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The Difference Between Direct and Indirect Sunlight

Discover the perfect light for your indoor plants. Direct, indirect, or low light - get the right balance to keep your green beauties thriving.

Banana Plant in direct sunlight

Keeping your beautiful green plants thriving isn't always a walk in the park. With all the talk about bright light, low light, and direct and indirect light, it can be pretty confusing.

Light is incredibly important for your plants' happiness and health. So it's essential to understand the light requirements of the plants you bring home and what kind of lighting your place offers.

"Light is crucial to plants since this is how they get the energy they need to maintain their foliage and to output growth," explains Vanessa Jovel Byrnes, Co-Owner and Founder of Living with Green.

If you're eager to level up your plant parenting skills or just wish to understand the difference in light levels, keep reading.

Explaining Light Levels

Light is like food for plants; they need it for photosynthesis - the process where they turn light, water, and carbon dioxide into essential sugars. But not all plants have the same appetite for light.

When it comes to nurturing indoor greenery, one of the biggest challenges is getting the right amount of light. Too much sunlight can scorch your plant, just like sunburn, while too little can leave it feeling gloomy and sluggish. So, finding the right balance of light is key.

Many growers use foot-candles as a measurement to gauge light intensity. Foot-candles can help us determine the ideal light levels for our leafy friends.

  1. 200 - 500 foot-candles: Low light, unsuitable for most houseplants.

  2. 500 - 1,000 foot-candles: Still low light but great for shade-loving plants.

  3. 1,000 - 2,000 foot-candles: This is bright but indirect light, making it suitable for most plants.

  4. 2,000 - 4,000 foot-candles: This is bright direct light, perfect for plants with strong light needs.

  5. 4,000 - 5,000 foot-candles: Around 50% of the midday sun's intensity, or strong direct sunlight in a well-lit room. This is great for plants with high light requirements.

  6. 5,000 and up foot-candles: Very bright indoor light, offering a higher level of intensity for plants that love the spotlight.

If you want to get specific and test the foot-candles in your space, you'll need a light meter that measures foot-candles. But broadly, you should be able to tell whether an area features indirect or direct sunlight by reading the guide below.

Light Levels: An Expert Perspective

"If a plant is grown in bright conditions and then placed in a low light spot in a home, this will cause shedding since the plant no longer has the energy it once had to upkeep all of that foliage at once," says Jovel Byrnes. "Lower light areas will also dry out soil much slower since the plant isn’t working through that moisture as quickly with less heat and energy to use up the water."

"Exposure also plays a role into light levels. For example, if you face North where the sun doesn’t sit in the Northeast, then that is automatically indirect light, even if at the window. Facing West, where the sun sets and can be a bit harsh, may cast a direct light path a few feet into the room," adds the Living with Green founder.

What Is Direct Light?

Direct sunlight refers to the unfiltered outdoor sunlight falling directly on a plant without anything blocking it, such as trees, walls, or even a sheer curtain.

Unobstructed south-facing windows will shower your plants with the most direct sun rays. With the sun following a slightly southern east-to-west arc across the sky, southern windows usually boast strong light intensity.

Banana Plant in direct sunlight
Photo: IndoorPlants.comDirect sunlight refers to the unfiltered outdoor sunlight falling directly on a plant.

West-facing windows can also be great, as the sunlight filters through these windows after midday until evening. Although, most plants thrive when they receive direct sunlight, so putting them on a patio or in the soil is best.

Plants that enjoy direct sunlight

If your home is blessed with abundant sunshine and bright light, you have the perfect opportunity to choose houseplants that tolerate direct light. And luckily, there's a diverse selection to pick from.

  1. Banana Plant

  2. Bird of Paradise

  3. Mother-in-Law's Tongue

  4. Ponytail Palm

  5. Jade Plant

What Is Indirect Light?

You'll come across the term "indirect sunlight" quite often when caring for houseplants. Indirect light refers to sunlight that reaches a plant after passing through a medium (like a window shade or tree leaves) or reflecting off a surface.

"Indirect light would mean there are still some shadows in the spot, but there is no sky or sun in direct view," says Jovel Byrnes. "Bright indirect light means that you can see the blue sky from the spot, though the sun never really shines directly in that area."

Monstera deliciosa
Photo: IndoorPlants.comIndirect light refers to a space where your plants won't get any direct sunlight.

Indirect sunlight ranges from the bright indirect light of east-facing windows to the softer, medium light of north-facing windows. If you buy a plant labeled as "partial shade," "full shade," or "low light," it's likely well-suited for thriving in indirect light indoors.

Plants that enjoy indirect light

There is an abundance of beautiful indoor plants that don't appreciate direct rays and will thrive wonderfully in slightly shady or bright indirect light spots:

  1. Monstera Deliciosa

  2. Spider Plant

  3. ZZ Plant

  4. Bird's Nest Fern

  5. Peace Lily

What Is Low Light?

Low light falls into the indirect sunlight category, but it's dialed back to give low-light plants much less exposure. If a plant thrives in low light, it means it prefers minimal natural light or even artificial lighting.

For these low-light-loving plants, north-facing windows are perfect. They have the weakest light intensity and often stay in relatively deep shade throughout most of the day.

You might also discover low-light environments in foyers and landings where there's an absence of natural light.

Plants that enjoy low light

No sunlight, no problem - these houseplants can thrive even in the darkest nook of your home.

  1. Pothos

  2. Rubber Plant

  3. Ferns

  4. Philodendron

  5. Chinese Evergreen


Is light through a window considered direct sunlight or indirect sunlight?

The light that passes through a window is generally considered indirect light. The sun's rays are diffused as they pass through the glass, resulting in lower intensity. But this also depends on the window and its direction.

If you have south-facing windows and there are no obstructions blocking the sunlight, it can be considered direct sunlight. On the other hand, if the sunlight passes through curtains or is reflected off surfaces before reaching your plant, that's indirect sunlight.

How can I tell if my indoor plant is getting enough light?

A simple observation can tell you a lot! These signs may indicate that your plant isn't getting enough light:

  • Lopsided growth: If your plant is leaning towards one side, rotate it weekly to ensure all sides receive sunlight evenly.

  • Abnormally small new growth: Shrinking new leaves can mean your plant isn't receiving enough light compared to its previous environment.

  • Leggy stems: Sparse leaves or tall, thin stems indicate your plant is searching for more light.

  • Loss of variegation: If your variegated plant is losing its unique colors, it may not be getting enough sunlight.

  • Browning leaves: If you've ruled out other factors like watering and pests, browning leaves might be a sign of insufficient light.


In the world of plant care, both direct and indirect sunlight play vital roles, but it all comes down to the type of plant you have.

And now that you have a clear understanding of direct vs indirect sunlight, you can provide your plants with the best care - besides watering, of course!

Properly positioning your plants ensures they get the right light they need to flourish and show off their very best.

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