How To Choose The Right Overhead Light Fixture

How To Choose The Right Light Fixture
How To Choose The Right Light Fixture

Recently I have been in the market for a new kitchen chandelier.  I still liked the original one, but unfortunately it had been exposed to some extra-hot light bulbs which burned the inside drum leaving some unsightly brown spots.  I have 7 steps that I use to help me with the selection process.  This helps to narrow down the vast selection of options that are available, and these are the steps for how to choose the right overhead light fixture for my room.

My kitchen chandelier with lightbulb burn mark | How To Choose The Right Overhead Light Fixture
My kitchen chandelier with lightbulb burn mark

Before I shop for any item that will be in the house for a long time, I make a list of what I’m looking for.  Since I’m going to be looking at it every day, I want to make sure I find something I love and that will do what I need it to do.  While the details of what is in my list is specific to me and my kitchen, the list of questions that I answer can be used for any purchase.  Click next to find out how to choose the right overhead light fixture for your room.

Question 1 – Where will the light fixture be installed?

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Chandelier in the dining room | How To Choose The Right Light Fixture
Chandelier in the dining room

The first step to help you choose the right ceiling fixture may seem a little obvious.  Where will the light fixture be installed?  Is it going to be a single fixture in the middle of the great room ceiling, a light over the tub in the bathroom,  multiple lights over a kitchen island or a statement fixture over the dining room table?

The answer will probably have an effect on the type of lighting…vaulted great room ceilings usually look best with large fixtures that help fill in the space.

Bathroom lighting (especially over tubs and showers) requires water-resistant fixtures that meet building code standards.

Kitchen fixtures are exposed to grease, so you probably want something that is easy to clean.

And dining room fixtures are often used to add ambiance to the room so you might want something with crystals that will help diffuse the light.  Think about the location where your light fixture is going to make sure you have considered the requirements for the space.

Click here to see the rest of the dining room makeover where this chandelier was installed.

Question 2 – What will the light fixture be used for?

Light fixture in the stairway | How To Choose The Right Light Fixture |
Light fixture over the stairway

Figuring out what the light will be used for helps to determine what style of light you want.

If it’s the main light source in the room, you will need something that is fairly bright and allows the light to spread across the whole room (in other words, the light fixture will need to use multiple bulbs of at least 60 Watts each).

For task lighting, you want something that will focus most of the light on the task at hand…could be a one bulb fixture that can be pointed in the direction that you need the light to go, and takes at least a 100 Watt bulb.

If it is to provide ambiance, you might be more concerned with the look of the light fixture than how many watts of light it will put out.

To see the stairway makeover that included this chandelier, click here.

Question 3 – How close to the ceiling is the light fixture?

Take the ceiling height into consideration when choosing a light fixture | How To Choose The Right Light Fixture |
Take the ceiling height into consideration when choosing a light fixture

Step 3 is to figure out what fixture type you need.  This is usually dictated by the ceiling height and placement of the fixtures.

A light in the middle of a room with 8 foot ceilings will likely need to be a flush mount or semi-flush mount so that people can walk underneath it without worrying about hitting their heads.  In the same room, a chandelier or pendant would work just fine installed over a large table or island (where people cannot walk). The rule of thumb is that the bottom of a pendant installed over a table or island should be 30″ to 36″ above the surface to provide adequate light and not block the view across the room.

Another potential deciding factor is the slope of the ceiling.  If your ceiling is flat, you are not limited in selection, however if you have a sloped ceiling (like in my kitchen), you must find a fixture that will work with sloped ceilings.  This pretty much eliminates flush mount and most semi-flush mount fixtures.  And if you buy recessed lighting, make sure to get the kind that rotates so that you can point the light in the right direction.  Some pendants that have wires instead of chains will also be off the list since the wires will not hang properly if the ceiling is on an angle.

Ceiling Fixture Types

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Recessed Lighting – Installed into the ceiling and does not hang down into the room at all (these require holes to be cut into the ceiling drywall if you don’t have recessed lights already installed).


Recessed lighting, via*


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Flush Mount – Installed at the ceiling height and hangs down only a few inches.  These are often used in rooms with 8-foot or lower ceilings because they do not interfere with people trying to walk through the space.


Flush Mount Lighting, via*


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Semi-Flush Mount – Basically the same as a flush mount, but the fixture hangs down further into the room, so instead of being 3″ or 4″ in height, these may be 8″ or 10″ in height.  They add a little more drama and often in come in chandelier-like shapes without the chain.


Semi-flush Mount Lighting, via


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Chandelier or Pendant Lighting – These fixtures hang from a chain or wires, and include the hanging length as well as the fixture height to determine how far into the room they extend.


Modern Chandelier, via


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Track Lighting – Installed on a track at ceiling height and the fixtures are hooked onto the track.  These fixtures can either be close-to-the ceiling or pendants depending on where you have installed the track.


Track Lighting, via


Question 4 – How big should the light fixture be?

The light fixture should fit the size of the room | How To Choose The Right Light Fixture |
The light fixture should fit the size of the room

Decide how wide and tall the light fixture should be.  Generally, larger rooms require larger fixtures (or multiple smaller ones) to look in proportion with the room.  If you are installing a chandelier over a table, the width of the chandelier should be at least 12″ smaller than the width of the table to prevent people from hitting it when they stand up.

Question 5 – What color or finish should the light fixture be?

Decide on the fixture color | How To Choose The Right Light Fixture |
Decide on the fixture color

Step 5 is to decide on the base finish or color for your fixture.  You can choose more than one for your list, but being able to say that you would like a chrome or crystal chandelier helps eliminate all of the gold or ceramic ones.  Removable items such as shades and crystals are less critical since you can often buy them separately to match your room (but you will want to make sure that you can find the color that you want before committing to the light fixture).

Question 6 – What style of fixture do you want?

Choose the style of fixture | How To Choose The Right Light Fixture |
Choose the style of fixture

To make your light fixture fit in with the room, you will need to get one that suits the style of the decor.  A modern chrome fixture with straight clean lines will likely look out of place in a French Country kitchen.  If you are unsure of what style your room is, try to find pictures that look similar to your room and take note of the types of lighting they use.

Question 7 – Which light fixture are you going to buy?

Buy the fixture that you love! | How To Choose The Right Light Fixture |
Buy the fixture that you love!

Once you have figured out the answers to all of these questions, you can use your decisions to help you choose the right overhead light fixture for your room.  A lot of lighting web sites will have the fixtures categorized by style, color/finish, type and size, so you can easily filter the list.  Then look for ones that you love and (of course) fit your budget…you should be able to narrow the choices down to a manageable list and pick one that you will make you happy every time you walk in the room!

To see the bedroom makeover that includes this chandelier, click here.

Have comments or questions about How To Choose the Right Overhead Light Fixture?  Tell us in the section below.

This post was originally published on March 24, 2015 but was updated with new content on April 9, 2024.

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  1. Jan Lauffer says:

    Thanks so much! My eye sensed that but it is helpful to have your confirmation. Here is a second question: we have recently purchased an ebony Baby Grand piano. It is gorgeous. I am devoting an entire room to it. I love Wedgewood or Dutch blue~ and have a collection of English blue and white dishes inherited from my Great Aunt I will display. There is one large window framed by Plantation shutters. What do you think of this color for drama and beauty? Thanks for your help!

    1. Hi Jan…That sounds stunning! I think the blue will make the piano stand out, and (in my opinion) it’s hard to go wrong with a blue, white and black color combination 🙂

  2. Is there a rule of thumb with shape? Does a round light hang over a round table; a rectangular over a rectangle? An oval over an oval table?

    1. Hi Jan…Round light fixtures can be used pretty much anywhere…since they’re the most common shape, they are available in pretty much all styles and sizes. If you have a really long rectangular or oval table, you might want to hang 2 round light fixtures, one towards each end of the table. I probably wouldn’t put a rectangular or oval light fixture over a round table (the proportions wouldn’t look right in most cases). However, you could put a rectangular or oval light fixture over either a rectangular or oval table. As long as the fixture is the right size (about 6 to 12 inches smaller than the width of the table) and style for the room, either would work. Hope this helps!