Guide to Landscape Lighting Design: How to Light Your Yard
Any photographer, filmmaker, or theater director will tell you: lighting is crucial to composing a scene. Come nightfall, the same principle applies to landscapes.
Lighting shapes people’s experience of the outdoors at night, ensuring safety, establishing focal points, setting a mood, and most importantly, helping people to remain outside enjoying themselves deep into the evening hours.
What are the different types of lights used in a landscape? How can you successfully include a lighting system in a landscape design?
We’ll examine these questions and more below, looking along the way at a few examples of lighting in Yardzen landscape designs.
Types of Landscape and Outdoor Lighting
Perhaps the most common type of landscape lighting, path lights are shin-height, vertical fixtures that cast light downward (also called downlighting) to illuminate paths in a landscape design.
Path lights aim for safe illumination along the entire length of a path. It’s ok for brightness to swell and fade a bit, but not dramatically so – for safety and ease of movement, lighting should remain relatively even and avoid sudden shifts between darkness and light.
Path Light Tips:
One path light every 15’ is a good rule of thumb for spacing, though brightness and distance of illumination vary from fixture to fixture (defer to manufacturers’ recommended spacing when available).
A light on one side is usually enough. Lights can alternate sides along the path, or stick to one edge – either option looks sharp. Paths wider than 6’ may want lights directly across from each other, but for normal paths this isn’t necessary.
Begin by placing a light at each end of a path. For short paths, two fixtures may be enough, but if you need more, place them at corners or at the apex of curves along the path. For straight paths, space additional fixtures evenly.
Avoid trip hazards. This is a biggie – kicking a light that you didn’t see hurts, and can cause a tumble. Tuck path lights into the front edge of planting areas or other adjacent spaces, safely out of the path of travel.
Avoid placing lights on a path edge shared with a lawn, as people may step off a path onto a lawn at any moment. If a path is surrounded by lawn, place path lights conspicuously to make them easy to avoid.
Path lights are also decorative elements. Use them to emphasize key moments, or to mark a steady rhythm for the eye to follow.
Looking for path light recommendations? The Westley and Feldis path lights look great across a range of styles and fade gracefully into the background during daylight hours. Both are low-voltage lighting fixtures—this is the most common option for residential lighting because they are generally easier and safer to install and don’t require the help of a licensed electrician.
Keep in mind that even if you’re using only low-voltage lighting in your landscape, you or your contractor will still need to consider the transformer used for lighting installation.
Uplights are tiny spotlights (often incorrectly called a floodlight) that sit at the base of focal elements, directing light upward. Their effect is dramatic.
Uplights are a form of accent lighting used most to commonly light up trees or other tall elements, but they can also be used to wash a fan of light along a wall or fence – a good trick to flank entrances or mark a rhythm along a back fence.
Uplight Design Tips:
Multi-trunked specimen trees look particularly stunning with uplights. Palo Verde, Desert Willow, Dr. Hurd Manzanita, and Olives are among the many sculptural species worthy of uplighting.
Don’t overdo it. Too many uplights make for a messy, hyperbolic scene – when everything is highlighted, nothing is highlighted. For a clean, intentional, powerful look, limit uplighting to a small number of key focal points.
Turn off the lights when you are done for the night. While beautiful, uplights can disrupt local ecosystems and contribute more directly to light pollution than lights that shine downward. Enjoy uplights while you are outside, but shut them off when the evening ends.
Recessed lighting buries the body of the light within a wall, paving, decking, or other feature, so that only the framed lens of the light is visible. They look like a small, glowing shape within the surface of a built feature.
Landscape designs, especially modern ones, commonly feature recessed lighting in the risers of stairs, on the face of concrete walls, or pointing upward along the edge of a deck.
Recessed Light Tips:
Recessed lights cannot be placed into existing concrete features – you’d have to break the concrete to get the light into it. New concrete features, on the other hand, can accommodate recessed lighting by including designated space to hold the fixture and its wiring.
Recessed lights work differently than path lights. In-ground recessed lights direct light upward. This is useful for indicating the edge of a deck or path, but does not cast much light across the actual walking surface. If your aim is to light an entire path, we suggest above-ground fixtures.
Looking for recessed light recommendations? For in-ground applications, we recommend this compact well light, or, for higher traffic zones, this heavy duty aluminum light. For vertical surfaces like walls or stair risers, we love the sleek design of Luna step light by Hinkley. These fixtures are all low-voltage.
Deck lights are usually mounted as downlighting on the posts of railings or pergolas where they project light downward, though some “up/down” models cast light upward as well.
As with any landscape light fixture, deck lights can be minimal, or more decorative.
Deck Light Tips:
Mount deck lights high up on the posts of railings to maximize the spread of their illumination.
Deck lights can also be mounted on the underside of built features. Try deck lights under the top rail of deck railings, or even underneath built-in benches. LED strip lighting, which runs longer distances, is often a great choice for this approach.
Looking for deck light recommendations? Try the low-voltage Nuvi Bronze Deck Light by Hinkley.
Also called cafe, catenary, or bistro lighting, string lights are a cost effective, charming way to brighten up outdoor spaces and create ambiance.
String lights plug directly into standard electrical outlets, making them a breeze to install, and convenient for use as a temporary or permanent feature in a landscape design.
String Light Tips:
Go easy. String lights look great at night, but look like power lines during the day. Use enough to achieve the illumination and style you need, but no more. Avoid running string lights across key views, or dangling them over long distances.
Mount string lights to existing infrastructure. Lace them along the underside of pergolas or covered patios, or hitch them to the top of fence posts or eaves.
You can also hang lights from basic wood posts. String lights are lightweight, and require only a slender post with a firm anchor (typically a concrete footing) to support their weight. DIY types can manage this themselves with a plant container. You can also buy readymade string light pole kits, though we recommend sturdier, more permanent solutions to avoid maintenance issues down the road.
Looking for string light recommendations? We love CB2’s Edison String Lights.
Hanging lights are a step up from string lights, and highly effective at bringing an elevated, indoor feel to outdoor spaces.
Because they attract attention, and because we associate them with the indoors, hanging lights have an outsized impact on the perceived style of a space. Consequently, they offer designers a simple but very effective way to ramp up the style of outdoor spaces.
Hanging Light Tips:
Hang a single showpiece light for a more formal look.
For an eclectic, Bohemian feel, cluster a few fixtures together, hanging them at different heights.
Choose a fixture to suit the scale of the space. Small space? Smaller fixture. Large space? Larger fixture, or, distribute multiple fixtures over a few key areas.
Looking for hanging light recommendations? This Nyack bronze lantern is a showstopper, and this Quoizel Westover light works beautifully across a broad range of design styles. Those seeking a casual feel could also try this Civic hanging light, and modern aficionados will love this Capsule light.
Wall lights typically mount to the wall of the house, shining down or out from well above eye level. When outdoor spaces are located adjacent to the house, wall lights can be a key source of illumination.
Wall lights come in a dizzying variety of styles, and go a long way toward establishing a look for both the home and its exterior spaces.
Wall Light Tips:
Place wall lights near exterior doors. This makes for easy wayfinding, and highlights a natural focal point.
Wall lights are highly visible – don’t go overboard. A bright light mounted up high is a bold gesture. A few carefully placed lights will bring out the best in your home’s exterior, but, as with uplights, too many wall lights gets to be a bit over-the-top.
Looking for wall light recommendations? The Arrington is a standby, at home in numerous design styles. You can say the same for the Avani. The Double Box is stunning, with a pale brass finish that looks particularly sharp in warm climates. Farmhouse fans will love the Gough wall light.
Landscape Lighting Design Tips
Invisible by Day, Attractive by Night
As a general rule, landscape lighting fixtures should come to life at night, and recede into the background during the day. It’s often best when you don’t notice the fixtures at all during daylight hours.
This rule applies mostly to path and deck light layouts, which physically intervene in people’s experience of a yard more directly than other lighting types.
There are some exceptions to this rule. Some path lights are meant to be showy, and are positioned conspicuously for their decorative value during daylight hours. Hanging lights are almost always selected for visual impact, as are many wall lights.
For the most part, however, landscape light fixtures feel most cohesive within a landscape design when they attract as little attention to themselves as possible during the daytime.
For this reason, selecting understated fixtures and finding ways to de-emphasize their presence tends to be a winning strategy, directing people’s attention to the big picture design rather than little lighting details.
Glare occurs when lights are directed upward into people’s eyes. In addition to being uncomfortable, glare can be a safety issue with respect to limiting people’s ability to navigate paths or stairs.
Landscape lighting system selections should prioritize avoiding glare. Direct uplights away from paths or other gathering spaces, choose path lights that cast light downward, and make sure in-ground lighting keeps its light to the edges of the path of travel.
In dark landscapes, our eyes instinctively go to sources of light.
Bearing this in mind, designers can use landscape lighting to add extra emphasis to focal points like exterior doors, specimen trees, or structural features like pergolas.
Lighting can also be employed to moderate the perceived size of a landscape at night.
By placing lights in the distance, a yard can be made to seem larger. Keeping lights close and allowing the background to remain dark will make a night landscape feel smaller.
Cohesiveness is all in landscape designs. Landscapes are at their best when all their different elements work together as a harmonious whole.
In this spirit, select landscape light fixtures that express a consistent style. Not everything needs to perfectly match, but each fixture should make sense with the others.
Lights Off at Evening’s End
We mentioned this already, but it bears repeating: enjoy your landscape lighting while you are outside, but avoid leaving lights on all night.
By turning out the lights when they’re not in use, you can do your part to reduce light pollution and support local ecosystems.
Landscape Lighting in Yardzen Designs
Now that you know a bit about lighting in landscape designs, let’s take a look at some Yardzen projects for lighting inspiration.
Mill Valley, CA
St. George, UT
San Rafael, CA
El Dorado Hills, CA
GET STARTED WITH YOUR LANDSCAPE DESIGN BY YARDZEN
Yardzen’s award-winning online landscape and exterior design is tailored to homeowners in all fifty states in the US, and can include outdoor lighting design to help you live better outside, even after dark.
Whether your goal is creating more functional outdoor living space or beautifying your home exterior, we can create a design that meets your needs and style preferences.
Our design process begins with understanding your space, your aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build.
Our top-notch designers then develop a personalized vision for your yard, shared through 3D renderings, 2D plan drawings, and plant and material lists. Your design will capture the look, feel, and function you are hoping for, all while keeping costs within range.
Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design.