Indoor lighting for better vision

Light Up Your Life

When it comes to indoor lighting, many of us could use, well, a bit of illumination. What lights are actually best for us – and our eyes? What is marketing hype and what should we really pay attention to?

To find out, CNIB contacted Drs. Jeff Hovis and Graham Strong, both from the University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry. Dr. Hovis is a specialist in occupational vision, and Dr. Strong is a director of the University of Waterloo’s renowned Centre for Sight Enhancement.

Lighting Myths and Facts

The good news is that although many of us think we can permanently damage our sight with incorrect lighting (remember when our parents used to tell us to read with more light or we’d go blind?), both Hovis and Strong say this is impossible. On the other hand, the effects of bad lighting can be very uncomfortable and can even lead to serious injury if you can’t see while doing something dangerous.

So when it comes to lighting our lives, what counts, according to our experts? Number one: quantity of light. And number two: reducing glare.

Shedding Light on Your Workspace

Although there are thousands of occupations, each with individual lighting requirements, Hovis focused his comments on a typical office, an environment many of us are familiar with.

Today, most offices are well designed in terms of lighting – banks of over-bright, improperly shaded fluorescents are mainly a thing of the past. But occasionally computers and office lighting still don’t work well together. The key is to make sure the area around your computer monitor is roughly the same brightness as the screen itself.

If your monitor is placed in front of a window, or if the overall lighting in your office is much brighter or dimmer than your screen, the result is “discomfort glare.” Discomfort glare is the same thing you experience after coming across someone’s high beams when driving at night or when coming indoors after being in bright sunlight.

Discomfort glare can be subtle. When you look back and forth from your screen to the surrounding area, you may feel disoriented and have difficulty concentrating – without even being aware of the problem. Over time you may develop eye strain and headaches.

Monitor Your Glare (Don’t Glare at Your Monitor)

Try these simple diagnostic tricks at work if you think discomfort glare might be an issue:

  • Wear a hat with a brim for a couple of hours. If you feel more comfortable when you have it on, it means your overhead light is much brighter than your monitor.
  • Hold a blank sheet of paper off to the side of your monitor and a few inches back. The paper should have roughly the same brightness as your monitor. If not, make adjustments until it does.

You should also watch out for reflection. If you can see yourself or parts of your environment in your monitor, you also have a glare problem.

So, how to eliminate reflections and discomfort glare? Try any or all of the following:

  • Move your monitor to a new position on your desk (even changing the angle or shifting it a few inches can make a difference).
  • Change the overhead lighting in the room if possible or lower a window shade when needed.
  • Adjust your monitor’s contrast and brightness to suit the surrounding light.
  • Add a task light if your screen is bright and the surface of your desk is dim. Your lamp should be aimed onto the documents you are referring to and away from the computer.

Shedding Light at Home

Image of a lamp on a desk in a dimly lit room.

So that takes care of eight hours (or more!) of your day. But what about lighting at home?

At the Centre for Sight Enhancement, Strong often advises people about lighting in the home. “Studies show that most households are significantly under illuminated,” he says. And as we get older, we need even more light in our homes – usually about 10 per cent more each decade.

“What people have to understand is there isn’t any upward limit with lighting; it’s how you feel about it,” Dr. Strong says. Experiment by adding more light until you create an environment that feels comfortable for you.

A good place to experiment is a lighting store. Bring in something that is barely visible to you – something small and poorly contrasted, such as the back of a lottery ticket. Try reading it under different lights in the store. Most of the time, you’ll end up finding something better than what you already use at home.

Dr. Strong’s Room-By-Room Guide to Home Lighting

Kitchen

Along with the bathroom, the kitchen is where the most significant “lighting violations” usually occur.

  • Use bright task lighting for cutting surfaces, measuring and preparation areas, reading recipes and cooking on the stovetop. Under-cabinet lighting and adjustable lights (such as a goose-necked counter or wall lamp) work well.
  • Don’t create a problem with glare on your stove surface or countertops. Choose surfaces for your kitchen that aren’t shiny, or put down a mat or large cutting board to avoid glare.

Living Room

  • Use task lighting for activities that involve fine vision, such as reading or sewing. If you are doing sustained reading (absorbing a novel versus glancing at the TV listings) the light should be even stronger, and light for sewing should be twice as bright as for reading.
  • Don’t shut off all the light in the room to watch TV or a movie, or to play video games. The area surrounding your TV screen should be 20 to 40 per cent of the brightness of the TV itself. Leave on some of your living room lights or use a dimmer.
  • Avoid reflection on the TV screen by using blinds, turning off lights behind you or changing the screen’s angle.

Bathroom

  • With all of its shiny surfaces, the bathroom can be a nightmare for glare. Many bathrooms are over-lit. Generally you only need the same overall light level in your bathroom as in your living room.
  • Use good task lighting for activities such as shaving or applying makeup. Lighting should be directed at you and shielded from the mirror.
  • Be careful with bright lights above your mirror, which may be stylish, but are often poorly located, creating too much glare.

Bedroom

  • For areas where you are grooming and dressing, consider adding task lighting – it will make a difference when matching your socks to your pants or trying to decide which earrings to wear.
  • If you are reading in bed, use supplementary light from a table or wall lamp. It should be focused on the page (make sure it’s not too hot), and directed so it does not shine in your eyes.
  • Closets are often overlooked and should have some illumination. Many people with walk-in closets have enough light not to trip but not for colour selection. Make sure clothes don’t come into contact with a hot light bulb.

Stairways and Hallways

  • People rarely consider these areas, but they’re a big hazard. Many of us are more likely to fall when steps are dark. Consider adding lighting in hallways or supplementing what already exists.

Laundry Area

  • Most houses need more light than what is usually available, particularly in places where people are sorting colours or treating stains.

Basement, Workshop or Garage

  • In an unfinished basement, fluorescents will give more light than single bulbs.
  • Make sure you have proper light when doing tasks that are dangerous or involve fine vision. For woodworking, repairs or crafts make sure you’ve got a good task light handy.

Something to Feel Bright About

“There are two kinds of light,” said American humorist James Thurber. “The glow that illuminates and the glare that obscures.”

Thurber knew what he was talking about. Light things the wrong way and you’ll actually see worse.

But use light correctly, and your eyes (and brain) will thank you.​​​​