Home Theater Lighting Best Practices

You’ve been dreaming about your ultimate home theater room for years, including how you want the lighting to set the tone. After countless hours of pouring over reviews and articles, you’ve got all of your equipment picked out and can’t wait to hear and see it. Even though its months until construction finishes, you have the seating all picked out. Then you get the call from your builder saying the electrician will start tomorrow and he wants to know where you want the lights to go.

While many times home theater lighting is overlooked till the last minute, hopefully, this guide will inspire some ideas you had not thought about and help you add some great finishing touches to your dream home theater room. 

This video is part of our Home Theater Design Series that covers virtually everything about designing a home theater. In addition to our world-class home theater design tool, we've given you everything you need for your home theater journey in Home Theater Central.

Your home theater lighting actually will need to serve several purposes. Some fixtures will perform more than one task, while others will be specifically dedicated to just one purpose. We will take a look at the different tasks and what types of lighting work best for those tasks. And just so you don’t forget about what might be important, we’ll start with the most boring home theater lighting elements then work our way up to the pretty cool ones!

Task Lighting

You may ask, what in the world do you need task lighting in a home theater for, isn’t a movie theater dark? Well, what happens when you have to clean your home theater, don’t you want to be able to see the entire room clearly? In our experience, the best type of fixture for theater task lighting is a recessed ceiling can. Most brands of recessed cans have a dark trim ring that will be perfect for the dark ceiling in your home theater. For the most light when cleaning, a typical theater will need 3 to 4 rows of cans, with the cans spaced about 3-4 feet apart.

If recessed cans are the only form of lighting you plan for your theater due to budget constraints, we highly recommend you put your recessed cans on at least 2 different circuits as they can also be used as accent lights before the movie starts and when it ends if they are on a dimmer. You should definitely have the row of cans in front of the screen on a separate circuit from the rest to prevent any light from spilling on the screen when you have a crowd over for a sporting event and want the lights up in the room just a bit.

The type of lamps used in recessed cans should also be considered. If you are not going to use separate circuits, think about a narrow beam spread for the ones closer to the screen and a wider spread for those over the seats. The narrow beam will keep light off the screen. Of course, if you have separate circuits, this is not as big a deal.

Safety Lighting

If your home theater has risers, it is very important to make sure the steps are visible to protect your guests from stumbling in the dark. There are many decorative types of step lights available on the market. We highly recommend you choose a type that casts an indirect light. Most people will choose to leave their step lights turned on at a dim level during the movie. You would not want to have any kind of light that shines directly on the screen. We have come behind some installations where a bright step light was positioned on the vertical riser, shining right at the screen; not a great idea. If you can, position the step lights off to the side and make sure they have louvers or some sort of element to direct the light source downward.

If your seats are not fully blocking a riser drop off, you might also consider using some kind of indirect lighting under the lip of the riser. Options here could be rope lights or the new strip type LED’s. Just like with step lights, you want to be sure they do not shine on the screen at all. Adding a small lip under the riser can help block the direct light allowing them to just shine down providing the safety lighting you need without lighting up your screen.

Done properly, your safety lighting for riser steps can also add a cool accent to the look of your home theater.

Accent Lighting

Now we start to get to the fun part of home theater lighting. Creative accent lighting can take a mundane looking room and give it a look that draws oohs and ahhs from your friends. We have a phrase that will help you out when planning your accent lighting: “Go for the Glow”. Indirect accent lighting will give your theater that cool look and keep any of it from shining directly on your screen. Also, if you follow this logic, you’ll be able to dim your accent lights during a sporting event when you want to have more light in the room than for movie viewing.

These can be placed on your wall or columns running the long length of the room. We like to see the type that shines up or up and down without any outward glow. In other words, you should not be able to see the light bulbs. Sure, there are some very cool looking decorative sconces that use candelabra type lamps that are completely visible and this may be the look you desire for your theater, but we feel they can be distracting to the eye IF you have them on when using the theater. If you plan to always keep them off, you’ll be ok.

Indirect Column Lights
This can be a very cool lighting feature. They require some planning but imagine a column that has a soft glow coming from both of its vertical sides. This kind of accent can even run up a side wall, across the ceiling, and down the other side. The new types of LED strip lights have made it possible to do all kinds of neat things with indirect lighting. Some of them even have the option of changing color on the fly. You simply have a column that is spaced off the wall and install strip lights on the backside a couple of inches in from the edge.

Cove Lighting
Cove lights are another great way to add some wow to your home theater. Cove lighting can be done with either rope lighting or LED strips and is a great way to give your ceiling a soft glow. Cove lights are also one of the most effective ways to add some light into a room when you do not want it fully dark without having any light spill onto the screen.

Starfield Lighting
This type of lighting can give your ceiling the look of a stary night, and in some cases, you’ll even see shooting stars. Starfield lighting adds very little light to the room as it is created using tiny fiber optics. However, the cost of a great system can be more than your front projector, so we would only recommend this if your budget is not limited at all. It is a super cool look, but just bear in mind, its a big expense in most cases.

There are other lighting considerations in a theater besides the actual fixtures. We’ll go over a few of these next.

Keeping Light Out

You’ve never walked into a movie theater with windows, so bear that in mind when planning your home theater. If your theater room will have windows in it, please consider a way to totally block out the light coming in. This can be done with heavy, blackout curtains or shades. If you do shades, make sure they are in some kind of track system to prevent light from spilling in from the sides. Motorized shades can also add a cool wow factor to your room if you program them to darken the room as you start the movie.


Light Reflections

If your movie theater has a front projector (and what good one does not!) you’ll want to be careful about what you have around the screen itself. If your screen is just mounted flat to a wall, you’ll not have much to worry about. However, if it's recessed in any type of cabinet or just has a cabinet or any type of surface directly under it, you’ll need to think about those surfaces. A front projection screen reflects light back to our eyes and it just does not go straight out. The light bounces off the screen at a pretty wide angle so that even sitting to the side of the screen, you still get a great picture.

The downside of this happens when your screen has anything around the sides this reflected light could hit. We walked into a theater one time where there was polished black granite on top of the cabinet just under the screen. The entire piece of granite looked like a mirror, which was a terrible distraction.

If you surround your screen, make sure the material is a matte finish that will not reflect. Or better yet, use some sticky blackout felt like material on the surfaces around the screen.

Wall Color

This gets into personal taste, but the darker you can make your walls, the less light will reflect off them, giving your picture more pop. Go for dark greys, blues, browns, or blacks for the best result. We also like to see the ceiling painted a dark color as well, sometimes one shade down from the main room color will give a neat result. The paint should not be a gloss or eggshell finish, but a flat or matte finish.

Electrical Considerations

If possible, have your electrician put all of your theater lights on a different breaker than the circuit(s) that will be used for your home theater equipment. This will help prevent any fixture noise from making its way into the audio of your system. Learn more about home theater electrical considerations in our full article.

Controlling Your Theater Lights

We highly suggest you break up your lighting zones. For instance, put your sconces, step lights, and cove lights all on separate dimmers. As we said above, it's also a good idea to even break up your recessed task lights into one or two zones. Once you do this, if you add smart, controlled dimmers to your system, you’ll be able to create some very cool looking lighting scenes. Notice we did not say switches, dimmers are a must if you want to get the most from a great lighting design.

You’ll really love the effect if you can control your lighting scenes with a smart remote or smartphone. Imagine this- when you turn your theater on, all the lights come up to a nice glow. After a couple of minutes, they fade to a completely dark room except for a very soft glow from your step lights. If someone needs to get up for a break, you push a button and the cove or sconce lights light up enough for them to see their way out. When the movie ends, and you push power off, your lights fade up, then after 5 minutes, the room shuts all the lights off. There are just so many cool things you can do with lighting when you add control to the system.

We hope this brief overview has helped you understand how well-planned lighting design can take your home theater to the next level. If you have any questions, feel free to drop by our stores in Raleigh and Charlotte, or give us a call or chat.

If you are hungry for more, we have a complete Home Theater Buyers Guide available to read.

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