What is a can Light?

Mary McMahon

A can light is a light which is enclosed in a cylinder, directing all of the light through one end of the cylinder to create a very focused, bright beam. There are a number of settings in which can lights can be used, and many hardware and home supply stores carry several can lighting options for people to choose from. These lights are ideal for task lighting, focused lighting, or situations in which it is desirable to reduce light pollution as much as possible.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Some can lights are designed to be installed as recessed lighting, in which case the canister is built into a ceiling or wall so that the light does not project into the room. Recessed can lighting provides a very direct beam of light, and can be especially useful for rooms with low ceilings, kitchens, and workspaces where bright task lighting might be desired. Can lighting of this style may also be used to create atmospheric lighting, with the beams playing across a wall or ceiling.

These lights can also be suspended as overhead lights. This can be used to create a desired aesthetic effect, or in a structure where existing light fixtures are to be replaced with can lights. Rather than installing a recessed light, which can be costly and time-consuming, a suspended can light can be installed in just a few minutes. People may decorate the cans for extra visual interest, or use cans with punched-out patterns which create a lacy lighting effect.

Outdoors, a can light can be ideal for providing light at night without creating light pollution. The focused beam can be used to illuminate a specific area without allowing light to leak into the sky. This makes stars more visible, and also means that the light is less likely to irritate the neighbors, since the light can be focused on the ground, with no leaks into bedroom windows. These lights can also be used as atmospheric lighting in outdoor settings.

Stage lighting is often accomplished with specialized can lights which can be focused, used with special lenses, and modified with filters which change the color of the light. The use of can lights for the stage is preferred, since the canister prevents light leakage, ensuring that the light can be focused and directed to a particular spot on the stage, and that when the can light is activated, light leakage does not ruin the desired lighting effect.

Discussion Comments


I work as an electrician and I always carry a small handheld can light on my tool belt with me.

I've found that it is really hand in small and dark situations. As an electrician I need to know exactly what I am working with. If I cut the wrong wire or put my hand in the wrong place it can mean big trouble for myself and others. I find that the can light gives me the most light where I most need it. Regular flashlights are too diffuse.


I saw a very cool art installation once that utilized a bunch of can lighting. It was an all white room that had had the normal track lighting dimmed. All around the room there were can lights with very focused beams of light traveling across the space and making dots on the opposite wall.

Wherever the two beams crossed there was a strange extra luminescence. Also, as you looked around the room you got weird impressions from the strong but focused beams of light. Finally, was people walked through the space they broke up the beams of light and created dynamic effects. It is hard to explain how it all looked but the experience of being there was very eerie. You felt like you were walking into purgatory or something.


@Charred - Well, I don’t do any movie making myself. But I like the convenience of a can light that I can hang in a room without having to install a recessed fixture.

I got several of these lights to provide some additional lighting in our recreation room and they work great. The one thing that I haven’t tried is to create special effects using patterns like the article talks about; I think I will give that a try.


I’ve done some low-budget filmmaking with my digital camcorder, and lighting is always the most important, yet most overlooked, part of the job. With a digital camcorder natural or ambient light is rarely enough to do the job well. Video needs a lot of light.

Some low-budget solutions I have used is to get some canned lights from the home improvement store. You can just get regular can light fixtures and choose whatever kind of lighting you want inside.

These provide me with directional beams of light, yet cost a fraction of what a professional lighting kit will cost. I also get some gels from a photography store that will provide me with the colored filtration that I need.

You can also use colored cellophane too but you have to make sure that you keep it far enough away from the light so that it doesn’t burn or melt. The lights can get pretty hot.

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