Add the finishing touch to your exterior spaces with well-planned outdoor landscape lighting.

By Kelly Roberson
Updated April 13, 2020
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When it comes to lighting your landscape, a little goes a long way. That's because your eyes need less light outdoors than they do indoors in order to see light, shadow, and pattern. To plan your outdoor landscape lighting, start with a walk around your yard at night. Envision how and when you want to use your outdoor spaces, and tailor your landscape lighting to suit those needs. When you're ready to choose the fixtures and layout, use these landscape lighting ideas, including tips for the best placement and how to avoid common issues, for a well-lit outdoor space you can enjoy long after dark.

Werner Straube Photography

Landscape Lighting Basics

How light is seen during the day is different from how it is seen at night, a particularly important distinction when it comes to lighting pathways and other outdoor spaces. However, certain principles about lighting remain true indoors and out.

For starters, light has intensity, or quantity emitted, and color. The color of a particular lightbulb can be found on the packaging; it is a number that ranges from 1800 kelvins (K), which is very red in tone, to 7500 K, which is a bluish-white.

Whether indoors or outdoors, lighting is generally divided into three layers based on function:

  • Overall lighting: Overall light provides illumination for a whole room or space.
  • Task lighting: Task lighting is used for a specific purpose, such as to light a path.
  • Accent lighting: Accent lighting draws attention to an object or area. This is usually accomplished with spotlights or floodlights.

A variety of lightbulbs are suitable for outdoor light fixtures.

  • Incandescent bulbs emit pleasing light but have a short life and consume more electricity.
  • Halogen bulbs are more efficient versions of incandescents, typically with a longer life and less energy consumption.
  • Fluorescent bulbs are now available in a more pleasing color range, last much longer, and consume less energy.
  • While LED landscape lighting can be more expensive, the lightbulb costs (which continue to decline) are balanced by their extraordinarily long life and extremely low energy consumption.

Landscape lights that are located near a building with electricity can easily be integrated into your home's wiring system. Solar landscape lighting is another option for an eco-friendly way to power your outdoor lights.

Outdoor Landscape Lighting Issues and Fixes

Outdoor lighting issues differ from those of indoor light. For example, reflection is less an issue outdoors because most surfaces are dark and do not reflect light well. However, position and shielding are more important in outdoor landscape lighting in order to prevent glare.

Glare happens when a light source is too big or too bright; it can be blinding because it reflects directly in people's eyes. Outdoor landscape lighting also needs to be particularly sensitive to direct versus indirect light. Direct outdoor landscape light, such as a downlight outside a side entry door, will brighten mostly the object it is directed at and little of the surroundings. Indirect light reflects on the surrounding surfaces to create a soft wash.

Gordon Beall Photography

Landscape Lighting Placement Ideas

While outdoor lighting can be placed virtually anywhere, some spots make it an absolute must. Essential landscape lighting areas include:

Paths: A well-lit path is both welcoming and required, providing illumination that extends hospitality to visitors and makes walking more secure. High illumination isn't necessary, and downlights will prevent glare. Individually lit pavers can also be used to light a pathway.

Entries: Place lights either to each side of a door or overhead at front, back, and side entry doors.

Driveway: Low-voltage landscape lighting, which is typically easier to install and uses less energy than other systems, is a good option along a driveway.

Steps: Steps should be lighted for safety; either the risers or the treads can be lit.

Decks or Patios: Lighting can be used to illuminate specific task areas on a deck or patio, such as an outdoor kitchen or grilling spot, as well as railings and seating areas. Uplighting, which is harder to accomplish outside, can be used on a deck or patio to send light upward on an umbrella or deck overhang for an indirect effect.

Gazebos, Pergolas, or Trellises: Lighting is a good way to highlight an interesting built element, such as pergolas or arbors, in the outdoor landscape.

Architectural Features: Outdoor landscape lighting can be used to highlight a wall, for example, by washing it or grazing it. When a wide beam of light is aimed at a wall from a few feet away, it creates a wall wash. A light used to graze a wall creates interesting highlights and shadows. Both can help accent nearby plants.

A range of landscape lighting fixtures, including wall fixtures, sconces, portable lamps, chandeliers, and ceiling fans, is available for nearly every spot. However, any fixture used outdoors should be rated for "UL wet location" use.

Gordon Beall

Outdoor Light Pollution

Too much light, or poorly installed lighting, can create unwanted light pollution that shines into indoor rooms, washes out the view of the stars, creates glare that temporarily blinds people, and wastes energy and money. Follow these tips to avoid excess light pollution from your landscape lighting:

  • Aim lights carefully. Position lights at night and check their position frequently.
  • Shield bulbs. Use fixtures that have reflectors and shielding to concentrate light where you want it.
  • Minimize wattage. Higher wattage will create harsher light without improving aesthetics or increasing safety. Low-wattage bulbs are often enough to provide illumination.
  • Control the light. Separately zoned lights with timers, controls, dimmers, or motion sensors will turn on lights only when needed or enable them to be turned down as necessary.

Comments (1)

Anonymous
September 6, 2018
I really like that you mentioned that you should aim your lighting very carefully, and you need to also check the position of the lighting often, to make sure that it hasn't moved. I am looking for ways to improve the outside lighting of my home. I will be sure to carefully aim the lighting so it can look wonderful. http://www.neicysknickknacks.com/lighting-candles/outdoor-lighting.html