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Aquarium Lighting

Updated: Nov 23, 2018

Light colour and movement are the three design elements an aquarium brings to a space as an interior feature. In this article we look at how to use light from an interior design perspective and how aquarium lighting has changed over the years.

The aesthetics of aquarium lighting is one of the key areas overlooked by many when creating an aquarium that stands out and creates an impact. Lighting is an integral part of any aquarium design creating mood and ambience as well as reflecting colour and movement. An aquarium lighting scheme is the collection of different light sources organised and controlled to create mood, drama and energy through brightness, positioning, and colour. It is an important aspect of your aquarium design to consider as your aquarium will eventually become a lighting solution within the interior space that it occupies.

As well as the aesthetics aspect, lighting is a key and vital component of your aquariums ecosystem, especially if you intend to keep live plants and coral. The discussion about lighting for plants and coral is a lengthy and detailed subject that I won’t go into in too much detail in this article. There’s loads of info on the of lighting for corals and plants and what types are best etc. In short plants and corals both require significant levels of lighting with specific qualities and wavelengths for the production of vital nutrients created in their cells and tissues. Most aquarium lights especially the latest generation of LED light systems are designed to meet these needs. However always seek advice from an expert or professional before parting with your cash when considering lighting schemes and settings designed for more than decorative purposes.

Caption: Stony coral of the genus Acropora requires high light intensities that substitutes sunlight from tropical climates. 

So focusing primarily on aesthetics, the light for your aquarium does not have to be a simple white fluorescent bulb. The standard static white light above the aquarium did have its merits 20 years ago, but the sophistication of current LED lighting technologies has led to a massive decline in its popularity. However fluorescent tubes are still being used as a light source in some aquariums as some aquarists prefer the quality of light produced as well as the low purchase cost for this technology.

Within the last 10 years the use of LED lighting in aquariums has increased significantly, so much so that globally LED aquarium lights are now the most dominant and preferred technology for aquarium illumination. LED’s normally produce a much better quality of light compared to traditional fluorescent tubing. The intensity and focal spread from LED’s creates a superior lighting effect creating shimmers on the aquarium floor as the light cuts through the water ripples at the surface. Light shimmer adds a sense of depth to a design and is a great way of recreating the natural beauty of real sunlight in water. LED lights offer a lot more variation with controllability as they can be dimmed and switched off individually, with most units being built with a number of colour channels emitting specific wavelengths from the light spectrum.

Within interior design lighting is used as a tool to illuminate features and create points of interest.  Aquarium lighting can also be used to create focal points within the aquascape as well as illuminating the whole display, adding depth to the design. Layered lighting schemes are techniques used by many lighting designers, which uses a range of lighting options within a space to create a variety of moods and ambience’s for different times of day and social situations. The principles of lighting design can also be applied within the aquarium as an alternative to the single static light source often employed by many aquarists.

Caption: An example of an interior with different lighting solutions highlight different design features within the space. 

The four key things to consider when creating an aquarium lighting scheme are:

Positioning Aquarium lighting schemes can be made up by a multiple of light sources occupying different positions within and around the aquarium. This could range from submersible spot lights, illuminated aquarium backgrounds and flooring. Some manufacturers build there lights into cannon units allowing you to create spotlight effects.


Timing Using timers and aquarium computers enable you to easily control when your lights come on and off. This is a great way to create different lighting effects at different times of the day, creating the right atmosphere at the right time. You can even take this a step further and integrate the control of your aquarium with your home audio visual system.

Colour The colour of your lighting predetermines the colour of the aquarium and more importantly the the visual impact of the aquarium on the space. Colour can have a significant impact on your thoughts and emotions. The colour of your lighting also impacts on how we see our fish especially when using lighting coloured in the blue and red ends of the spectrum.

Intensity Intensity refers to the level of irradiation or brightness created from a single light source. Intensity is an important feature when considering; Timing – when the aquarium is brightly lit, Positioning – where the aquarium is brightly lit, and Colour – What hue or combination of hues will dominate the display. With the right type of lighting you vary its intensity by decreasing or increasing the focal spread of a lighting source creating different effects within the aquarium.

It’s important to consider the affects that different lighting solutions can have on how your aquarium looks and balances within the space. Like every other aspect of aquarium design give it some thought, be creative and personalise your lighting scheme to match your lifestyle as well as the needs of the aquarium inhabitants.

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