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Light is kind of moody.
We’re not saying that as a criticism. Light isn’t moody the way, say, our Aunt May is kind of moody.
We mean that the light in a room sets a tone. It creates an atmosphere. You know, it’s moody. Or rather, it affects the mood and feel of the room.
One factor that affects how light creates mood is called the color temperature. The color temperature affects how the light looks, and that affects how other things in the room look too.
We’re going to explain to you how color temperature works because it will help you decide what kind of color temperatures you might like in the different spaces of your home.
We’ll explain the difference between, say, halogen white vs cool white light.
Welcome to our color temperature throwdown. It’s going to be an illuminating knockout.
Why Is It Called Color Temperature Anyway?
How does one take the temperature of light? After all, you can’t very well stick a thermometer in its ear or under its tongue.
The concept of a “color temperature” seems just downright confusing or inane. Yet, there is a very sound reason for talking about the temperature of color. And a way of understanding it has, for the moment, more to do with metal than it does with light.
Think about iron for a moment. What happens if you take a flame to iron? It heats up, of course, but it also begins to change color.
A-ha. Now we’re onto something.
When iron reaches a certain temperature, it begins to glow red. But it doesn’t stay that way. If you heat it further, it will begin to turn a bright orange. And as it gets hotter and hotter, it will continue to change color further. Even after it has melted it will still do this.
One way you can measure temperature is with the Kelvin scale. You might remember it from grade school. That’s the scale that bottoms out at absolute zero, which sounds very, very cold to us.
When iron is heated to 2,700º Kelvin, the equivalent of about 4,400ºF, the iron’s glow will be similar to the hue that a typical incandescent bulb emits. This yellowish color is called a warm white.
As you climb higher up the Kelvin scale, continuing to burn bright, the iron will turn blueish. Some light bulbs emit a light with a similarly bluish hue. This blue is considered a cool white.
But wait: if the iron is hotter when it turns blue, and that’s where we get our idea of color temperature, wouldn’t it mean that blue is considered a hot color and not a cool color?
Great question! You would think so. But in fact, the descriptions “warm” and “cool” don’t refer to the temperatures that the iron is heated to, but rather whether the color has a warm or a cool “feel” to it. Think of the warm glow of a yellowish sun versus the cold blueish tinge of an arctic glacier.
Those two images set a different mood, right? A-ha again! And here we’re back to how color temperature can set the mood. It all ties together, see?
Halogen white vs cool white: The Throwdown Commences!
“Wait!” you say! “This is all nice in theory but how does it affect my lighting at home?”
Well, we’re glad you asked. You see, different types of light bulbs fall into different slots along the color temperature scale.
Here’s a neat breakdown of the color temperature scale as it pertains to light bulbs:
- High-pressure sodium bulbs – Yellowish-orange with a temperature of 2,200 K
- Standard incandescent bulb – Yellowish tint with a temperature of 2,700 K
- Halogen bulb- A cooler, bluer yellow tint with a temperature of 3,000 K
- Warm metal halide bulb – Nearly white with a slight yellow tint and a temperature of 3,200 K
- Standard clear halide bulb – Nearly pure white with a temperature of 4,000 K
- Cool white fluorescent bulb – Light blue tint with a temperature of 4,200 K
- Daylight metal halide – Cool, blue tint with a temperature of 5,500 K
Halogen lights, for example, are warm yellow lights with a bit of a blueish tint compared to incandescent bulbs, which are even more straightforwardly yellow. A cool white, by contrast, is even whiter with a pronounced blue tint rather than yellowness.
Should I Choose Warm or Cool White Bulbs?
Lots of things in life have a matter of fact answer. Who’s the first President of the United States? George Washington. What’s the value of five $1 bills? $5. But color temperature isn’t like that. When it comes to which bulbs you should prefer, there’s a certain subjectivity to it.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good rules of thumb you should abide by, at least as a starting point when you’re thinking about designing your home’s lighting.
For example, in a home’s living areas such as a living room, bedroom, or hallway, people often prefer a warm yellowish light because the warmth makes the room feel, warm, friendly, inviting. If that idea is appealing, you might want to consider lighting fixtures similar to this Élan Large Pendant, which will bathe your living areas in the warm ambient glow you’ll enjoy coming home to after a long day at work.
Similarly, if you are looking for a warmer, inviting light outside to serve as a welcoming beacon to incoming guests, you might be interested in a fixture similar to this Kichler Outdoor Post Lamp
Cooler lights tend to make objects look cleaner and brighter, and have a more modern look and feel to them. They tend to work great in workspaces or where good light for accomplishing a project is needed. For example, cooler lights are often used where food is prepared in the kitchen, as everything becomes brighter and easier to see during the work.
As cool white light is so conducive to accomplishing such projects, task lighting is very often a job for cool white bulbs.
Warm or Cool White? It’s All Cool with Us
Here’s another cool point: when you choose LED bulbs – and we recently published an article on the many reasons why you should definitely consider LED light bulbs – you will be able to choose from a greater range of light hues. LEDs allow you to choose the color temperature that you want, and some LED lights have adjustable colors when the right multichip LED lighting is used or, sometimes, when the lights are used in conjunction with a dimmer.
LED light bulbs – and specific LED light fixtures which have drivers and never require bulbs to be changed – are available in warm white (more reminiscent of halogen bulbs) natural light, pure white and cool white. For example, let’s say you want a warm LED light feel in your room with some visual drama, too. You could try installing this Vermont Modern Large Pendant LED in your entryway, dining area or living room. This fixture comes with a 3,000 K LED light to offer you a beautiful light-yellowish glow. And since people tend to look their best in warm light – it hides those pesky skin blemishes that annoy us all – you’ll look just as good as your new light fixture.
So, there it is. It’s been thrown down. Halogen white vs cool white? It’s all up to you and your situation.
And by understanding the correlated color temperature of bulbs, you can better determine how to create the lighting design and effects that you desire in your home. Whether you prefer a more modern, minimalist look or a more traditional, romantic appearance, choosing the right bulbs – with the right color temperature – can help to accentuate your lighting designs and your home’s best features.
– The Capitol Lighting Team
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