How To Choose the Best Outdoor Lighting, According to Pros
Summer is just around the corner and many people are eager to finally make use of their outdoor spaces. It’s easy enough to throw together some patio furniture and call it day. But, when night falls, you might still want to chill outside or throw a starlit get-together — which is when lighting really makes a difference.
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Of course, everyone has different types of spaces and needs, whether working with a tiny balcony or sprawling yard. So, how do you choose the best lighting for your outdoor area? We spoke to lighting experts and landscape designers to get the answers. They shared their top tips on how to illuminate your space — from picking out fixtures to setting a cozy vibe.
Consider the surrounding environment
Start by analyzing how much light you already have coming in from your interiors and neighboring properties. That way, you can determine the punch you need for outdoor lights. “For example, in a rural area where there is less surrounding light, smaller fixtures with lower wattages will work because there is nothing else competing with them,” explains Katherine Field, founder and principal of her eponymous landscape design company Katherine Field and Associates. “Conversely, in a large city with a smaller backyard, there may be considerable light from the outside, so you may want to go with more wattage.”
Design for the size space you have
For smaller spaces, outdoor lighting can help the interiors feel larger. “Even if you were just lighting a balcony or a small deck, you’re able to expand your view beyond the windows,” says Randall Whitehead, designer and author of “Beautiful Light,” who likes to start with “a wash of illumination.” This could come from directional fixtures that are mounted above the windows or sliding glass doors. Nathan Orsman, founder and principal of Orsman Design, suggests lanterns, torchieres, and string lights for small spaces, too.
Meanwhile, for bigger backyards, you’ll want to layer the lighting. “This means adding different types of lighting to create a visually interesting environment,” says Whitehead. “Decorative lanterns and hanging fixtures mounted in gazebos or even from tree branches add a visual sparkle to the garden. Directional accent lights, pointed up towards trees, can add a sense of verticality.” Whitehead notes that you can use a solar-powered system so that no wiring is required, which works especially well if you are renting.
Opt for soft, warm light
The temperature of your lighting is key to creating the right ambience, says Orsman. “2400 to 2700 Kelvin would be the choice. In more layman’s terms, warm white,” he elaborates. “But for my biggest suggestion, test the lighting before you buy it, if that’s at all possible.” The vibe you should aim for? “Warm and yummy!”
It’s also important to create a softer glow. Minimize the glare from open bulbs or clear glass with dimmers, says Orsman. “The exposed filament creates glare, makes you squint, and see less. So, the softer the light, the better the experience.” Whitehead also suggests choosing fixtures with frosted glass to help with this, too.
But avoid over-lighting. Don’t go overboard with sources. “Darkness and quietness between illuminated moments creates a story,” says Orsman.
Illuminate pathways for safety
For paths and entryways, safety and wayfinding are the most important design criteria, says Field. But again, excess lighting here is a no-go. “Unless there is a change in grade along the path, you don’t need to over-illuminate every square inch,” says Field.
Avoid fixtures like pagoda lights, which draw attention to themselves rather than the path, suggests Whitehead. Instead, opt for styles that are shielded and project light only where intended — like ones with an opaque cap. “The less you physically see into the fixture, the more your eye can see [on the path], which makes things safer and more beautiful,” explains Orsman.
A pair of lanterns flanking the front door is always a sure bet, too, says Whitehead. He notes that adding this type of lighting — especially in the front yard — can even increase curb appeal.
Set the mood
The beauty of lighting is that it can totally change the tone and feel of a space. So, whether you are having an intimate date night or hosting a dinner party alfresco, your illumination can help accommodate the scene. “Whenever we are installing outdoor lights we always make sure they are dimmable,” says Field. “This allows our clients to create multiple moods.”
For entertaining spaces, dreamy string lights are a favorite. “We typically attach these lights to a stainless cable so they do not swing in the wind and keep taut,” advises Field. Field also likes to use of portable solar lights, like the Ray or Nest from Gloster. “These can be moved about a space and create a beautiful shadow pattern,” he says
When dining, it’s important to have light in the middle of the table, Orsman adds. You might top off the tablescape with smaller fixtures. “Rechargeable lanterns are always great. Two of my go-tos are the Pina Pro Lamp and Poldina Pro from Zafferano,” says Orsman. “Putting the effort in with candles and hurricanes is always the golden touch.
Highlight your garden
Of course, you can’t forget about illuminating the garden. The key is to use uplighting for the underside of canopies and downlighting to see planting beds below, says Orsman. “This is an opportunity to cast shadows of the tree limbs and leaves, creating more beauty and interest at night,” he notes. “And again, I always suggest dimming. Play with the dimmer, turn it up and down, and find that magic moment.”
Field also likes playing with the texture of the plant material. “For example, creating a glow inside ornamental grasses to highlight their form and create interesting shadows,” she says.
Once the garden lighting is finally installed, Whitehead suggests putting it on a timer, so that the lighting comes on automatically just before dusk and then turns off at the time you normally retire.