Lighting for the Home Theater
James R Benya, PE, FIES, IALD, LC
Many people today are taking a room in their home and turning it into a home theater. A good home theater is a major commitment, and given the cost of electronics and furniture, for most homes this may be the most expensive room in the whole house. Because the room is a completely visual environment, lighting is one of the most critical elements. With good lighting, you can enjoy sharp images on the screen while safely moving to get popcorn or a glass of wine. Bad lighting, however, will wash out images and make a $15,000 projector perform like an $800 office supply store special.
From a performance standpoint, the best video rooms are a thoughtful blend of projector, screen, room and lighting, and the challenge is to provide an overall design that performs extremely well when the lights are low. Let's start with the screen. It's important to make your screen size just right for the room, because an oversize screen reduces the contrast of the image as well as accentuating pixelization. Choose a smaller screen for a sharper image - the result, you will find, is sort of like sitting in the center of the theater, rather than in the front row, where the screen is way too large for your field of view.
Next, you need to ensure a relatively dark room with very little ambient light. Forget daylight or windows, or install black out shades. The reason is contrast; it is the ratio of screen image white to screen image black. Black is actually not black, but rather, a low level of light depending on both the room's ambient light and the inter-reflected image light that bounces off the walls and ceiling of the room. Make sure that the room itself is not causing lighting and image contrast problems. Use mostly dark wall finishes, especially around the screen. Don't hesitate to paint the room, including the ceiling, a dark color, because if you don't, light from the screen's own image will be reflected off the ceiling and will wash out the image. It's OK to use saturated colors like red or blue as long as the color is deep and low in reflectance. Avoid finishes with shine or sheen, like gloss paints. The most critical surfaces are the ceiling and walls in the front of the room, and the wall in the back of the room.
Finally, you need to take into account the fact that the room, like video, should be dynamic. When you enter the room, the room décor and architecture is very important. Then through the use of dimming and systems integration, the lights fade, and the room's function and comfort become the dominant issues.
Lighting for the room tends to be divided between functional lighting, which ensures the ability to move about and see critical tasks, and decorative lighting, that is chosen more for the appearance and character of the lighting fixture and effects. Decorative lighting should be turned off during the program, so it can be anything whose style and appearance are a proper match for the décor. There are literally thousands of choices of wall sconces, pendants, and chandeliers that fit the bill. (I'm not sure I'd recommend a crystal chandelier, because the crystal facets could actually cause disconcerting reflections from the screen, but that's up to you.)
The hardest part of home theater lighting is the functional lighting. With a good design, you can read a detailed description on a DVD cover with a minimum impact on the screen contrast, and then find your way to the door while others watch the program. For this type of lighting, a little bit goes a long way, and finesse is highly desirable. Most importantly, use lights that throw absolutely no light onto the screen.
I tend to use two separate functional lighting systems. One of them is the higher level "task" lighting, and the other is a safety/step lighting system. For the task lights I prefer low voltage fixtures, usually with good shielding and narrow flood MR16 lamps. Keep lights at least 4 feet away from the wall so that no light spills onto a wall. You can get good results from low voltage recessed, track lighting and monorail lighting systems. Be certain to place these lights on their own dimmer, as you will want to turn them off once you've settled in to the movie. Avoid regular "cans" in home theaters - they tend to wash out screen images.
There are many ways to provide step lighting. Consider actual step lights, keeping in mind that the smaller LED and xenon lamp step lights are typically all that you need. Other designs, such as those using linear light strips under steps in the floor, will be inspired by the room's architecture and finishes. Always remember to highlight steps and changes in level - it's OK to move from pool to pool of light on a flat floor, but if steps are involved, make sure that the step is in a one of those pools of light.
Connect these lighting systems to modern dimmers and permit the integrated control of lighting along with the rest of the home theater electronics. Even if the home does not have a dimming system, use preset dimmers in the theater. This will make it easier to push one button and have lights - projection - action, the ultimate feature of a real home theater.