Outdoor Lighting Tips for Beginners

Consult our DIY guide for illuminating your landscape.
Architectural Lighting

Architectural Lighting

If you want to focus on the architecture of your home instead of your landscape, you can choose from a wide variety of lighting styles. The subtle scheme in this photo will create a moonlight effect after the sun goes down resulting in soft, inviting highlights as if moonbeams were lighting the property.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Pinnacle Lighting Group

Image courtesy of Pinnacle Lighting Group

If you want to focus on the architecture of your home instead of your landscape, you can choose from a wide variety of lighting styles. The subtle scheme in this photo will create a moonlight effect after the sun goes down resulting in soft, inviting highlights as if moonbeams were lighting the property.

Creating an outdoor lighting design for your house and yard might not be at the top of your home improvement “to do” list but there are practical and aesthetic reasons for doing it, from increasing the security and safety of your property to providing additional curb appeal at night.

James Burks of Pinnacle Lighting Group has some helpful tips on how you can create simple but professional looking exterior lighting effects on your own without the expense of hiring a lighting design company to create it.

1. Getting Started

The first thing you need to consider is your current setup for exterior lighting. Do you have lighting fixtures already installed or the necessary outlets and/or connections for the job at hand? Many newly constructed homes in residential areas are often equipped with outdoor lighting sources on the left and right corners of the house. If you don’t have a basic setup like this, you should hire an electrician to do it. If you have a home with a less conventional facade and architectural features that  extend or recede from a standard straight line layout across the front, you might consider installing additional light sources to highlight these areas.

2. Picking Your Subject

Regardless of whether you are lighting your front or backyard, you need to decide what you want to highlight in your design. Is it your landscape, specific trees or shrubs, a fountain or maybe a courtyard area? In most cases, exterior lighting sources are as high as the eaves of houses or higher with the light shining down, but there are always exceptions to this. For example, Burks says, “If it’s a newly installed landscape project and it’s not a very mature landscape, you’re probably only going to be able to go from the ground up. The problem with trying to light landscape for the first time is our brains are used to having the light shine down from the sun and the moon.” If you are only interested in lighting something specific like a walkway, you may find that you can accomplish that effectively with ground lighting or a combination of high and low lights for the best results.

3. Choices of Light

Your choices for exterior lighting are primarily going to be flood lights, spotlights or path lights and you might want to consider a combination of all three depending on how elaborate you want your lighting schema to be. Flood lights will cast a wide beam suitable for illuminating a large area but spot lights will disperse a narrower beam of light, usually less than 45 degrees wide. Path lights, of course, are most effective for lighting walkways and paths.

Your next decision will be to choose whether you want to go with LED, halogen or fluorescent lighting. Halogen bulbs produce a higher intensity light that is whiter and brighter than fluorescent. They also use more electricity and emit considerable heat compared to fluorescent lighting which produces very little heat while giving off cool, visible light. Fluorescent lighting is also less inexpensive and more energy efficient than halogen but the bulbs do present a possible health risk if broken because they contain mercury, which is toxic.

LED, on the other hand, is quickly becoming the standard favorite because of its performance. Burks states that LED is “longer lasting and the energy consumption is a lot less.” Whereas a 50 watt halogen light might have been the most effective choice for a homeowner in the past, a six or seven watt LED light can produce the same effect now. As an example, Burks states, “We worked on a project up in Cleveland and we took out 18,500 watts [halogen] and replaced it with 3500 watts [LED] and got a lot better coverage. You can do so much with so little.”

If you are budget conscious, keep in mind that LED is going to cost more than halogen or fluorescent lighting. 

4. Color Temperature and Degrees

Another important consideration in exterior lighting design is the correlated color temperature (CCT). This is the color of light produced by the light source and is measured on a temperature scale referred to as Kelvin (K). The higher the Kelvin value of the light source, the closer the light’s color hue will be to actual sunlight. When you are purchasing a bulb, the Kelvin value will be noted on the packaging. For example, if you want the lighting to have a blue hue, look for bulbs in the 4200K range. For an amber hue, choose bulbs with an output of 3500K or lower while a range of 3500-4100K will give you a white hue.

As examples of applications, Burks suggests lighting green trees or shrubs with a 4200K light. “It’s a little bit bluer and that blue makes that green greener. For any light that is shining on stone that is either brown or tan, you’ve got to go with a 2700K light because it makes the brown browner. If it’s a darker color, black or gray, then you have to go up the Kelvin [scale] to 4200K because that blue makes the gray grayer, the black blacker.”

5. Creating Effects

For a first time lighting designer, the degree spread of the lamp is important when considering what you want to illuminate. You also want to make sure you purchase fixtures for all external lights so that the light source is hidden or obscured. 

When creating your lighting configuration, keep in mind that a spotlight has a 15 degree spread, a narrow flood light offers 30 degree coverage and a wide flood light has a 60 degree saturation. If you want to highlight the front landscape of your house, Burks recommends using flood lights that are shining down from the corner eaves. “If you were to go with a 15 or 30 degree [light], you’re not going to light up all of the plants so go with as wide of a beam spread as you can.” You would take the same approach if you wanted to accent the facade of your house with a wall-washing effect. Shining the light along the side of the wall in a sideways angle will give it an even and soothing glow.

If you want to illuminate a garden or path in your yard, you could place the light inside a tree or a trellis facing down over the desired area of focus. This is known as downlighting. Moonlighting is a similar effect that is achieved by placing a large light fixture with a full glare guard high up in a tree and angled toward the ground so that it creates shadow patterns on the ground resembling natural moonlight. Another lighting effect is silhouetting which you accomplish by placing a spotlight behind a feature, creating an illuminated backdrop. This is ideal for displaying the dark outline of a striking specimen plant or topiary or even a sculpture.

6. Final Checklist

Test your lighting scheme for any corrections or changes you may need to make, taking into consideration the surroundings of your neighbors. You don’t want to have any lights that are shining or reflecting from other surfaces directly into neighbors' windows. This is a form of light pollution.

Make sure you have the appropriate fixtures for your exterior lights. The fixture should have a shield on it to box the light source and prevent people seeing it from the street. “When people drive by,” Burks states, “you don’t want them to be thinking about the lighting. You want them to think, “Wow, look at their property.” 

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