Incandescent Light Quality

Bye Bye Light Bulb – Do NOT Rest In Peace!

Now the last standard incandescent bulbs (15W, 25W, 40W) are banned from production and import in the EU. Remaining stocks may still be sold. Small special lamps, some decorative and rough service lamps will still be available (see Freedom Lightbulb for details). Reflector lamps will be restricted from next year and most incandescent halogen lamps from 2016.

This is truly sad because there is NO replacement for incandescent light quality, because the alternatives do no not produce light by incandescence (glow) but by technical, electronic and chemical processes which create radically different light properties, besides containing both more electronics and more potentially toxic, environmentally destroying or rare and expensive substances.

Here I’ve made a rough overview of lamp types family tree:

Whereas standard incandescent lamps and halogen incandescent lamps can be said to be ‘siblings’, all other lamp types have nothing more in common with incandescent lamps than being powered by electricity.

So, no matter how much effort is put into creating a phosphor mix that will superficially look more or less incandescent-like, it will just never be the same because it is a chemical composite light, a sort of digital soul-less light, totally lacking the warm natural glow of incandescence.

Banning a top quality product in favour of totally different and quality-wise inferior products is like banning wine with the argument that “wine-lovers can just as well drink cider, practically the same thing” because both are mildly alcoholic beverages with a superficial similarity. Or banning silk because there are micro-fibre materials with a silk-like look – everyone knows it’s not the same thing! Both have their respective uses and both should naturally be available on the market unless harmful.

What’s so special about incandescent light then?

Incandescent light (along with sunlight) is the ‘gold standard’ against which all other types of light is measured (even according the Global Lighting Association, p. 10 in this document). This is why so much effort has been put into trying to copy its light colour, colour rendering capacity, dimmability, heat- & cold resistance, perfect power factor and other unique qualities – without ever having hope of succeeding on more than the most superficial levels, because:

• Unlike other artificial light sources, incandescent and halogen lamps are tungsten black-body radiators, a safely contained and electrically amplified version of the same fire-light which humanity has evolved with since fire was first discovered. Lighting designer Ed Cansino in a highly informative interview:

“…if I were forced to choose the best lighting for residential overall, it would have to be incandescent. I feel that we as humans have had a deep connection to flame for many thousands of years. It’s almost like it’s in our DNA. It’s interesting that as time moves on, people are still drawn to sitting around the camp fire, a fireplace, even a barbecue. Think of a Yule log. It’s just that this particular quality of light is ingrained in us. You can even get a screen saver of log flames. Incandescents with their glowing filaments are a form of flame and are thus an extension of this inborn affinity that we have for fire.”

(photo: ALAMY, source:

• Incandescent light colour follows the Planck curve so that when dimmed or used at lower wattages, the light colour gets proportionally warmer and more candle like. Increase brightness or use a higher watt lamp, and it gets whiter again. This is how a natural light source behaves. Whereas LED and CFL gets more blue, green or grey, even if they were reasonably warm-white at full power. Example of how an incandescent (left) and an LED (right) looks before and after dimming in a Consumer Reports test lab video from KOMO News (click on link to see full video, these are only snapshots):

Incandescent & LED full power

Incandescent & LED dimmed(source:

Incandescent & LED dimmed

• Like natural daylight, incandescent light has the highest possible colour rendering (CRI 100) due to naturally continuous spectrum, and a warm-white, human-friendly light which radiates and makes colours come alive (unlike the duller light from CFLs and LEDs with CRI just over 80).

Strawberries (source:

Ron Rosenbaum describes it more poetically:

I’ve tried the new CFLs, and they are a genuine improvement—they don’t flicker perceptibly, or buzz, or make your skin look green. There is a difference, and I’d be in favor of replacing all current fluorescent bulbs with CFLs. But even CFLs glare and blare—they don’t have that inimitable incandescent glow. So don’t let them take lamplight away. Don’t let them ban beauty.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a plea for Ye Olde Times, for gaslight and quill pens. It’s just a plea not to take for granted the way we illuminate our world. Not all change is improvement. Why do I put such a premium on incandescence? For one thing, I am a bit romantic about it. A lamp fitted with an incandescent bulb and dim translucent shades casts a lovely, painterly glow on human faces, while the light of fluorescents recalls a meat locker.

Why do you think there is such artistry to so many lampshades? They are the lingerie of light.

But the appeal of incandescence is not just a matter of romance. I suspect there are also answers to be found in the physics and linguistics of incandescence.

I’d speculate that it has something to do with the different ways light is created by incandescents and fluorescents. Incandescent light is created by heat, by the way an electric current turns a thin metal filament (usually tungsten) red then white hot in a transparent or translucent globe filled with an inert gas that prevents the filament from burning up, allowing it to give off a steady glow. (That explains the warmth: The fact that incandescence emanates from heat creates warmth, distinguishes it from the cold creepiness of fluorescence.)

Fluorescent light bulbs, on the other hand, are coated inside with chemical material that lights up as energy reaches the tubes. (It’s a bit more complicated than this, but that’s the general idea.) Fluorescents sometimes appear to flicker because alternating current brings that energy to the bulbs in pulses, rather than steadily. In incandescents, the hot filament stays hot—and therefore bright—despite alternations in current; it can’t cool fast enough to dim or flicker.

The new CFLs pulse faster than their ancestors, so the flickering is less perceptible, but at some level, it’s still there. CFL manufacturers may be right that the new bulbs are an improvement, but there is still something discontinuous, digital, something chillingly one-and-zero about fluorescence, while incandescent lights offer the reassurance of continuity rather than an alternation of being and nothingness.

Who wants to have a romantic dinner in the dull gloomy light of a CFL or LED? I’ve been to such restaurants and it was just awful!

Halogen-lit restaurant in Waikiki

And why do lighting designers or business owners often choose soft warm incandescent lamps or bright glittering halogen spotlights in hotels, spas, reception areas, high-end boutiques etc? Because they are well aware of the fact that no other light can create such attractive, intimate, relaxing or luxurious-looking environments.

Halogen-lit jewellry store

Leaving many in the dark

There are both visible and measurable differences in quality between incandescent light and the light from even the best CFLs and LEDs on the market, well known to the lighting industry and documented in their own technical specifications.

If there is a more efficient product within the same group, that has exactly the same properties and not just similar (including spectral power distribution, colour rendition, power factor, glare safety, price, fit, availability, functionality etc) a ban might be tolerable if not acceptable. But you cannot reasonably replace a product from one group with a product of a completely different technology without getting something altogether different. Some may not mind the difference, but for those who do, the original, higher quality product must remain available.

Also, there are many sensitive people in general and light sensitive people in particular who experience everything from discomfort or dislike to severe symtoms from the recommended alternatives. There are also the elderly to consider. Even the extremely pro-ban Swedish Energy Agency (STEM) representative Kalle Hashmi earlier pointed out that:

When you get older, 60+, you need more light to be able to see, and our ability to distinguish colours and contrasts diminishes. Then we need to choose a light that solves all three problems. When in a situation where colour rendition is very important, where you need to match colours, then it is very important to use a mains voltage halogen lamp because it has much better colour rendering capacity. It can be a situation like cooking, where all colours seem matte to the eyes. So what an elderly person perceives as ‘brown’ may actually be burnt. With halogen you see better.

In other words, incandescent light. The banning of frosted incandescent and halogen replacement lamps already creates a lot more glare – something the ageing eye is also more sensitive to. So what will the elderly or vision impaired do when halogen incandescent lamps are also banned? And all those of us who simply enjoy beauty and warmth and who prefer to save by dimming or switching lights off when not in use, rather than compromise on quality?

Not to mention artists, photographers, designers and many other groups dependent on perfect colour rendition to be able to do their job.

Update: This song perfectly captures how many of us feel:

FL/CFL or LED light may have its use where lamps are left on all day and quantity matters more than quality, e.g. at work, in public building corridors etc, but not necessarily in all retail, hospitality or domestic environments where consumers expect a more attractive and/or relaxing light. There is certainly no, even remotely similar, replacement for the romantic glow of the ‘carbon-filament’ type decorative bulb often used in restaurants, for example.

Light is like air, food and water – it is essential to our well-being. And quality matters!

In the words of lighting designer Howard Brandston:

Human beings evolved with and in response to light—sunlight, moonlight, the incandescence of fire. Our physical mechanism, the neuroscience that makes us who we are, is exquisitely attuned to light’s qualities and rhythms. The light that envelops us steers our very existence. To impose limitations on how we choose to illuminate our world carries profound biological implications.

Lighting is one of the most powerful mood-enhancers, can markedly affect how environments are perceived, as well as both comfort, well-being and health.

This is why many lighting designers are upset over being robbed of one of the many tools of their craft. It is their job to create the most optimal lighting environments where energy use, cost, quality, quantity, desired functionality, mood etc are all factors to weigh against each other for each unique situation, which they, unlike politicians, are well educated to do.

Lighting designers against the incandescent ban

IALD – International Association of Lighting Designers
IALD Statement

Jeff Miller, President-elect IALD, Director of Pivotal Lighting, statement

PLDA – Professional Lighting Designers’ Association
PLDA Statement

Kevan Shaw Lighting Design, PLDA Director for Sustainability
Summary of points against the CFL Save The Bulb blog

Michael Gehring, Principal of KGM Architectural Lighting
Gehring statement

Scott Yu, Principal, Chief Creative Officer of Vode Lighting
Yu statement

Howard M Brandston, FIES, Hon. FCIBSE & SLL, FIALD, LC
Brandston Statement

SaveTheBulb also lists Artists against the incandescent lamp ban