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Spotlights or Downlights: What's The Difference?

spotlights or downlights
(Image credit: Davey Lighting)

Not sure whether you're looking for spotlights or downlights for your project? That might be because the terms spotlights and downlights are often used interchangeably — which can be confusing as they are actually two quite different types of light. 

If you are at the lighting design stage of your project and are trying to decide whether spotlights or downlights are the best option for a particular space, our quick guide to the differences between the two will help you choose.

What Are Spotlights?

The term spotlight basically refers to a light that gives out a narrow beam of light that can be directed towards a particular point — they are usually fully adjustable. Spotlights are one of the best ways to ensure good task lighting in a space — that is, the type of lighting that allows you to carry out a specific job that requires targeted light, such as reading, a hobby or food preparation, for example 

Spotlights come in several different forms but will usually be surface mounted. Ceiling spotlights are particularly popular and can be in the guise of a few spotlights mounted onto a round base, or those fixed to long narrow strips, often referred to as bar spotlights. 

Although the lights are fixed to one unit, each 'spot' can be adjusted to point in a different direction, highlighting various areas or features within the room. It is also possible to buy single spotlights. 

bar spotlights

The Governor 4 Light Bar Spotlight, from där lighting group has a mix of antique chrome and antique brass finishes and exposed twisted fabric cable. The heads can be moved independently to direct light anywhere in the room. (Image credit: Dar Lighting Group)

Wall-mounted spotlights are another option — a great way to illuminate a treasured piece of artwork or turn an armchair into the perfect spot to cosy up with a good book.

Although spotlights are often used for task lighting, providing they are fixed in a central position and that there are enough spots, they can also be a good source of general lighting for an entire room.

adjustable spotlights

The Obie Diner Pendant, in brass, from Made features four pivotable spotlights — a good compromise between ceiling-mounted spotlights and a pendant over a dining table. (Image credit: made.com)

What is a Downlight?

Quite unlike spotlights, downlights are designed to be recessed into the ceiling, as opposed to surface mounted.

Downlights are usually comprised of an LED lightbulb set into a metal cylinder, with a small decorative trim usually the only visible part of the unit, although it can also be plastered in to be flush with the ceiling or even fully recessed up into the ceiling. They are held in place with spring or compression clips. 

double height space with downlights

The Trimless Round outdoor spotlight by Astro, available from Nedgis is suitable for both indoor and outdoor use and has an IP65 rating.  (Image credit: Nedgis)

Downlights are a great source of general lighting and, depending on how they are positioned with the space, can be used to create zones, as well as highlight features and even provide task lighting. They look best when used in combination with other light sources — for example table and floor lamps along with wall lights.

They are particularly popular with those after bathroom lighting ideas as they are widely available in bathroom-suitable IP ratings.

(MORE: Check out our Best Bathroom Lighting Picks)

downlights in dining room

This open plan kitchen dining space is lit by a selection of Square 50 Trimless Downlights from John Cullen Lighting (Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)

Spotlights or Downlights: Which is Best?

There is no straight answer to whether spotlights or downlights are best — you'll need to assess which will work best for your needs. They can also be used together to create layers of light. 

Downlights tend to be the preferred option for those with open plan spaces, looking for a good way to provide a broad spread of general lighting — setting them on dimmers ensures they can be easily controlled to suit whatever activity happens to be taking place in the room. Used as the only source of light, they can seem a little sterile — which is why they are usually used in conjunction with other types of fitting.

Spotlights, on the other hand, are a great way to ensure you can have a targeted light source exactly where it is required. 

A layered lighting scheme will ensure your space has character and can be adapted for a number of uses — combine downlighters, spotlights, lamps and concealed LED lights for maximum effect. 

layered lighting scheme

The most successful lighting schemes are made up of different layers of light — this kitchen features downlights and concealed under-counter lighting from John Cullen Lighting (Image credit: John Cullen Lighting)
Natasha Brinsmead

Natasha is Homebuilding & Renovating’s Associate Editor and has been a member of the team for over two decades. An experienced journalist and renovation expert, she has written for a number of homes titles. She has renovated a terrace and is at the end of the DIY renovation and extension of her Edwardian cottage. She is now looking for her next project.