Using Light to Make the Most of Your Outdoor Living Space

June 20, 2015

By Melanie Rekola

Subtle path lighting leads the way.

Outdoor lighting is a crucial yet often forgotten component to many beautiful alfresco living spaces. Luminosity tells the story after dark by providing a visual harmony between the home and landscape. Plus, current studies show outside leisure areas are used most often in the evening, thus proving a well-thought-out lighting plan can provide not only a magical world of drama and mystery, but also extend the use of your outdoor living area.

Illumination artistry

Landscape lighting is an art unto itself. Commonly seen failings in many lighting designs is the use of just one type of lighting method or luminosities that are too bright, too dim, or use too few lights. A successful lighting plan considers all these areas and incorporates a variety of landscape lighting fixtures, levels, and techniques. Although a good landscape designer will be well-versed in the nuances of lighting, it is worthwhile for homeowners to be aware of the options and design considerations.


Up-lighting can be installed to illuminate a tree’s canopy.

Installing up-lights is the most common landscape lighting method. Up-lights are best used sparingly on trees with interesting branch structure, leaf texture, or bark. They can be installed closer to the trunk of a tree or farther away and shone up into the tree’s canopy. Another option is to add several up-lights around the same tree so that illumination can be viewed from all sides. However, it is best to avoid the lure of up-lighting every tree in a grouping.

Rather than having a lot of lights clustered close together that will appear too bright, light just three evergreens in a group of seven, for example, to create an enigmatic night-lighting effect.

Path lighting

The second most commonly used fixture is the path light, and it’s rarely done well. In general, path lighting should provide gentle hints for where to go next. However, path lights should be placed equal distance from one another, rather than as an outlining tool. Less is more, thus it is best to incorporate path lights cautiously.

Down lighting

Lighting highlights the foliage of favoured plant materials.

Sometimes called ‘moonlighting,’ this is my preferred lighting style. In areas with large trees, this effect provides a subtle, dappled look that makes path lighting often unnecessary. For the result to be successful, I specify the fixture be installed 9 to 12 m (30 to 40 ft) high in the tree to achieve the most natural look and to keep it hidden.


Grazing is a lighting effect used most often to wash the front of the house with illumination by accenting interesting textures, structural elements, and roof lines. It also works well in conjunction with the next two effects.


By shining a light on the front of the tree, a shadow is created on the house behind. However, care should be given to keep the shadows from looking grossly distorted to avoid creating a spooky effect.


Opposite to the shadow effect is the silhouetting technique, where the light is placed behind the tree, making only its dark outline visible.

Spot lighting

The use of outdoor lighting to graze the front of your home makes a large statement from the road.

Spot lighting is appropriate on any focal point, such as an arbour, garden art, statue, or fountain. However, your landscape designer should avoid placing spot lighting in such a way that they do not shine directly in the eye from all common vantage points.

Hardscape lights

Hardscape lights can be used in several different ways. Placing lights under the overhanging cap of pillars, seating walls, and stairs provides an indirect way to accentuate them. When using hardscape lights on a staircase, it is best to avoid lighting every step. Instead, lights should be placed in an alternating pattern (i.e. one side then the other), leaving at least one step unlit in between.

For the patio space, small flush-mounted lights can be inlaid randomly to create a subtle lighting choice. Although they don’t create any functional illumination, these lights can add just the right amount of sparkle. All hardscape lights must be installed when doing your stonework and cannot be retrofitted easily, so do select wisely when presented with options.

Utility lights

It is almost impossible to integrate functional light for cooking or other tasks into the artistic side of a landscape lighting plan, as the strength of light necessary is simply too bright, thus ruining the effect. Therefore, your designer may suggest a better option is to simply add a switch and brighter light combination that can be turned on and off as necessary.

Exterior fixtures and novelty lights

The exterior light fixtures have a huge impact on the way your home presents. Bigger fixtures are often better and create a feeling of grandeur. Other novelty lights, such as an exterior chandelier, fan, or lamp, lend to the current trend of dressing your outdoor space as you would your home’s interior. Whether solar or traditional, large lanterns are also a welcome touch to any space.

Light colour and light strength

The outdoor living area shown here has picture-perfect lighting for backyard entertaining.

Rather than how attractive a light fixture is, the important point to focus on is the ‘light colour’ it emits and avoiding tones that are too yellow or too blue. The best lighted scenes have no visible fixtures at all! The proper ‘light strength’ is equally important to consider.

Avoid trying to opt for fewer lights with brighter bulbs, as this will ruin the ideal mood by creating garish hot spots. Often it is most appropriate to add more lights of lesser brightness.

A Kelvin is a unit of measurement describing a light source’s hue. In terms of colour temperature, natural moonlight has a slightly cool tone 5500K. This hue provides the most natural effect to outdoor lighting. Firelight is at the other end of the spectrum, with a warm yellow of 2000K. Combining the cooler light of the moon with the warm glow of actual fire flame can create a spectacular effect.

A lumen is a unit of measurement describing the light contained in a certain area. The higher the lumen output, the brighter the light. It is important to keep in mind the brightness level a fixture emits. Too low won’t provide enough effect, but too high may be glaring and wash out a plant or architectural feature. Your designer should consider any street lights near your property, as all luminosity appears brighter when contrasted to a darker backdrop.

Which type is right for your property?

Below are the three main types of lighting systems available, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Low voltage

A low-voltage lighting system using a quartz halogen bulb is less expensive to install than an LED (light-emitting diode) system, but will end up costing more over time on your energy bill and to replace bulbs.

Limited wattage-per-bulb and voltage-drop concerns when running long lines of light can be other disadvantages. That said, low-voltage lighting systems are readily available in a wide variety of fixtures and produce a true white light.


Available in numerous light colours/strengths, LEDs are extremely energy-efficient and offer very long bulb life. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, an LED system costs more initially than low-voltage. However, since LEDs use only a fraction of the energy of a halogen or incandescent bulb, the return on investment (ROI) over time can be quite significant.


Though this lighting method is inexpensive and comes in a multitude of light colours, it may not be appropriate for most applications. In many cases, the light output of solar lights can be too dull and they can have a relatively short life span.

Light pollution

This lighted scene used multiple effects of grazing, spot lighting, and up-lighting.

Light pollution is the result of improperly shielded outdoor lighting that directs light into the night sky. Poorly planned lighting can also cause light trespass into unwanted areas, such as a neighbour’s windows.

In the past 100 years, our sky has turned from one that is black and star-lit to one with a dull orangey glow, disrupting circadian rhythms and causing hormone imbalances of all living organisms. The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) was created in 1988 to guard against sky-glow, and since then, many cities worldwide have joined.

To minimize your ecological footprint, consider the following:

Although its impact often has the greatest effect, outdoor lighting is the much-needed final, yet frequently overlooked step in many landscaping plans. Why leave your gorgeous outdoor space invisible after sunset? Make maximum use of your investment and don’t dare disregard those fascinating, enchanting, and captivating outdoor lights.

Since 2001, award-winning landscape designer and garden writer, Melanie Rekola, has been making backyard dreams a reality. Offering inspired landscape design and consultative services throughout Ontario, and remotely to contractors throughout Canada and the U.S., she is one of the luck few to have found their life’s passion. Rekola can be contacted via e-mail at[7]. For more information, visit her website[8].

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