While it may not seem as exciting as picking out a tank and setting up your aquatic community, choosing the right lighting system for your aquarium has a bigger impact on its appearance than many realize. If you want your fish and invertebrates to pop in your tank you’ll need the best aquarium lighting for fish color.
In this piece, I cover the basics of aquarium lights and explain how to identify the best spectrum and intensity for your tank. Whether you have a big reef tank filled with coral or a fish-only cichlid aquarium, color enhancing aquarium lights can make a big difference in your tank’s appearance!
Table of Contents
Quick Comparison Of The Best Aquarium Lighting For Fish Color
|Nicrew Classic LED Plus||View Product|
|Ming Underwater Light||View Product|
|Current USA Aquarium Light||View Product|
|Fluval Marine and Reef 2.0/3.0 Light||View Product|
|Hipargero LED Aquarium Light||View Product|
What To Look For In Color Enhancing Aquarium Lighting
Back in the 1990’s, researching aquarium lights often felt like studying for your master’s degree in physics. Lighting an aquarium to enhance colors can be a complicated business because you have to take into consideration:
- The size and depth of your tank.
- Your water clarity.
- The distance between the light fixtures and your tank’s occupants.
Prior to the LED era, blending your aquarium lights by utilizing multiple types of fluorescent bulbs, reflectors and ballasted housings was an art that took years to master. Bulbs were expensive and required frequent replacement as they degenerated. Highlighting your fish’s colors was NOT an easy thing to do!
How Can Lights Make Your Colors Look Better?
There’s a lot of technical reasons the right light fixture can really pull an aquarium’s appearance together, but everything comes down to one simple point. The shades, textures, hues, tones, and colors you see in your aquarium depends on the quality of light bouncing from the object to your eye.
By changing the intensity and colors of light (spectrums) in different parts of your tank you can highlight specific features or fish. Or you can balance the mix of colors and even blend light fixtures to make the whole tank look just as you wish. Green lights enhance the look of plants while a deep blue can make corals (and fish) fluoresce!
LED Aquarium Lights Are The Way To Go
A friend asked me the other day if fluorescent aquarium lights were still a trend, or if LED systems had made them obsolete? While some folks still use the older fluorescent systems, LEDs are a vastly superior option now that they have started catching up in quality. It’s really no surprise when you consider the benefits:
- Compact, attractive fixtures save space and are more energy efficient.
- Offers precise control over the intensity of the light emitted from the diodes.
- Dimmable diodes can often be programmed to gradually fade off and on, mimicking a natural sunrise/sunset and even special weather effects.
- Color channels allow aquarists to custom-blend white, red, green and blue diodes to enhance the colors of fish, corals and aquatic plants.
Researching LED aquarium lights is a different proposition from the classic fluorescent systems and requires some new ways of thinking about the buying process. Older articles are often filled with information that’s not pertinent to choosing the best LED aquarium lights.
Measuring Light: Color Temperature And Kelvins
How are aquarium lights measured? If you’ve read many articles on aquatic lights you’ve probably run across the terms Kelvin Scale (K) or Correlated Color Temperature before. Kelvin is a measurement that describes the temperature of light emitted from a theoretical object (called a “blackbody”) as it’s heated.
How Are Kelvin Scales Measured?
Picture a sheet of metal. When it’s frozen and has a temperature of absolute zero (0°K or -273.15°C) it’s completely black and emits no light. As the metal is heated it changes colors and begins to radiate light. The temperature of the light emitted correlates to the temperature of the object at that moment in degrees Kelvin.
The Sun, for instance, burns at and emits a full spectrum of light at approximately 5800°K. Incandescent lights are K-rated based on the temperature of the filament producing the visible light. But fluorescent bulbs and light-emitting diodes can’t be measured the same way.
Calculating K-ratings For Led Fixtures
Instead, for these systems, the K-rating is indirectly assigned by correlating the color of light produced by a bulb or diode to the temperature of a blackbody that produces the same color of light. This is the Correlated Color Temperature (CCT) or K-rating you’ll see listed for most LED lights. I know, it’s a fine distinction.
Limitations Of K-ratings For Leds
K-ratings are calculated based on how light appears to the human eye. We can see color spectrums violet through red (or about 380nm to 700nm). But the Sun produces a full spectrum of light, including colors outside of our perception. An LED fixture may produce a similar effect but won’t necessarily emit the same spectrum of light.
So K-ratings can give you some basic information about a light’s appearance in your tank but don’t tell the whole story. The actual spectrums of light produced will vary greatly. The only way to know the spectrums produced by a particular white diode or light bulb is to check the manufacturer’s spectrograph.
How K-ratings Relate To The Appearance And Function In Your Tank
If you want to grow aquatic plants or raise a spectacular reef tank with challenging SPS corals then you definitely need to know what spectrums your light produces. Plants and corals use certain ones for photosynthesis. The K-rating simply does not give you enough info to determine if the light spectrum is right for your needs.
For fish only tanks or for color enhancement, all that matters is how a light highlights the appearance of your tank and the occupants. Fish and freshwater invertebrates don’t require specific light spectrums, so K-ratings may be useful in guiding you towards the best set-up for the look you want to achieve.
In general, lights with a lower K-rating tend to appear warmer to our eyes while those with a higher rating look cooler or more blue. One reason those old incandescent light bulbs give off a warm white light is that the tungsten filament burns at just under 3,600°K. They produce a lot of long wavelengths with the warmer red hues.
Adjustable Spectrum Of Colors
One huge advantage of LEDs is that most systems use a dynamic mixture of white diodes along with red, green and blue diodes (RGB) to light your aquarium instead of relying on a static fluorescent light bulb. If you don’t like the appearance the white diodes produce you can alter the mix by changing their intensity or the RGB settings.
Since the intensity and appearance of your lights in the tank will vary depending on how your LED is placed and how big an area they have to cover, being able to adjust your diode mix is crucial to getting the right look in your tank. This is also where adjustable color channels come in.
Full Spectrum White Diodes
A full spectrum white diode should emit a mix of colors and produce a similar effect to sunlight in your tank. As light enters a natural body of water, the longer red wavelengths get filtered out and the shorter blue and green ones penetrate deeper. We have to mimic this effect in our aquariums to bring out the colors in our fish.
White aquarium LEDs are usually categorized by their K-rating and divided into roughly two types based on their range. You can see a beautiful example here of how the tone of a white diode changes from warm to cool as you increase the K-rating.
Daylight Neutral 5,500k To 8,000k
Diodes in this range are ideal for the typical freshwater aquarium and usually produce a warm or neutral-colored white light. In tanks mimicking shallow freshwater streams and lakes, the saturation of long wavelengths brings out the reds, pinks, oranges and earth tones in your fish, plants and decor.
The downside to these warmer colored white diodes is they can also spur algae growth, especially as you move down towards the 5,500K range. You may also need to adjust your RGB diodes to bring out the colors of your iridescent and bluefish as well.
Cooler Tone 10,000k And Up
For aquariums based on deeper or saltwater habitats, the warm tones of the neutral white diodes may leave your tank looking flat. Typically these environments are lit by short wavelengths of light. This is why the color blue is so dominant deep under the ocean and looks so natural in reef tanks.
Cool white or blue lights for aquariums are more useful for highlighting the coral in a reef tank or bringing out the iridescence and blue/purple colors in your fish. But you can still balance the rest of your tank by altering the RGB mix. As the K-rating increases, the appearance of the light shimmers just like natural sunlight in the ocean.
For enhancing freshwater cichlid tanks, a light rated around 10,000K is usually sufficient to bring out the iridescence and the deep blues, purples and violet colors on your fish. For tanks with corals, you’ll likely get better results with a light that can get up to 25,000K to really mimic the deep ocean appearance.
White lights aside, a big advantage of high-end LED systems is the inclusion of RGB diodes. RGB diodes produce specific spectrums of light rather than full spectrums and so are not K-rated like white diodes. By altering the intensity of these RGB diodes you can custom-mix the colors and appearance of your tank.
Less expensive LED aquarium lights may allow you to directly adjust the levels of the RGB diodes, while more premium systems such as the Fluval Marine 3.0 have preset color channels like Pink and Cyan for more precise blends. These controls vary by manufacturer.
Warm Spectrum Diodes
Back in the fluorescent tube days, the primary way to enhance the colors of freshwater fish was to add special magenta, red or pink bulbs to your light fixture. Adding these warm colored lights to the mix brings out the reds, oranges and earth tones in your tank.
You can accomplish the same effect with your LED by increasing the intensity of the red diodes or warm color channels and reducing the blue or cool channels. You may also need to adjust your white diodes. I can’t give you exact instructions for making these adjustments as it just depends on your specific fixture.
Cool Spectrum And Actinic Diodes
Blue diodes and fixtures that blend blue and white lights are ideal for reef tanks and enhancing the colors in your corals. Actinic lights emit a deep blue color in the 420nm spectrum and create the appearance of the moonlight shining through the water. These lights bring out fluorescent colors in corals, fish and decor.
Many LEDs come with actinic moonlight diodes and have color channels for adjusting the levels of purple, blue and green. These cool spectrum LEDs can add a glow to your tank or mix with your white diodes to create shimmer effects. Many aquarists add a separate blue LED moonlight and blend its colors with their main light fixture.
|Diode Type||K-Rating or Spectrum (nm)||Appearance|
|Full Spectrum White (Neutral)||5,000K to 8,000K||Warm to Neutral White Light|
|Full Spectrum White (Cool)||10,000K to 30,000K||Cool White Light|
|Red||620 to 700nm||Pink/Orange to Red|
|Green||520 to 560nm||Blue-Green to Yellow-Green|
|Blue||420(actinic) to 490nm||Violet to Cyan|
Tank Depth, Lumens And Lux
I’m not going to cover this extensively because it gets incredibly technical, but the appearance of your aquatic lights change as your tank gets deeper. As the distance between light and an object increases, the intensity of the light diminishes as it spreads out to cover a wider area.
What Are Lumens?
The intensity or level of brightness of your white LEDs is called it’s lumosity. You’ll often find the lumens of a light fixture listed by the manufacturer. Older fluorescent lights were often rated by wattage rather than lumens but LEDs are so energy efficient their wattage doesn’t directly correlate to their intensity.
Lumens define the amount of light a given fixture produces, but it doesn’t tell you how much of the light reaches different parts of your tank. For that, you’ll need to rely on the LUX numbers.
Find The Manufacturer’s LUX Measurements
LUX measures the total amount of light that hits a given surface. It always corresponds with a number that indicates the distance from the light source. A high-quality LED fixture should provide a range of LUX measurements, though the quality of the light in your tank will depend on your specific set-up.
The LUX numbers will tell you the maximum intensity of the light shining at different depths. Oftentimes, raising an object a mere couple of inches can increase the light intensity by as much as 40%! If you dim your white LEDs the light will be less intense, of course, especially in the lower parts of your tank.
Best Lighting For Fish Only Freshwater Tanks
For fish that live in shallow freshwater habitats, you’ll probably have the most natural look by using full spectrum white diodes in the 5,500 to 8,000K range. Then you can mix your colors to best enhance the species in your tank.
For red, orange or pink colored fish like Bettas, barbs and goldfish, start by adjusting the intensity of the white diodes until your tank is bright enough and well lit.
- This will bring out the warmer colors and earth tones in your tank.
- You can increase the effect by adding more warm-colored red diodes to your mix, especially if you have a lot of red or orange-colored fish.
For enhancing iridescent qualities and making your cichlids, Discus, schooling tetras and minnows pop you’ll need to adjust your white, red and blue diodes. I particularly like the look a 10,000K full spectrum light can provide for an African cichlid tank.
- I recommend using a mix of white and blue diodes or kicking up the levels on the cool color channels and reducing the warm ones a bit.
- You’ll still need some red and green colors to balance the effect, though, or you’ll wash out all the warm colors.
Bottom feeders are a special case because as a rule these fish often prefer low lighting conditions and avoid bright lights. Warmer colors are less intense and can bring out the browns and scale patterns of your catfish, loaches and invertebrates without bombarding them with bright lights.
Considerations For Coral And Planted Tanks
Light fixtures that enhance the colors and textures in your tank may be unable to provide the specific light spectrums photosynthesizing plants and marine corals require. If you have species that rely on photosynthesis in your tank, you’ll need to be sure your primary light fixture accommodates their needs.
Blending Your Aquatic Lights
It’s never a bad idea to enhance the look of your tank by using multiple types of light fixtures. You can pick a primary fixture to provide the spectrums your plants or corals need and then add extra LEDs to highlight the fish or other features of your tank.
You might be surprised by how much a simple moonlight or blue LED rod can change the mood of your tank, and using RGB LEDs against the backdrop can create surprising effects as well. Color enhancing lights can be large fixtures or simple spotlights, so you are really only limited by your imagination and budget!
Top 5 Aquarium Lighting For Enhancing Fish Colors Review
Depending on your existing set-up, you may be looking for a primary light fixture with color-enhancing features or one to accentuate a specific area of your tank. We’ve got all your bases covered with this list of the best lights for vivid and colorful aquariums!
1. Nicrew Classic LED Plus
- Style: Classic Striplight
- CCT: 6,500K
- LEDs: 26 white, 6 blue, 3 red, 1 green
- Wattage: 8 Watts
If you want a light that will make your fish really stand out in your tank, then the Nicrew Classic LED Plus fixture could be the one for you. This basic and inexpensive model is ideal for shallow freshwater set-ups and lightly planted aquariums.
The Classic provides a nice balance of full spectrum white light with color-enhancing blue, red and green diodes. While it lacks any programs or extra features like color channels, it’s very easy to use and one of the least expensive striplights on the market. I wish it included a loop controller, however.
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2. Ming Waterproof Blue LED Underwater Light
- Style: Submersible Light Rod
- CCT: N/A
- LEDs: 30 blue
- Wattage: 2.3 Watts
This is one of my favorite options for enhancing the appearance of a fresh or saltwater tank. The inexpensive Ming Blue LED light is waterproof and can be used inside your tank or added to an existing fixture on top of it. It casts a deep blue light over your tank and makes a great night light!
You can use this with your primary fixture or turn the light rod on separately to make your fluorescent fish and decorations glow. That makes it a great option for GloFish aquariums and reef tanks. This is an excellent example of a light fixture that easily blends with others. The Ming is easy to use and won’t hurt your pocketbook!
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3. Current USA Orbit IC LED Marine Aquarium Light
- Style: Striplight
- CCT: Dual White Diodes 6500 K/10,000 K
- LEDs: 18 white, 24 blue, 6 RGB
- Wattage: 27 Watts
To enhance the appearance of your reef tank you’ll want the right mix of full spectrum white diodes with actinic blues. The Orbit IC LCD from Current USA is a premium fixture that’s packed with features. It provides two types of white and actinic blue diodes for maximum color enhancement.
The Orbit has multiple modes with preset weather effects, and the special wide-angle lenses ensure every part of your tank is highlighted. The primary downside to this product is that it does not include the loop controller for altering the color channels. You’ll have to pick that and the Bluetooth controller up separately if you want them.
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4. Fluval Marine and Reef 2.0/3.0 Light
- Style: Striplight
- CCT: White diodes 3000 to 25,000 K
- LEDs: 168 total diodes
- Wattage: 59 Watts
If you want your corals to pop in your saltwater tank then investing in a premium fixture like the Fluval Marine and Reef light is the way to go. The Fluval provides full spectrum white light from 3 to 25,000K and is ideal for deep reef tanks! The actinic blue diodes bring out your coral’s fluorescence and the RGB mix balances the colors.
This fixture is programmable, has 7 adjustable color channels and can be controlled remotely using their Bluetooth app on your smart device. Everything you need to operate it is included in the box. Of all the products in this review, if I were looking for a reef light I’d go with the Fluval 3.0.
One thing I have noticed is that it can be tricky to shop for this system online, because many stores mix up the models. They often use the picture for the 3.0 but give the specs for the older 2.0. You may need to do some research so you know which model you are really buying!
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5. Hipargero LED Aquarium Light
- Style: Compact Box Light
- CCT: 8,000K
- LEDs: 18 diodes
- Wattage: 78 Watts
Another programmable option for a planted or reef tank is this box light from Hipargero. This sleek and compact unit uses special lenses to spread the light out over the bottom of your tank. The white diodes provide full spectrum light and the additional LEDs cover the spectrums most essential for LPS and SPS corals.
You can easily plan out a 24-hour light cycle with this fixture, including your sunrise/sunset effects and the actinic moonlight. It comes pre-programmed with three modes and you can adjust the color-mix with the 6 color channels. This light isn’t as impressive as the Fluval but it’s a good product for a reasonable price.
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Choosing the best lights for color enhancement is all about picking the system that provides the right spectrum and intensity to highlight the features of your tank. Whether you need a warm white light to bring out the reds or plenty of white and blue ones to fluoresce your corals, the right spectrums can really make your colors shine.
- For accentuating reef tanks and growing corals, I’d definitely choose the Fluval, although the Hipargero is a good option for shallower tanks as well.
- If you’re just adding color to your reef tank the Orbit would also be a good option, although you may need to pick up the loop controller for color adjustments.
- The Nicrew is an excellent option for freshwater tanks and will make your fish and plants really stand out.
- Any aquarium could benefit from a moonlight, and the submersible Ming LCD blue light is a great and inexpensive option!