Photographer Matthew Rolston: How to light yourself at home


Matthew Rolston has photographed pretty much every Hollywood celebrity roaming the Earth. His goal: Make people look their best.

But as creative director for the Redbury Hotel in Hollywood and the man behind the lighting design of the guest rooms in Sam Nazarian’s SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, Rolston said he has studied lighting and noticed consumer confusion over how to illuminate spaces, particularly living spaces.

“I go to places like Lowe’s in Burbank, which I love, and I’ve noticed no one lingers in the light bulb aisle,” Rolston said, constrasting the confidence that shoppers show in the paint aisle versus the confusion they show in the lighting section. “Men and women alike, they just scratch their heads, then desperately buy something without really understanding what they’re getting.”


Rolston’s No. 1 rule: Remember that the person is more important than the space.

“Generally people focus on architectural lighting, not how people are going to look in a space,” he said. “But space is just the frame; the painting is the person.”

Rolston recently trolled the aisles of Lowe’s with the Los Angeles Times to prove that A-list lighting can be had for big-box prices. His advice:

Know thy bulb: As incandescent bulbs are phased out, consumers must choose carefully. Standing in front of rows and rows of bulbs, Rolston ranked his preferences: “My first choice are LEDs, then halogens, and CFLs are a distant third.” He said fluorescents are unflattering and emit light that’s constantly pulsating. “You want a warm LED light that is dimmable,” he said. “Not all LED bulbs are dimmable. You have to look. That’s important.”

Think kelvin: Kelvin is the color temperature of light — more important, Rolston said, than wattage. The number generally runs from 2,700 to 5,000. “Five thousand kelvin is how you’d light an operating room!” he said. “Where’s the romance there?” The lowest kelvin available at Lowe’s is 2,700, which Rolston said is “doable but not necessarily my preference.” Even better, he said, would be a 2,300 K bulb. “That’s the golden candlelight glow,” he said. Rolston set aside his dislike of CFLs to buy a 2,300 K fluorescent at For LEDs, Rolston says 2,400 K is optimal for a table lamp.

Embrace the dimmer: After the light bulb section, Rolston’s favorite part of Lowe’s is the dimmer shelves. “Put a dimmer in every single light in your room — either the switch, the wall or the cord,” he said, waving to the shelves. If your lamp doesn’t have a built-in dimmer, the photographer said, you can add a $2 dimmer switch to the cord. Even easier? Rolston loves a dimmer attachment that screws into the bulb mount. Cost: $8. “This gives you the ability to control the light without help from an electrician.”


Light with a purpose: Soft lighting is flattering to people; hard light is good for objects and architecture, for telling the drama of a space. “Lamps are for humans,” Rolston said. “Track lights are for decor.” All lamps — table, floor, pendant, chandelier, even sconce — are generally more flattering than track or recessed lighting on human faces. All should be fitted with warm, dimmable bulbs. Make sure that dining room chandelier is dimmed low enough to avoid shadows on the face. Table lamps should be positioned close to the eye line, he said. “That way it won’t create shadows and textures, and will help soften up the appearance.” For track lights, he likes low-voltage halogens. “Most ceilings are white,” he said, pointing to store displays of tracks that are linear, not curved. “So get a system that will be most likely to disappear into the architecture.”

Go beyond the bulb: Plan lighting with wall color. “I like people to be a little brighter than their environment, so go for wall color that’s a little deeper than your skin color. That way you pop,” Rolston said, standing at the Valspar paint display pointing to warm browns, peaches and pale grays. He also relies on the old decorator’s trick of lining lamp shades in light pink, peach or amber-colored silk. “It makes people look pretty,” he said, adding that gold foil works too.

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