Guidelines for Illuminating Your Outside Spaces

When choosing outdoor landscape lighting for a patio, first think how you will use the patio. Do you want to see an ambient space out your window? Does it need to be easily walkable at night? Will you be holding al fresco dinner parties? Would you like to include an open-air dance floor? Do you want to create a cozy nook for a nightcap around a fire pit?

If you have one activity in mind, you can keep the lighting simple with a single switch for all lights. If you want to use the patio space for several activities, you may want options. To diversify how your patio is lit, you can arrange the lighting into different switched zones, creating flexibility in how the space feels at night. Here are five different ways to create unique lighting for your patio.

1. Provide Functional Light

In ancient times, sailors preferred dim light to eat their hard tack in ship galleys so they wouldn’t see what their not-so-enticing food. In the 21st century, if you have a dinner table outdoors, you will likely want to see your entire spread, as well as your guests! Downlights, or directional spot lights with bright light, can be mounted on pergolas, walls, or trees to specifically light a table. For these zones, it is important to provide more lumens with higher wattage lamps.

If you want to provide illumination for safe walking, you can use path lights elevated on posts to cast broad light over walking surfaces. Stairs and precarious edges of patios are especially important to provide clear, direct lighting. If you are building a new patio, you can put recessed lights in the flatwork and riser lights in steps to provide illumination right where you need it.

    2. Define the Edges

    Lighting the edges of your patio or the adjacent landscape can be for function or for feel. Sometimes it is nice to look out the window and see orderly lighting on the edge of a patio. It will make you feel comfortable by extending your visible perimeter when you hear a spooky sound outside. In addition, you can light objects in the landscape adjacent to the patio such as boulders, art, tree trunks or plants. This makes the patio feel safe and defined even if you aren’t lighting the patio itself.

    Use path lights or recessed lights to light the edge of paving. Use broad beamed wash lights to illuminate boulders and low plants for low detail textures and colors. Use directional narrow beam up lights or spot lights to focus on art pieces, tree trunks, or specimen plants.

    3. Create an Outdoor Room

    It is amazing how a patio can feel open and exposed in the day, but warm and cozy at night with proper lighting. Rooms are intended to be comfortable with walls and ceilings at proportionate heights. Ancient Greek architecture used the golden ratio of 1:1.61; create a comfortable patio space with a width 1.61 times wider than the perceived ceiling height. As a rule of thumb, you can strategically light things to make the space feel a bit wider than it is tall. Use whatever is around – trees, bushes, walls, pergolas, fences – to emphasize this feel. Lighting a few select features will cause your mind to connect the dots and feel the geometry of a room you have created.

    Trees are great for this use because you can up light the trunk to create a wall and feather the light into the canopy to define the ceiling at the right height. Built structures like pergolas are nice because they can be customized and can provide opportunities to up light, down light, or create wall or ceiling light patterns.

    4. Create Ambiance

    People often say they want low lighting to create an ambiance in their yard. This is not the light for eating your dinner, but it can be stunning in its simplicity. As mentioned before, lighting edges can really create a cozy feel. You can also extend your visible perimeter to more distant features such as trees, plants, art, or even barriers. Use wide angle wash lights to make secluded shrubs and boulders glow. Use directional narrow angle lights to illuminate focal points. For example, a red barked multi trunk tree can be up lit to create a mesmerizing floating warm glow in the distance. You can arrange a line of lights on an isolated or remote hedge or wall to define a wider perimeter of visual space to feel more secure in a brighter lit patio. Moonlights, or hanging pendant lights, can be set high in trees and create a whimsical moonlit forest feel. These are even more stunning if set over a branch to create a shadow pattern on the ground.

    Keep in mind that the color of things you light will permeate into the ambient light in a space. You can focus on greens and cool tones to create a calm space. You can focus on reds and warm colors to create a warmer, cozier light. You can also choose warmer or cooler tone lamps/bulbs by using the kelvin rating (A low rating of 2700k is yellow and warm, and a high rating of 4100k is bright white).

    And don’t forget the ever-popular bistro lights. These typically low wattage bulbs dangle from strings stretched overhead to provide full area illumination. Bistro lights can be great for a party area because they light the entire zone with semi-dim light. Like a dim bar experience, you may not be able to see your food perfectly, but it is a very nice ambiance for a dance floor or casual hangout. When arranging string lights, consider the density of bulbs for even lighting. Also keep in mind that you would like these strings to look okay during the day, so create intentional patterns and avoid tangled webs. Use built structures, poles, or trees to secure them at a comfortable height.

    5. Display Artistic Patterns

    These days there are incredible fixtures you can use to create patterns on the ground, walls, and ceilings. When you are creating defined patterns for a contemporary look, it is important to map them out with a measuring tape. You are usually working with fans of light over a flat surface. In some cases, you are illuminating things that were already installed in an orderly fashion like equally spaced trees or wooden posts.

    You can use recessed lights in patio flatwork to shoot low fans of light from a central can fixture. Often these have 2, 3, or 4 radiating fans of light that can create a geometric pattern on a ground plane. You can use sconce lights on walls or wall columns to create downward or upward fans of light, equally spaced. Some sconces have both up and down light to create an hourglass light pattern. When lighting existing trees or built structures that are already equally spaced, use directional spot lights to create a uniform rhythm. For example, fences usually have equal spaced posts and panels which can be lit by narrow or wide angle up lights, respectively.

    Mix it Up

    As you can see, these five techniques are not mutually exclusive. By using one, two, or several, you can really make your outdoor areas come alive at night. Choose what works best for you and your space, and light it up!