Tips on Bedside Reading Lights

Our lighting expert tells a cozy bedtime story about perfectly positioned illumination.

Q.: You once said you used a recessed pinpoint halogen in lieu of bedside lamps. How do you calculate where to put them in the ceiling?

A.: A good alternative to bedside reading lights is to install a pair of recessed adjustable low voltage luminaires in the ceiling above the bed. This is what I like to call the “airline approach” to providing focused light for reading. You may have noticed that the reading lights in an airplane are not located directly over your seat, but actually over the seat of the person sitting next to you.

That’s because the airline designers knew that your head makes a better door than a window when it comes to light transmission. Two individually dimmed recessed adjustable fixtures provide pinpoint reading light from above. The same principle applies in the bedroom. The person on the right controls the recessed adjustable luminaire over his or her partner’s side of the bed, and vice versa.

By using a lamp with a tight beam spread, such as the MR16 ESX (20W spot), the light is confined to a circle of illumination about the size of a magazine. If all your clients read are paperbacks, you can use an MR16 EZX, which projects a very narrow spot.

Regarding where to install the reading lights, I recommend having them 18 inches to 24 inches out from the wall and 2 feet from the centerline of the bed, putting them 4 feet from each other. Make sure that the light over your loved one’s side is the one controlled by the dimmer next to your pillow. This way the light is directed away from the person trying to sleep. If more than two people are in the bed, reading is probably not on the agenda.

Randall Whitehead, IALD

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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These days, I am using the LED versions of the MR 16 bulbs. The two companies that I tend to use are Soraa and Green Creative. Lighting showrooms carry these bulbs.

They can also get them online from sites such as the www.1000 They make both 12V and 120V versions. Yes, they will fit into four-inch recessed fixtures.

It's likely that you can simply change the trim to one that is adjustable if you have a fixed downlight. If you are installing new recessed housings into an existing ceiling there are remodel versions that are available.

Submitted by ltangorra on Thu, 01/05/2017 - 10:04


Could the same principle be used over a couch in the living room? My LVRM has no lights other than those plugged into receptacles. Can recessed lights be used for reading on the couch?

Your optimum position for a task/reading light is between your head and your work surface. A pharmacy type lamp, placed on either side of the couch will give you the best reading light.

Trying to use recessed fixtures will only create shadowing because your head will become in between you and your work surface. What I feel your living room is also missing is some ambient light and accent light.

For accent lighting, installing directional recessed fixtures will allow you to highlight art, tabletops and plants. There are many recessed fixtures out there that are made for remodel and can be installed into existing ceilings with a minimum of mess.

For ambient lighting, I would recommend one or two torchère fixtures to project up towards the ceiling. If you have higher ceilings (8'6" or taller) you could use one or two pendant fixtures to provide indirect/decorative lighting.