Fundamentals of Outdoor Lighting

Outdoor Lighting

Not enough credit goes to a well thought out lighting design.  It’s the cohesive measure that can truly only be appreciated when done right.  I liken it to going to a nice restaurant, and everything is seasoned just right.  It highlights and accentuates in such a seamless way, you can truly enjoy it without even noticing. 

Plan for Lighting

It might sound obvious, but many people forget to plan for lighting.  Most of our projects use low voltage light wire, so the infrastructure is minimal and many times can be accommodated as an afterthought.  But why add on extra work?  If your project is a blank slate make sure there is access to electricity and sleeves are in appropriate locations.  It is especially crucial to consider light fixtures that will be integrated into hardscape.  Well lights, step lights and cap lights have to built into the concrete forms.

Think About the Look and Feel You Want to Create

Ask yourself, are you looking to add safety, drama, depth or excitement? This will inform your lighting choices.

The architecture of your home is a smart place to start.  We begin lighting projects by reviewing the overall space and thinking about what sort of atmosphere we want to evoke. The aim is to create a seamless flow between the planting, hard materials and the home.

Create and inviting and safe entryway to your home.

Budget for Lighting

There is a wide range of landscape light fixtures available on the market.  We are particular about specifying and installing professional grade fixtures.  Proper watertight connections with appropriate heat distribution ensures the longevity of LED fixtures.  These fixtures are not the ones you will find at a box store, and come with a slightly higher price tag than the commonly sourced competitors.  To get the right product you should set aside at a minimum of 5% of your landscape budget for a low voltage lighting system.  If your desire is to utilize well lights (the style that is flush with the ground) or bollard style lights, your minimum budget would increase to 8-10% of your total landscape cost.    

Know the Different Lighting Types

Generally, outdoor light fixtures should be hidden, with an emphasis on the illumination, not the fixture.

Here are the main outdoor lighting types you need to know about.

  • Well light: Recessed into ground level.  Great to highlight trees, columns or other vertical elements, and you need the space to be unobstructed by a fixture. 
  • Bollard lights: Great for lighting paths or driveways.
  • Spotlights: Good for shooting light up the trunk of a tree or highlighting architectural features.
  • Projection lights: Useful for creating interest and playful patterns on walls and ground surfaces.
  • Strip lights: Can be used to wash light across steps, backlight garden beds and illuminate areas under built-in seats or barbecue grills or along a deck.
  • Sculptural lights: Think playful or interesting fittings that are a feature in themselves, such as hurricane lamps and LED balls.
  • String lights: Can create a twinkling canopy and highlight an entertaining area.

Use a Dark Color to Conceal

Matching the colors of light fittings to the setting never works as well as you would expect.  Generally, if we want to conceal a light, it’s black, bronze or dark gray in a matte finish that won’t reflect the light.

Opt for LEDs

LEDs have become the standard for most lighting applications, including outdoors.  They’re energy-efficient, long-lasting and have reduced heat output.

When choosing LEDs, be aware that yellow light is more relaxing than white light, which can drain your outdoor surfaces of tone and texture.

Choose the Right Fixture for the Spot

Garden lighting needs to be balanced and comfortable, rather than confusing or overbearing.  Flood lights, for example, tend to blast the entire garden and can be harsh and uncomfortable.

Ask yourself simple but important questions to ensure you get your landscape lighting right.  Do you need to guide visitors along a path at night? Does a gate need to be well-lit? These insights will help determine whether vertical or horizontal lighting is required. Horizontal placement helps people see obstacles or trip hazards on the ground. Vertical lighting is best used to accentuate trees and architectural elements. 

Prioritize Safety

It’s important to light any hazardous areas in your landscape, such as pathways, stairs, retaining walls or step slopes.  When illuminating a path, you only need enough light to guide the way — you don’t want it to be glaring or blinding. A light with 300 to 400 lumens will provide enough illumination for safety.

Highlight Your Garden’s Best Features

Start by identifying your garden’s best features and any areas that deserve an emphasis — for example, a beautiful tree or sculpture.  Then, create a hierarchy of lighting to establish depth and harmony. 

In our projects, we begin by incorporating a luminous wash that creates an evenly lit canvas. We then create layers by carefully spotlighting individual elements. It is important to do this gradually, and remember that less is more when it comes to creating a balanced and pleasant result. 

Use Light to Extend Your Living Space

The greatest value in lighting your garden is that it extends your living space.  Most people don’t realize the value of garden lighting as an element of their interior design, and only turn their lights on when they’re outside. But if you have lit up your garden, and you have lots of windows looking out onto it, then on a cold winter evening you can turn those lights on, and suddenly you are including your garden in your living space.

Outdoor lighting projects are truly one of my favorite elements to design.  If you need guidance for design or installation, we are here to get the project completed!