Outdoor Lighting Options and Design Ideas for Your Backyard
Looking to light up your outdoor living spaces like a deck, patio or porch? Learn how to create an outdoor lighting plan. Plus, find clever DIY ideas, the newest lighting trends and product suggestions.
Options for illuminating your backyard can run the gamut from candles to elaborate outdoor chandeliers. Spotlights and floodlights are great for security, but they’re not ideal for a summer alfresco dinner party. A combination of light sources is the best choice. When creating a lighting plan, you want to have the three main types of lighting — ambient, task and indirect.
Inviting, Mediterranean Patio With Outdoor Dining
Dining al fresco never felt so intimate despite the large patio. The patio is carefully divided into spaces that all flow together, from the dining area to the cozy seating areas. Market lights strung from the house to the tree create a warm and romantic atmosphere.
Mark Pinkerton, vi360
Outdoor Ambient Lighting
Ambient or all-over lighting should spread through your entire outdoor living space. Your home is probably equipped with a lantern-style light fixture by the backdoor or some spotlights hanging under the eaves. Yes, these might illuminate your entire yard, but since those lights are meant more for security than entertaining, they'll likely be too bright for your outdoor living space. Having strong lights like those in an outdoor space can make it hard for your eyes to adjust because you have extremely bright areas next to extremely dark areas; you're better off with wider dimly lit spaces. Try low levels of lighting all around the perimeter of your outdoor living space. It’ll be more relaxing, safer and it can set a mood that is more conducive to entertaining.
For an open-air patio or deck, overhead string lights are a smart choice — they’re customizable, easy to install or hang, and they’re inexpensive. If your outdoor living space is covered by a pergola or a canopy tent, string lights can be used to outline the structure. Tiki torches set around the perimeter of your deck or patio can also fill a space with light. Lamp oil for torches also has the benefit of repelling mosquitos, and, as with solar torches, you won’t have to worry about running electric cords or wires.
If you have a covered outdoor dining area — whether it’s a tent canopy or a permanent structure — consider hanging an outdoor chandelier or light fixture for ambient lighting. Budget options include large paper lanterns outfitted with a simple single-socket electrical cord — just make sure to bring it inside before it rains. Weatherproof electrical chandeliers are readily available in a variety of price ranges and styles. For a non-electrical DIY option, upcycle an old chandelier into a “candle-lier,” which can be inexpensively made by pulling out all the electrical components and inserting candles where the lightbulbs used to be.
For covered patios or permanent outdoor structures, a lighted ceiling fan can illuminate your space as well as provide a cool breeze that can deter pesky bugs. Again, make sure the fixture you choose is rated for outdoor use. A fixture with dimmable lights is also a plus.
Low-maintenance, high-performance, eco-friendly decking can withstand changing weather and outdoor elements while still maintaining a polished style. Up above, an outdoor ceiling fan keep the breeze moving even on hot and humid days.
Outdoor Task Lighting
For an outdoor living space, task lighting will be determined by what activities you’ll be doing in the space. This might be illuminating your outdoor grilling area or lanterns on your picnic table so you can see what you’re cooking and eating. Portable outdoor lamps, large candles in decorative hurricanes or lighting installed on the underside of an umbrella are all inexpensive choices for illuminating an outdoor table for dining or playing games.
Outdoor Dining Table With Candles
For a centerpiece, a collection of candles in big and little glass hurricanes is an eye-catching choice. Light them as the sun goes down and the magic continues.
Julie Soefer Photography
Pathway and staircase lighting are essential task lighting for safety, but they can also add a lot of ambiance and style. Low-voltage lighting and solar stakes (aka spikes) are available in a variety of styles and price ranges. Low-voltage kits will take the guesswork out of installation. They include all the necessary components, like the transformer (it transforms the 120-power from your house to a safe low-voltage charge), wiring and instructions, and they often come with a timer or an automatic motion or light sensor. These kits start around $75 and go up to a few hundred dollars. If your home does not have an outdoor outlet, you’ll need an electrician to install one. That added cost may mean solar is a more cost-efficient option. For staircases, retro-fitting lights in concrete steps may not be possible, but low-voltage or hardwired lights can be added to a wooden staircase.
Fire Pit Space
This outdoor oasis features two welcoming entertaining areas. An intimate lower patio featuring a fire pit is separated by beautifully landscape stairway leading up to an upper patio area.
Outdoor Indirect Lighting
Use indirect lighting to help set the mood or highlight a feature. This is the type of lighting where you can get really creative, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot because there are many DIY options.
- Rope lights hung on the underside of a deck railing or along a retaining wall will give off just enough light to define the space. Bonus: They come in a variety of colors. Solar deck lights can be attached to railings, posts or on staircase risers to add a glow and increase safety.
- If you have a water feature or pool, light it up. Water reflects light and creates an interesting glow. Waterproof lighting is becoming very popular with some really stylish options like glowing orbs that float.
- Citronella candles placed on side tables or hung on small shepherd hooks can provide a little extra light and repel bugs.
- Fairy lights placed inside large jars, hurricanes and lanterns can make for a custom seasonal display.
- String lights — the type you use for holiday decor — can be used in a number of ways throughout your yard. Hang them like a curtain from a tree or on an outside wall to make a dramatic statement.
String Lights and Lanterns Illuminate Garden
String up lights and lanterns around your outdoor space to give an enchanting twinkle to any garden party. The soft glow will invite everyone to linger outside in the nighttime summer air. Line lanterns and smaller string lights around your seating area, and hang a few off tree branches for a touch of ambiance.
Outdoor Lighting Basics
When it comes to bulbs, LED bulbs cost more upfront, they last much longer than incandescent and are more energy-efficient. If you'll be hanging lights at a low height, opt for shatterproof plastic bulbs to prevent accidents. Edison-style bulbs offer a dim, warm glow, while globe and holiday-style lights provide brighter diffused light. Avoid high Kelvin LED bulbs that give off white light — no more than 3,000 Kelvins. Try amber-colored bulbs, they give off a warm glow.
Outdoor Dining Area With Chandelier
The secluded backyard is an outdoor gem with a pool, hot tub and a shaded outdoor dining area. At night, let the chandelier lights twinkle.
The landscape lighting that requires the greatest effort to install is 120-volt lighting. Wiring for these types of garden lights must be buried at a depth of 18 inches or encased in conduit to protect it from water. A licensed electrician must install these electrical components.
Low-voltage landscape lighting needs only an outdoor receptacle (outlet) and a transformer. The transformer converts the 120 volts coming from the household line to a safe 12 volts to operate the lights.
The easiest landscape lighting to place in the backyard is solar lighting. This type of lighting has no wires to be hidden. Of course, to get the most out of solar lighting, it needs to be positioned in such a way that the photovoltaic cell receives enough sunlight during the day to allow it to shine throughout the night.
Landscape lighting is an important safety element for any outdoor space. In this garden, a series of path lights illuminates the meandering walkway that leads to the destination terrace.
Outdoor Lighting Trends
Advances in technology, plus the trend for more outdoor living, have made lighting companies step up their landscape-lighting game with a variety of options from chic classic lanterns to glowing orbs. Check out what’s hot in the world of outdoor lighting.
- Portable lighting We’re talking more than just lanterns, candles and tiki torches. LED wireless “lamps” come in a variety of sizes and shapes — cubes, globes or oval river rocks are the most common. These glowing orbs and cylinders can serve as art or furniture as well as lighting. Many of these lights run on smart technology so you can program timing, color and brightness. Plus, they are waterproof, so go ahead and place them poolside or in a water feature. Other portable options to keep an eye out for are floor lamps, table lamps and hanging lightbulbs — these are portable lightbulbs that you can hang on a hook, perfect for camping.
- High-end fixtures that look like fancy indoor lighting: Whereas a lot of landscape lighting is hidden, porch lanterns, sconces and overhead fixtures are out in the open for all to see. So, homeowners are splurging on more stylized lighting that makes a statement and heightens the home’s architecture.
- Color-changing lights: Lighting up your yard in various hues for holidays and special occasions is easier than ever. Options range from bulbs to fixtures. They are DIY friendly, often Bluetooth enabled and most operate off a remote or app. There are several low-voltage and solar path lighting kits, spotlights, outdoor lamps and even 100-foot-long LED strip lights that can be programmed to flash to the beat of your music. Smart LED color-changing lightbulbs start around $15 and can be installed into most existing fixtures.
- Moonlighting: This type of lighting came on the scene a few years ago and is still gaining in popularity. Moonlighting is downward-facing floodlights that are meant to mimic natural moonlight. It is most often placed high — about 20-to-25 feet — in a tree to cast dappled light through the tree’s canopy. This type of lighting is more about being attractive and setting a mood and less about safety or security.
- Dark-sky-friendly lighting: Light pollution makes it impossible or nearly impossible to see the night sky in populated areas. Plus, too much artificial light can affect human health, as well as wildlife, and is a waste of energy. Many communities are implementing dark sky initiatives and codes to regulate light pollution. Dark-sky-friendly lighting is shielded (points downward) and contains minimal blue light. Blue lights brighten the sky more than any other color. The International Dark Sky Association (DSA) suggests using lighting that is warm or a lower color temperature — no more than 3,000 Kelvins (the higher the Kelvin, the bluer it is). When shopping for new lighting, look for the Dark Sky Approved seal. The DSA provides a list of manufacturers that sell dark-sky-approved products.
- Hardscape lighting: Over the last few years homeowners are increasingly investing in their outdoor living spaces. They’re building more permanent hardscaping like retaining walls, staircases, fireplaces and outdoor kitchens. So, it only makes sense that they’re going to integrate lighting into these structures. Hardwiring the hardscaping as it is being built is the ideal situation, but if that’s not an option, it is likely that low-voltage and solar lighting can be retro-fitted.
A patio is a great way to add extra living space and increase your home’s value. Find patio design inspiration and practical tips from professional builders on how to create the backyard of your dreams.