Art in Focus

“Art in Focus”

By: David Cyr, LC, MIES, IALD

You’ve shelled out cash for precision lighting instruments, hired a good designer to select the right products and determine just where to place them, had a builder install them perfectly…but something is still not quite right.

An important and often overlooked last step is aiming the adjustable lighting fixtures, or as it’s known in the industry: focusing.

It’s no big secret: adjustable lighting fixtures have been around for a long time. Whether track mounted or recessed in a ceiling, aimable fixtures allow you to shine light right where it’s needed (picture an airplane reading light). At its simplest, focusing is pointing a light that’s able to tilt and rotate; taken further, one might use interchangeable optics for precise control of the beam. Properly focused lights are a perfect finishing touch for your space. 

Nowhere is good focusing more visibly important than in accent lighting. Whether highlighting works of art, feature walls, retail displays, or just family photos, focusing lighting makes things “pop,” revealing detail, texture, sheen, contrast, and color.

First things first, when planning accent lighting, three basic elements are critical: placement, optics, and aiming. 


For accent lighting, fixtures must be located correctly in relation to the object. A good rule of thumb is to place fixtures at a distance within a zone ranging 30° to 45° from vertical measured from the center of the object. The range allows some flexibility in locating fixtures in clean pattern related to architectural alignments in the space (eg: middle of the ceiling, center/edge of a window). When determining placement, pay attention to the tilt angles possible with the fixture you are choosing – more on this later. Tip: This location strategy also holds for fixed position wall wash fixtures. These illuminate an entire wall surface without need for aiming, and should conservatively be located in a 1:1 relationship of wall offset to on-center spacing along the wall (some fixtures are engineered to work with wider on-center spacing or closer to the wall – check manufacturer info for their recommended ratio).


The objects you illuminate today may be changed some time in the future. Don’t tie yourself down. Afford some flexibility and consider a fixture capable of being equipped with optical accessories that shape the pattern of light. This may consist of a selection of lenses, films, and/or louvers that allow precise control to tailor the distribution, making the accented object look its best. Tip: Buy extra accessories and keep a supply on hand.


Remember those ‘tilt angles’ from earlier? Adjustable fixtures can be aimed, usually in both tilt and rotation, to point the light right where it’s needed. Fixtures come with limited adjustability from 0° (straight down, aka “nadir”) up to a 45° tilt. The degree of adjustability is critical when determining placement, so make sure the fixture you choose can achieve the tilt needed to target the center of the object from where it will be installed. The key here is range… plan on locating the light(s) where they have some flexibility to aim higher or lower on the piece. For example, if a fixture has a maximum tilt of 40°, locate the light such that its center is roughly in the middle of a zone 30° to 40°, measured from the center of the object.


The final (and arguably most important) step! If you’ve done all of the above (or had help), aim those lights and take full advantage of what they can do. In my experience, everyone can do this and inherently understands how to aim a light. Picture shining a flashlight so you can see something better. Focusing involves trial and error. Let’s say you have a painting to accent…you’d start by aiming a light at its center and seeing how it looks. Is the spot too tight and edges of the painting dark? Try an accessory that widens the beam. This is the fun part. Play around and find the combination of aiming and optical accessories that make the art look its best. Lock it in (tighten adjustable mechanisms, if possible) so the light doesn’t lose focus over time. LED sources have the benefit over traditional sources of requiring less maintenance, so generally, once focused, you won’t need to access the fixture again (to replace burnt out bulbs, for example) unless you change the accented object. Also, it doesn’t take an expert – experience just makes you faster and able to predict what solutions may work best (and solve the problems where rules of thumb don’t quite work).

Advanced tip: Screening

There’s a “right” amount of light for an object that makes it stand out – it’s subjective and you’ll know it when you see it (but usually it’s 2-3 times the background illumination). In museum applications, conservators often restrict the amount of illumination allowed on a piece, related to its sensitivity in order to protect it. Because of many factors (like varying optics, internal contrast, and object sensitivity to light), there is no one perfect fixture for all applications. You may need more light on one painting than another nearby and dimming each fixture individually may not be practical or possible. There’s an old secret pros use – “screening.”

It’s exactly what it sounds like – adding a literal window screen to the fixture optics to reduce the light output. Think of it as mechanical dimming: a mesh filter reduces output without significantly affecting distribution or color. In the past, this was important since traditional dimming halogen or incandescent sources would shift the color of light and affect the appearance of the art. Though you can buy screening accessories from fixture manufacturers, it’s easy (and cheaper) to make them yourself: use the fixture’s lenses as a guide and cut pieces of window screen (such as unpainted aluminum mesh). Then, when less light is needed from a single fixture, add layers of screen to the lens assembly until you get the right brightness. Each layer of screen cuts out about 30% so rotate layers when stacking to avoiding blocking too much light.

You’ll find that once you get started, most lighting solutions are more intuitive that you’d think (lighting designers have just had tons more practice).

But if it still sounds complicated, reach out to Lilker Lighting Group and we’ll gladly help!

An award-winning architectural lighting designer, David Cyr heads the Lilker Lighting Group. His portfolio of work includes prominent national and international projects such as the David E. Koch Theater renovation at Lincoln Center; the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He has been involved in lighting hundreds of spaces – from offices to schools to churches. David has been creating innovative lighting design solutions for over 20 years. His extraordinary range of experience is built upon creative design talents, technical expertise and collaborative spirit. David holds a Master of Science degree in Lighting, a Bachelor of Science in Building Sciences and a Bachelor of Architecture from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. David’s many honors and awards include the GE Edison Award of Excellence, the IESNA Edwin F. Guth Memorial Award for Interior Lighting and A|L Magazine’s Light & Architecture Commendable Achievement in Architectural Lighting.