The Difference Between Direct and Indirect Sunlight, Explained

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Leaf and Lolo

When it comes to keeping plants alive, it isn't always a walk in the park. Bright light, low light, indirect light, filtered light—all of these sun requirements get a bit confusing, and what do they even mean?

Because light is one of the most important factors to ensuring your plants are happy and healthy, it's crucial to know the light requirements of any plants you bring home and know the lighting you have in your home. Windows facing different directions get different kinds of light, and structures around your windows can either allow for more or less light to come in through those windows. You could have the largest windows in the world, but if a building sits in front of them, chances are your lighting levels will change.

If you're eager to up your plant parenting game and or just want to finally know what the heck plant influencers and gardeners are talking about when they mention light levels, keep reading. We're sorting out the differences between bright, indirect, and every lighting level in between once and for all.

plants in bright light

Black and Blooms

Explaining the Different Light Levels

When plant experts talk about light levels and light requirements for plants, they're referring to how much light a plant needs to successfully perform photosynthesis, or synthesize water, carbon dioxide, and light from the sun to create its own food (sugar). As you can probably guess, a plant will die if it can't make food for itself.

The most commonly talked about types of light are direct, bright indirect, medium indirect, and low light. Though all plants prefer different types of light, most fall into needing one of these four types of light. While most people talk about different types of light depending on what direction a window faces, that's not always the case.

What Is Direct Light?

Direct light does normally come from the south or west, where the sun is at its strongest during the day. Think of this as where the sun is during the hottest parts of the day: the afternoon and early evening. During this time, your plants sitting in west- or south-facing windows will receive more than four hours of strong, unfiltered light (as long as you don't have curtains or window film).

This is great for desert plants like cacti and succulents, which are used to getting light on every single leaf for a majority of the day.

Do keep in mind that even if you have a south- or west-facing window that is blocked by something like a building, trees, or is covered with curtains or window film, then you won't get as much light as you would otherwise. You can still keep plants in this window, but succulents and cacti might not do as well.

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House of Chais

What Is Indirect Light?

Indirect light is basically one more step down from direct light—these kinds of plants live close to the forest floor out in the wild, receiving less light than climbing plants, but still getting light filtered through the leaves above.

Bright Indirect Light

Think of bright indirect light as the light a couple of feet away from an unobstructed window or maybe right at the window if it's coming through gauzy curtains or a window film. In nature, this light is what reaches plants that are covered by trees, like climbing vines or smaller trees like dracaena that live beneath the canopy of larger species in the rainforest.

At home, you can find bright indirect light from any window, no matter the direction it faces. However, what matters here is where you place a plant in those windows.

Bright indirect light in a south-facing window will be a few feet from the actual window, or near the window but blocked by a sheer curtain. You can also place plants in an east- or west-facing window, where they will receive direct light during either the morning or evening, depending on the direction.

Because this direct light is only for a couple of hours, it's not as intense for your plant. North-facing windows get the least amount of light normally, but they receive bright indirect light for a majority of the day, so you can place your plants right on the windowsill there.

Plants like philodendrons or pothos will thrive in bright indirect light, and they look great hanging in or near windows, so that's a win-win.

pothos in window

Black and Blooms

Medium Indirect Light

At home, this kind of light usually comes from a north-facing window, where the least amount of light comes in during the day. If you have east- or west-facing windows, this kind of light will be six to eight feet away from the window, where it is not as strong. At south-facing windows, it's about eight to 12 feet away.

Plants like calatheas, ferns, and some pothos live and grow in medium indirect light.

hanging fern plant


What Is Low Light?

Just as it sounds, low light levels are found in places where a small amount of light gets in. Think of places where windows are blocked by buildings, up high on your wall and small, or blocked by big trees.

While some plants like ZZ plants and snake plants tolerate low light, they prefer and grow more in indirect light. There are no plants that love being in low light conditions all the time, they will simply adapt to living in a lower light environment.

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