countertop is to use LED strips under the cabinets. They are super practical and look really cook (that was a typo but I think I’ll keep it and pretend it was a questionable pun).

Pro Tip: LED strips look best in parallel. Don’t be afraid to use them under the cabinets, around the countertop/island, AND near the floor to avoid toe stubbing!

LED strips have a special ability to change the mood of the space drastically. Dimming them at night makes a huge difference—it really shifts the tone of the room. So I definitely recommend you connect them to a dimmer switch, and maybe you can use a motion sensor at the toe stub so they turn on automatically when you enter the kitchen.

If you’re feeling extra funky, you can consider colorful LEDs with a remote control.

LED strip under kitchen counter

Now, in case you don’t want to use LED strips, there are two more options: LED pucks and sconces.

I won’t go a lot more into puck lights because they don’t differ much from the strips in terms of practicality and aesthetics. Their main difference is that pucks can provide more focused beams instead of continuous light, and they can be used individually, so you can switch on only one at a time if you wish to. Both need under-cabinet space to really *shine*.

If your countertop does not have cupboards, you can use sconces. Try to put them at around eye level and keep them 6 inches (15 cm) apart.

How To Add Accent Lighting

Accent lighting will solidify your lighting scheme because it works as a bridge between ambient and task lighting. This is the time for you to get creative!

Some good fixture choices for accent light are track lights, directional can lights, wall washers, LED strips, LED pucks, and picture lights. However, most of them are not ideal for kitchen lighting, so I would stick with the LED options.

As we saw earlier, LED strips around your kitchen island or countertop would qualify as accent lighting because their light is not exactly useful but mostly decorative.

Another interesting choice for accent lighting is to install LED strips on your shelves and cupboards, so they light your tableware.

There’s not much more to say about accent lighting. As we said, this is the time for you to get creative. Choose the fixtures you prefer and experiment!

Wrapping up

So there you have it. Follow this guide and some of the resources within it, and you can achieve perfectly balanced lighting in your kitchen.

Remember to use all three layers of light for the best result and choose your fixtures based on practicality and your personal preferences.

Start by deciding the placement of your ambient light source. Is it over the table or a kitchen island? Will it be recessed can lights throughout the ceiling?

  • Get creative with your fixtures

Don’t be afraid to experiment with what types of fixtures you buy. Remember, your lighting fixtures should work well together but not match. Matching lighting takes away from the intensity of each individual light source. This is not true of course in the case of sconces and recessed can lights, which should always match.

Calculate the lumen output of these light sources and move on to task lighting by figuring out which poorly lit spaces you use for tasks. Maybe your body creates a shadow over the countertop when cutting your veggies or maybe the cupboard is placed awkwardly and is underlit.

  • Dimmers, dimmers, dimmers!

Always connect as many of your fixtures as you can to dimmers. The versatility and freedom dimmers give you is unmatchable. Cozy mood, working time, sleepy time, you can adjust the lighting to each hour of the day!

Similarly, decide which fixtures you will use, determine the required lumen output, and move on to accent lighting. Experiment with light and use it to add your personal touches to your kitchen.

  • Make sure you don’t leave any dark corners

A well-lit kitchen is one that has no dark spaces. Simple as that!

  • Feeling funky? Try out color LED strips

Add some color to your kitchen by installing RGB LED strips under the cabinet or around your kitchen island. Don’t overdo it though because it can end up looking tacky. And always use only one color at a time.

  • Motion-activated lights

Quite simple to install and gives a very classy look and feel to your kitchen. I would suggest this for the toe stub!

  • One color temperature

It is best practice for kitchens to be between 3500 and 4500 K. Ambient lighting can be on the lower end of the spectrum while task lighting can be on the higher end of the spectrum. Don’t go for more than 1000 K of difference though, as it can make the space feel uninviting.

If you follow all these steps carefully, you will have a super balanced and dramatic lighting scheme for your kitchen in minutes! Hope this helps and let me know how it goes 🙂

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