Create a Better Interior with Strong Contrasting Lighting

When we emerge from Winter and into a crisp dawn, when the Sun is still low and we encounter the abstract sight of long shadows.

It is a wondrous and all too short period that occurs twice in the calendar and it connects with our innate ability to respond to the strong contrast in nature between light and dark. Bright sunshine and its binary partner shadow, has always delighted the human eye – enhancing the world in which we live. Essentially – we need the darks as much as the lights.

I believe, as we emulate the naturally occurring feature of contrast and apply it as an element within our built environment, we will improve the look and feel of our interiors.

Lighting Design Tip: Painting with shadow

What is Contrast in Lit Interiors?

Contrast in lighting terms is the description of the distinct difference between two levels of light on the same surface or within the same space.

Contrast is primarily an application for hospitality and residential projects, but let’s not forget places of intensive habitation where people live 24/7; Care Homes and Hospitals for example. The eye and our brains can be led to believe they are experiencing the qualities of a strong sunlit forest which has been proven to lower blood pressure and to enhance wellbeing. This goes beyond circadian rhythms – and draws us close to a trigger within our atavistic minds to evoke a natural sense of harmony.

Consider the Angles of Light

It’s also important to consider that the angle of delivery and colour temperature of sunlight shifts geographically as we approach the equator. Nordic and high northern hemisphere countries have a warmer more lateral sunlight. Mediterranean countries – a medium and balanced colour temperature. Tropical equatorial countries – where the sun is more direct producing bright, cooler and higher contrast shadows.


Solution: there is a manufacturer of artificial skylight that can simulate all these qualities, tracking the progress of the sun astronomically throughout the day to successfully fool us into thinking the Sun is actually streaming through the window – and bringing with it all the emotional and psychological benefits of natural phases of light – minus the vitamin D of course.

Think about waiting rooms deep within the confines of a building without natural light and how they can be transformed into sun traps of LED light. These systems exist – the potential for solid state lighting is awesome!

However, it’s all very well for expensive simulators like this but how can we adopt a similar approach to our more modest budgets?

Adopting Strong Contrast Throughout the Day

Not all interior lighting needs to be soft and warm. An inviting colour temperature of 2700K with attendant strong pockets of light is our goal most of the time when designing dining or relaxation areas – but the challenge is not to become over reliant upon this solution as a fix-all.

For instance, take a restaurant with limited daylight penetration – especially in the UK where a third to half the year is subject to grey diffused light. When designing lighting for evening dining we tend to use dimmed soft lighting – but lunch service should embrace daylight simulation – why not use a second circuit using a 6500K daylight colour temperature?

Tips on How to Create Strong Contrast in Interiors

Don’t be afraid of 3000K

For daytime use 3000K or 3500K, it’s still warm white but a step away from the 2700K extra warm white. Thinking back to the light through the trees, this cleaner white light infused with warmth is a pleasing result.

Create Shadows

Crisp shadows need clear direction of light so we need to keep diffused downlighting to a minimum. Use undiffused LED light that accentuates the strength of the beam and the sharpness between light and dark.

Contrast panel

Suggestion: Conceal angled spot lights across a wall at a 45 degree angle, and replicate this angle of light throughout the interior – as if from a single source.

Control: This approach needn’t be a fixed solution for the whole day. Use controls to phase the scheme from this daytime scene and transfer to warmer tones with pockets of light. This can be done with sophisticated digital control or simply by deploying separate circuits with slightly cooler white – sharper shadowed fittings, utilising circuits with extra warm tones of white exclusively.

(Astro Product Serifos 170)

Contrast & Circadian Rhythm

So beyond the realm of circadian rhythms there is another dimension of light that strikes at the very heart of our natural being. It is an alternative natural system that doesn’t require highly sophisticated lighting controls to get right. It is another example of the unique preserve that the application of light has on an interior scene and a very powerful tool if you set it up correctly.

Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn
Indicative that suns go down;
The notice to the startled grass
That darkness is about to pass.

Emily Dickinson

Talk to us at Orange Lighting and we will provide the advice and the tools to create striking lighting schemes just give us a call or drop us a line!

Andrew Orange, the owner of Orange Lighting qualified and worked as an interior designer in 1993 before specialising in lighting working on high profile projects based in London. Since starting Orange Lighting Ltd in 2003 he has been sharing his knowledge and unique teaching style mostly to his designer clients, offering practical real life advice born from running a busy consultancy and lighting supply business. Launching in 2020, his blog has evolved into Quick & Easy Lighting, curating some 25 years design experience into making the lighting choice and design process achievable and easy to understand for all.