Aquarium Lighting 101: How to Choose the Right Lights

Aquarium Lighting 101: How to Choose the Right Lights

This article will review different kinds of aquarium lighting, when you would want to use each, and general information to keep in mind when choosing the correct lighting for your tank. For more advanced assistance please visit our aquarium forum for specific questions on your setup.

beginners guide to lighting fish tank
There are many different options when it comes to lighting your aquarium. Add too much light and you endanger your tank to excessive algae, and removing algae from your aquarium is not an easy task. Add too little light and your fish, plants, and coral will not grow properly. So you have to use some sort of light source and unfortunately natural sunlight could possibly be the worst thing for your tank unless you wish to purchase an expensive chiller.

What to Consider when Purchasing New Aquarium Lighting

Are you buying lights for use in a reef tank?

Determine the best aquarium light for your tank based on the dimensions of your tank and the types of corals in the tank. Reef Aquarium Lighting Chart

Are you buying lights for a planted aquarium?

Planted tanks can be daunting. There are the myriad of species and cultivars that go misidentified. Planted Aquarium Guide Chart

What is the expected lifetime of the bulb compared to it's price?

The bulb lifespan changes based on how often you are using it and the quality of the product. This indoor lighting guide should give some background info.

Will you be using a timer to automatically control the lights?

Timers can range from $30-$200 depending on functionality, they are recommended for anyone who is not reliably at home around the tank for consistent light changes. Search for timers

Is a fully assembled light fixture or retrofit kit going to fit better on the top?

Retrofit are easy to install into an existing canopy, but not as tank specific as you can find. Example of a retrofit light

Do you have a hard time keeping your aquarium cool during the summer?

Common Lighting Options for Your Aquarium

LED Aquarium Lighting

LED Lighting consists of small diodes attached to a circuit board. A wide variety of options are available including complete fixtures, light rails and tubes, single pendants and flood lights. They are now creating fixtures for primary and supplemental aquarium lighting. Customize lighting colors and intensity on repeatable schedules, though the price can be very high.

Brands: Coralife, Marineland, OceanRevive

Price Range: $10-$2,500

  • Energy efficient
  • Long lasting
  • Produce little heat
  • Some units can adjust color ratios
  • Saves money over time
  • Less hassle changing lights more often
  • Not the most affordable option initially
  • Unnecessary for fish only saltwater aquariums

Normal Fluorescent Aquarium Lighting

Convenient option for aquarium lighting manufacturers and hobbyists. More efficient than standard incandescent bulbs and produce less heat. There were a lot of choices when fluorescent first came out and now there are even more choices. Lately the government changed regulations and you should check for compatibility if putting in an old fixture. Color Typically range from 15 to 40 watts and have Kelvin ratings from 3,000° to 10,000°.

Brands: Aqua Medic, Blueline, Aquatic Life

Price Range: $6-$900


  • Convenience
  • Low heat
  • Can create certain peak wavelengths
  • Many options to choose from
  • Good for fish only saltwater tanks

  • Shorter lifespan than LED
  • incompatibility between lamps
  • more expensive over time

Compact Fluorescent Aquarium Lighting

Low heat and more light intensity is a major advantage of the compact over general fluorescent. Useful for small integrate aquarium systems and possible to construct your own lighting system though there are many ready-made systems available to fit any size aquarium. Many configurations may seem confusing and it can be easy to buy the wrong one. Stick to purchasing the same brand lamp as the original hood manufacturer. Typically range from 10 to 100 watts and have Kelvin ratings from 5,000° to 10,000°.

Brands: Coralife, Aquatic Life, Zoo Med

Price Range: $9-$700


  • High light intensity
  • Good for small systems
  • Many options to choose from

  • Medium heat (hoods often come with a fan)
  • Incompatibility between bulbs and hoods (2-pin & 4-pin lamp configurations)

Metal Halide Aquarium Lighting

Common in reef aquariums they produce an intense light with various color temperatures. Some manufacturers combine with fluorescents since they produce so much intense light. Might need to run a small fan across the lamps to remove heat from the water. Typically range from 175-1000 watts and have Kelvin ratings from 5,000° to 20,000°.

Brands: Coralife, Aqualight, BlueLine

Price Range: $20-$2,700


  • Intense light
  • Various color temperatures
  • Great for reef tanks

  • Produce a lot of heat (might have to purchase a chiller)
  • Not the most energy efficient
  • Light bulbs are more expensive

A common practice among hobbyists is to combine different forms of lighting to achieve the proper spectrum and intensity in the tank. They might use a metal halide bulb along with Actinic fluorescent tubes. This would satisfy the needs of corals and obtain a visually appealing appearance.

The most recent technology in the aquarium lighting department and the latest craze with aquarists are the new low cost LED setups.  Many people like LEDs because they are cheaper to run than other types of lighting and can easily be customized with different colored LED light-bulbs that can be used to create specific colors within the aquarium and the corals themselves.

Aquarium Lighting Tips for Different Tanks

aquarium lighting tipsThere’s no one correct lighting system, the choice should be made by analyzing mix of organisms and aquarium size against how much you are willing to spend. Keep in mind how much lighting is required for specific inhabitants. The specifications of the lighting system must be relevant to the dimensions of the tank.

Fish-only tanks require just a simple light system to show off the fish and tank setup. Be sure to add sufficient light for the depth and size of your tank, but you need not be concerned about supporting plant photosynthesis.

Planted tanks require correct lighting to truly be successful, plants won’t thrive with the wrong lamp. For best results, use a daylight lamp with an actinicActinic light is either light that affects photographic film, or will facilitate photosynthesis or stimulate light sensitive species. white or actinic day lamp. Remember, intensity is important and large/deep aquariums might consider using HO or VHO lamps.

Reef Tanks require adequate light. The combination of the right light intensity and wavelength will help coral thrive. For best results choose at least one actinic lamp and a few daylight lamps. Because of the differences in light design, intensity, and number of bulbs, be sure to research and experiment with your lighting to find optimum coverage.


More Aquarium Guides and Helpful Tips

At Nualgi Aquarium we want to see your tank thrive and have posted many articles that should help you succeed in this hobby. Managing an aquarium requires good husbandry, strong knowledge of your type of tank, and often a thick skin.

Learn more about how to keep a successful tank by signing up for our newsletter. 


  1. Salt Tank lighting for ur Aquarium- this may b helpful.

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    • Thanks for the message Kitty from SOSCI – we will follow up via email – what would you add to this article?


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ATTENTION SHOPPERS, Prices on all sizes of Nualgi increased on January 1, 2021.