The first step, as with any project, is to plan. How do you want to use this space after dark, and what lighting will you need? Lighting can be summarized in four categories:
Security lighting is needed in highly vulnerable areas of your property. Because it is bright and often motion activated, keep it away from the living areas so that it’s not distracting. Alternatively, have your security lighting on a manual on/off switch so that you can override automatic illumination.
Task lighting is for performing specific activities such as grilling or walking safely up and down steps and along paths. You should place task lighting between your eyes and the object that needs to be lighted and should take care that it does not glare. An overly bright light will blind rather than guide.
Accent lighting adds drama or can highlight an unusual feature. Uplighting, for example can illuminate an interesting piece of statuary. Silhouetting, achieved by placing a light between an object and a fence or wall, dramatically displays an unusual tree or bush.
General or ambient lighting provides overall illumination so that people feel comfortable and look good. The most magical of lighting imitates what is found in nature – moonlight or starlight. Moonlighting is produced by hanging lights in mature trees, pointing downward to produce a dappled effect, as if the area were lit by a full moon. The look of starlight can be achieved through the use of flickering candles, sprinkled here and there throughout the space, or by suspending tiny lights in the branches of a tree to create a sparkling night time canopy. Of course, there are many other attractive types of light – some just plain fun!
No matter what type of lighting you choose, it will be powered by one of these sources. Fire is the oldest source of light and considered by some to be the most romantic. Flames, produced by candles or oil-burning lamps, are warm and flattering to faces, and have a hypnotic effect that induces calm and relaxation. Firelight on reflected surfaces such as ponds, mirrors and even gazing balls is a particularly effective way to create atmospheric lighting and enhance the impression of light.
Try snaking a row of candles along a garden path or suspending them in glass jars from branches. An array of tiki burning torches can add an exotic touch to your patio area. Although torches are designed to withstand a reasonable amount of wind, it’s best to provide as much protection as possible to any open flame and never leave one unattended.
Solar-powered lights are an easy and portable choice for outdoor lighting. Some lights have a collector panel that can be concealed behind shrubbery, while others contain their own energy cell and absorb the sun’s rays even on a cloudy day.
Battery-operated and rechargeable units are also wireless and very portable while in use.
Line-powered or hard-wired lights are connected to the electrical system of your home. Weatherproof lamps may be plugged directly into an outdoor socket. Wire for lighting that is further from the house runs through buried conduits.
The most permanent of outdoor lighting, it is also the most expensive, sometimes costing in the tens of thousands of dollars. It should be installed by a licensed electrician.
Low-voltage units also connect to the electrical system of your home, but are fitted with a transformer that reduces the electrical current from 120 volts to a safer supply of 12 volts. Although they are less durable than line-powered fixtures, they are also a lot less expensive and are ideal for a small outside space where only short cable runs are required. They are designed for an easy do-it-yourself installation.
Keep these tips in mind
Less is more in lighting. Be subtle: try to hide lights where possible and use a low watt bulb.
Avoid setting lights in straight lines up and down paths, drives or patio edges. This “airport runway” effect is a very common error.
Yellow lights are unflattering to both people and plants. Where possible, install blue-white bulbs or purchase daylight-blue filters for your fixtures.
Position outside lights where they are easily accessible for changing light bulbs. Investing in long-life outdoor bulbs will make the maintenance even easier.
With any unit requiring electricity, use the protection of ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) on all outdoor circuits.