While it may not seem as exciting as choosing 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 the color of your fish.
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 large reef tank filled with coral or a fish-only cichlid aquarium, color-enhancing aquarium lights can make a world of difference in the appearance of your tank.
COMPARISON OF THE 5 BEST AQUARIUM LIGHTS TO IMPROVE FISH COLORS
Depending on your existing setup, you may be looking for a main 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
- CST: 6,500,000
- LEDs: 26 white, 6 blue, 3 red, 1 green
- Power: 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 might be the one for you. This entry-level, inexpensive model is ideal for shallow freshwater setups and light planted aquariums.
The Classic provides a good balance of full spectrum white light with color enhancing blue, red and green diodes. While it lacks any extra programs or features like color channels, it is very easy to use and one of the least expensive striping lights on the market. However, I would like it to include a loop handler.
- Low cost LED strip lights are ideal for bringing out the colors in your freshwater fish and plants
- 2 modes allow for different day and night effects
- Simple controls make it very easy to use
- The basic luminaire is not programmable
- It has no color channels and cannot independently change the levels of the RGB diodes.
- Requires aftermarket loop or single channel controller to raise/lower lights for sunrise/sunset effects
2. MING WATERPROOF BLUE LED UNDERWATER LIGHT
- Style: submersible light bar
- TCC: N/A
- LEDs: 30 blue
- Power: 2.3 watts
This is one of my favorite options to enhance the appearance of a freshwater or saltwater tank. The low cost Ming Blue LED light is waterproof and can be used inside your tank or added to an existing fixture on top. It casts a deep blue light over your tank and makes a great night light!
You can use this with your main fixture or turn on the light bar separately to make your fluorescent fish and decorations glow. That makes it a great choice for GloFish aquariums and reef tanks. This is a great example of a light fixture that blends easily with others. The Ming is easy to use and won’t break your pocket!
- 11-inch submersible light can be placed on the hood or under water
- The light angle can be adjusted to create special effects or highlight parts of your tank.
- Deep blue diodes can be used alone as a moonlight or in a GloFish tank to make fish and decor fluorescent
- It only uses blue diodes and is therefore not sufficient as a primary light source.
- Light does not come with a dimmer switch, although one can be added aftermarket
- The basic luminaire is not programmable
3. USA CURRENT LED ORBIT IC LED MARINE AQUARIUM LIGHT
- Style: Strip light
- CCT: Dual White Diodes 6500K / 10,000K
- LEDs: 18 white, 24 blue, 6 RGB
- Power: 27 Watts
To enhance the appearance of your reef tank, you will want the right combination of full spectrum white diodes with actinic blues. Current USA’s LCD Orbit IC is a premium device packed with features. Provides two types of white and actinic blue diodes for maximum color enhancement.
The Orbit has multiple modes with preset weather effects, and special wide-angle lenses ensure every part of your tank is highlighted. The main disadvantage of this product is that it does not include the loop controller to alter the color channels. You’ll have to choose that and the Bluetooth controller separately if you want them.
- Dual white and actinic LEDs provide cool light to your reef tank and help bring out fluorescence in your corals
- RGB diodes provide warmer colors to balance your tank and create special effects
- Multiple modes allow for sunrise/sunset and weather effects
- It does not provide the right spectrum for growing SPS corals.
- Deeper tanks may require supplemental light for growth of LPS and other «easier» corals
- This device does not include the loop controller and Bluetooth remote.
4. fluval MARINE AND REEF 2.0 / 3.0 LIGHT
- Style: Strip light
- CCT: white diodes 3000 to 25,000 K
- LED: 168 diodes in total
- Power: 59 Watts
If you want your corals to show up in your saltwater tank, then investing in a premium accessory like 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 the fluorescence of your coral and the RGB mix balances the colors.
This fixture is programmable, has 7 adjustable color channels, and can be controlled remotely using your 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 would choose the fluval 3.0.
One thing I have noticed is that it can be difficult to buy this system online, because many stores mix models. They often use the image for 3.0, but give the specs for 2.0 above. You may need to do some research to know which model you are actually buying!
- Full spectrum white diodes cover a wide range from 3,000K to 25,000K
- Dual blue actinic diodes provide the right spectrum to highlight fluorescent corals
- Programmable luminaire with 7 color channels that allows infinite customization
- The premium lamp comes with a premium price tag and may be out of reach for some aquarists.
- Bluetooth app doesn’t always work as well as expected
- Online stores often conflate the look and specs of the 3.0 and 2.0 models, making it hard to tell which model you’re buying.
5. LED LIGHT FOR HIPARGERO AQUARIUMS
- Style: Compact Light Box
- CCT: 8,000K
- LEDs: 18 diodes
- Power: 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 light over the bottom of your tank. White diodes provide full spectrum light and additional LEDs cover the most essential spectrums for LPS and SPS corals.
You can easily plan a 24-hour light cycle with this device, including sunrise/sunset effects and actinic moonlight. It comes pre-programmed with three modes and you can adjust the color mix with the 6 color channels. This light is not as impressive as the Fluval, but it is a good product at a reasonable price.
- Ideal for enhancing colors in planted tanks and reef systems.
- Programmable timer and special effects make it easy to get the look you want
- Six color channels allow you to customize the intensity and spectrum of light in your tank
- Limited full spectrum white diodes are only rated at 8,000K and may not provide enough light for deeper tanks
- The lining of supports often corrodes rapidly when exposed to salt water mist.
- Light spread is limited by box design and may not be sufficient to cover long tanks.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN AQUARIUM LIGHTING TO ENHANCE COLOR
In the 1990s, researching aquarium lights was often like studying for a master’s degree in physics. Lighting an aquarium to enhance the colors can be a complicated matter because you have to take into account:
- The size and depth of your tank.
- Your water clarity.
- The distance between the light fixtures and the occupants of your tank.
Before the age of LED, mixing your aquarium lights by using multiple types of fluorescent bulbs, reflectors, and ballasted housings was an art that took years to master. Light bulbs were expensive and required frequent replacement as they degenerated. Bringing out the colors of your fish was NOT an easy thing to do!
HOW CAN LIGHTS MAKE YOUR COLORS LOOK BETTER?
There are many technical reasons why the right light fixture can really bring the look of an aquarium together, but it all boils down to one simple point. The shades, textures, tints, tones, and colors you see in your aquarium depend on the quality of the light that bounces off the object to your eye.
By changing the intensity and colors of light (spectra) in different parts of your tank, you can highlight specific features or fish. Or you can balance the color scheme and even match lighting fixtures to make the entire tank look the way you want. Green lights enhance the appearance 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 people still use the older fluorescent systems, LEDs are a far superior option now that they’ve started to catch up in quality. It’s really no surprise when you consider the benefits:
- Compact and attractive fixtures save space and are more energy efficient.
- It offers precise control over the intensity of the light emitted by the diodes.
- Dimmable diodes can often be programmed to fade in and out gradually, mimicking a natural sunrise/sunset and even special weather effects.
- Color channels allow aquarists to custom combine white, red, green, and blue diodes to enhance the colors of fish, coral, and aquatic plants.
Investigating LED aquarium lights is a different proposition than classic fluorescent systems and requires some new ways of thinking about the buying process. Older articles are often full of information that is not relevant to choosing the best LED aquarium lights.
MEASUREMENT LIGHT: COLOR TEMPERATURE AND KELVIN
How are aquarium lights measured? If you have read many articles on underwater lights, you have probably come across the terms Kelvin (K) Scale or Correlated Color Temperature before. Kelvin is a measure that describes the temperature of light emitted by a theoretical object (called a «black body») when heated.
How are Kelvin scales measured?
Imagine a sheet of metal. When frozen and at a temperature of absolute zero (0°K or -273.15°C) it is completely black and emits no light. As the metal heats up, it changes color and begins to radiate light. The temperature of the emitted light correlates with the temperature of the object at that moment in degrees Kelvin.
The Sun, for example, burns and emits a full spectrum of light at about 5,800°K. Incandescent lights are rated K based on the temperature of the filament that produces the visible light. But fluorescent light bulbs and light emitting diodes cannot be measured in the same way.
Calculation of K-Ratings for LED Luminaires
Instead, for these systems, the K rating is assigned indirectly by correlating the color of light produced by a bulb or diode with the temperature of a blackbody that produces the same color of light. This is the Correlated Color Temperature (CCT) or K rating that you will 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 violet to red color spectra (or around 380nm to 700nm). But the Sun produces a full spectrum of light, including colors outside of our perception. An LED fixture can produce a similar effect but will not necessarily emit the same spectrum of light.
So K-ratings can give you some basic information about what a light looks like in your tank, but they don’t tell the whole story. The actual light spectra produced will vary greatly. The only way to know the spectra produced by a particular white diode or light bulb is to consult the manufacturer’s spectrograph.
How K-Ratings Relate to Your Tank’s Appearance and Function
If you want to grow aquatic plants or raise a spectacular reef tank with challenging SPS corals, you definitely need to know what spectra your light produces. Plants and corals use some for photosynthesis. The K rating just doesn’t give you enough information to determine if the light spectrum is right for your needs.
For fish tanks only or for color enhancement, all that matters is how a light enhances the appearance of your tank and its occupants. Freshwater fish and invertebrates don’t require specific light spectrums, so K-ratings can be helpful in guiding you to the best settings 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 K rating appear cooler or bluer. One reason those old incandescent bulbs give off warm white light is that the tungsten filament burns at just under 3,600°K. They produce many long wavelengths with the warmest red tones.
ADJUSTABLE COLOR SPECTRUM
One big advantage of LEDs is that most systems use a dynamic mix of white diodes along with red, green, and blue (RGB) diodes to light your aquarium instead of relying on a static fluorescent light bulb. If you don’t like the look of white diodes, you can alter the mix by changing their intensity or RGB settings.
Since the intensity and appearance of your lights in the tank will vary depending on how your LEDs are positioned and how large an area they need to cover, being able to adjust the diode mix is crucial to getting the right look in your tank. This is also where the adjustable color channels come into play.
Full Spectrum White Diodes
A full spectrum white diode should emit a mixture of colors and produce an effect similar to sunlight in your tank. As light enters a natural body of water, the longer red wavelengths are filtered out and the shorter blue and green wavelengths penetrate deeper. We have to mimic this effect in our aquariums to bring out the colors of our fish.
White aquarium LEDs are generally classified by their K rating and are roughly divided into two types based on their range. Here you can see a beautiful example of how the hue of a white diode changes from warm to cool as the K rating increases.
Neutral daylight 5,500k to 8,000k
Diodes in this range are ideal for the typical freshwater aquarium and typically produce a warm white or neutral colored light. In tanks that mimic streams and shallow freshwater lakes, long wavelength saturation brings out red, pink, orange, and earth tones in your fish, plants, and décor.
The downside to these warmer colored white diodes is that they can also encourage algae growth, especially as you move into the 5,500K range. You may also need to adjust your RGB diodes to bring out the colors of your iridescent and blue.
Coolest tone 10,000ky more
For aquariums based on deeper or saltwater habitats, the warm tones of neutral white diodes can make your tank look flat. These environments are typically illuminated by short wavelengths of light. This is why the blue color is so dominant in the deep ocean and looks so natural in reef tanks.
Cool white or blue aquarium lights are most useful for highlighting coral in a reef tank or bringing out 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 glows like natural sunlight on the ocean.
To enhance freshwater cichlid tanks, a light around 10,000K is usually enough to bring out the iridescence and deep blue, purple, and violet colors of your fish. For tanks with corals, you’ll likely get better results with light that can go up to 25,000K to really mimic the look of the deep ocean.
Leaving aside white lights, a great advantage of high-end LED systems is the inclusion of RGB diodes. RGB diodes produce specific light spectra rather than full spectra and are therefore not K-rated like white diodes. By altering the intensity of these RGB diodes, you can customize the colors and appearance of your tank.
Less expensive LED aquarium lights may allow you to directly adjust RGB diode levels, while more premium systems like 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
In the days of fluorescent tubes, the main way to enhance the colors of freshwater fish was to add special magenta, red, or pink bulbs to your lamp. Adding these warm colored lights to the mix brings out the red, orange and earth tones in your tank.
You can achieve the same effect with your LED by increasing the intensity of the red 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 settings as it just depends on your specific device.
Actinic and cold spectrum diodes
Blue diodes and accessories that combine blue and white lights are ideal for reef tanks and enhance the colors of your corals. Actinic lights emit a deep blue color in the 420nm spectrum and create the appearance of moonlight shining through water. These lights bring out fluorescent colors in corals, fish, and décor.
Many LEDs come with actinic moonlight diodes and have color channels to adjust the levels of violet, blue, and green. These cool spectrum LEDs can add a glow to your tank or mix with your white diodes to create glow effects. Many aquarists add a separate blue LED moonlight and match its colors to their main lamp.
|K classification or spectrum (nm)
|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
|620 to 700nm
|Pink/orange to red
|520 to 560nm
|Blue-green to yellow-green
|420 (actinic) at 490 nm
|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 changes as your tank gets deeper. As the distance between light and an object increases, the intensity of the light decreases as it spreads out to cover a wider area.
What are lumens?
The intensity or brightness level of your white LEDs is called luminosity. You will 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 that 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 light reaches different parts of your tank. For that, you will need to rely on the LUX numbers.
Find the manufacturer’s LUX measurements
LUX measures the total amount of light hitting a given surface. It always corresponds to a number that indicates the distance from the light source. A high quality LED fixture should provide a range of LUX measurements, although the quality of light in your tank will depend on your specific setup.
The LUX numbers will tell you the maximum intensity of light shining at different depths. Raising an object a few inches can often increase light intensity by up to 40%. If you dim your white LEDs, the light will be less intense of course, especially in the lower parts of your tank.
THE BEST LIGHTING FOR FRESHWATER TANKS JUST FOR FISH
For fish that live in shallow freshwater habitats, you’ll probably have the most natural look using full-spectrum white diodes in the 5,500 to 8,000K range. You can then 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.
To enhance the iridescent qualities and make your cichlids, discus, school tetras and minnows pop, you will need to adjust your white, red and blue diodes. I particularly like the look that a 10,000K full spectrum light can provide to an African cichlid tank.
- I recommend using a mix of white and blue diodes or increasing the levels on the cool color channels and lowering the warm ones a bit.
- However, you’ll still need some red and green colors to balance the effect, or you’ll wash out all the warm colors.
Bottom feeders are a special case because as a general rule these fish often prefer low light conditions and avoid bright lights. Warmer colors are less intense and can bring out the scale patterns and browns of your catfish, loach, and invertebrates without bombarding them with bright lights.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR CORAL AND PLANTED TANKS
Lighting fixtures that enhance the colors and textures in your tank may not be able to provide the specific light spectrums that photosynthesising plants and marine corals require. If you have species that rely on photosynthesis in your tank, you’ll need to make sure your main light suits their needs.
AQUATIC LIGHT MIX
It’s never a bad idea to enhance the look of your tank by using various types of light fixtures. You can choose a main fixture to provide the spectra your plants or corals need and then add additional LEDs to highlight fish or other features in your tank.
You may be surprised at how much a simple moonlight or blue LED bar can change the mood of your tank, and using RGB LEDs against the background can also create amazing effects. Color-enhancing lights can be large fixtures or simple spotlights, so you’re really only limited by your imagination and budget.
Choosing the best lights for color enhancement is all about choosing the system that provides the right spectrum and intensity to bring out the features in your tank. Whether you need a warm white light to bring out the reds or lots of whites and blues to fluoresce your corals, the right spectra can really make your colors shine.
- To accentuate reef tanks and growing corals I would definitely go for the Fluval, although the Hipargero is also a good choice for shallower tanks.
- If you’re just adding color to your reef tank, the Orbit would also be a good option, although you may need to grab the loop controller to adjust the color.
- The Nicrew is a great choice for freshwater tanks and will make your fish and plants really stand out.
- Any aquarium could benefit from moonlight, and the Ming Submersible LCD Blue Light is a great, affordable option.