How to Choose the Right Reading Light

The right bedroom task lighting can make reading in bed more enjoyable and easier on the eyes.

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bedroom linear cove lighting
Bedside lamps are beautiful, but can be uncomfortable for the other person in bed who is trying to sleep. Photography by Dennis Anderson.

Whether you're reading in bed or lounging in your Lay-Z-Boy, it’s important to have a good reading light. I know many of you are reading off of your tablet or Kindle, but there's still a whole bunch of people who like the tactile feel of paging through a book, a magazine or newspaper. There’s something about that new book smell that can’t be duplicated when looking at a glowing screen.

When I was growing up, my parents had a table lamp on either side of the bed, and a floor lamp next to the Barcalounger. There was always a little bit of contention in the bedroom when one parent wanted to read and the other one wanted to sleep. Their ultimate solution was a sleep mask, but nowadays there are other ways to address the issue.

Flexibility is Key

Having a light fixture with a flexible arm is the way to go. Whether this is a table lamp with a weighted base or a swing arm lamp mounted to the wall, the reader has the ability to adjust the light away from the person with whom they are sharing a bed. Even in the living room, having a floor lamp or table lamp that's adjustable allows somebody else who may be watching television or doing some serious drinking not to have to deal with the glare.

Being able to manipulate the light source also helps with veiling reflection. This term refers to the glare that’s created when directed light is being bounced off of white or glossy paper, making it hard to read the text. This is what typically happens when you’re trying to read using a light source that's coming from the ceiling. While we can’t get away from the fact that paper is reflective, what we can do is change the angle of reflection. If the light source is positioned so that it washes across the page, then the glare is directed away from your normal viewing angle. Take note: Your optimum task light comes between your head and your work surface. So for a reading light, you want to position it below eye level and at a slight angle to ameliorate the veiling reflection.

black adjustable reading light
The Squig by Firefarm Lighting has a flexible neck and takes an LED R14 bulb. Photography by Randall Whitehead.

LED Options

Task lights with a swing arm feature of been around for a long time, but now we have LED versions coming into the mix, which have their own set of pluses and minuses. On the plus side, you get high lumen output without the energy consumption or the substantial heat. There are reading lights out there that use standard incandescent bulbs or halogen bulbs, and they can get very hot to touch. While LEDs do get warm, they will never burn you.

On the negative side, there are reading lights using a series of LEDs in linear rows to produce the amount of light needed. The issue with this is that they can create multiple shadows. Look for a light source that has some sort of lens or diffusing material to even out the illumination.

shadows with LEDs on hand
A light source using rows of diodes create multiple shadows. Photography by Randall Whitehead.

Like many types of fixtures on the market, reading lights with LEDs come in a variety of color temperatures, so you can pick one that offers the best clarity. Younger people can choose a warmer Kelvin rating, 2700K to 3000K for their light source. Older people, as they age, the lenses on their eyes begin to yellow. Using a cooler color temperature 3500K to 5000Kel, will provide better visual acuity.

As you’ve heard me say before, always choose a light source that has a CRI of 90 or higher so that you get the rich color quality of incandescent light no matter what color temperature you choose. Also, pick a fixture that has dimming capability, which gives you one more level of control. You do not need the same amount of light at night to read as you do during the day because you’re not competing with daylight.

The bottom line is make sure to choose an adjustable task light not only to improve your reading comfort, but do it for the sake of your relationship as well. You’re welcome.

Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead, IALD, is a professional lighting designer and author. His books include "Residential Lighting, A Practical Guide." Whitehead has worked on projects worldwide, appeared on the Discovery Channel, HGTV and CNN, and he is regular guest on Martha Stewart Living Radio. Visit his website for more information on books, upcoming seminars and the latest lighting trends.

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