Effective Outdoor Lighting Design

By: Tamsin Duchamp

Established lighting design theory revolves around the idea of identifying and mixing together four main lighting types, namely decorative, accent, ambient and task lighting. And out in the garden we find that things are in principle little different for designing effective outdoor lighting. However, there are some important differences to be aware of before we look further at each of these lighting types.
First there are significant differences in scale. Inside rooms have walls and ceilings that define their extent and they are actually quite compact when set against even the smallest garden. Outside the ceiling is literally sky high and such boundaries as there are tend to be quite low and pretty much disappear altogether at night.
This brings both opportunities and challenges for outdoor lighting design. Most indoor lighting is reflected from ceilings and walls and contributes to the overall ambient light. Outside however, lights appear to us as zones of brightness that, rather than spilling onto surrounding areas instead create a contrast, making then seem even darker.
This absence of ambient light from reflections renders many interior lighting techniques unusable outdoors. However, it also makes a number of interesting effects possible by utilising the high contrast between light and dark; it is not uncommon to find night time gardens that have been designed to appear completely different to their day time counterpart through the simple expedient of highlighting some features and disguising others.
There is also the matter of how you plan on using your outdoor spaces. A classic garden design theory is that you should regard your garden as an additional room (or set of rooms) and design accordingly, lighting included.
You most probably use quite different lighting for specific rooms largely to suit their functional purpose; bedroom lighting for example as compared to kitchen lighting. Accordingly, if you intended to designate your deck as an entertainment area then you would also expect to fit lighting designed to support that purpose. And looking at other zones in the garden, say a water feature or walkway, it is again likely you would adapt the lighting to the intended purpose.
Which leads us back to the four core lighting groups and their use outdoors.
Whereas indoors ambient lighting mainly provides a platform for the other types of lighting, in the garden this really isn't possible without the confines of reflective walls. Accordingly ambient light quite frequently takes centre stage outdoors; many solar powered garden lamps provide good examples of the sort of soft, diffuse light that can be used to introduce a pleasant and understated glow to any part of the garden.
Accent lighting is concerned with drawing attention to and showing off detail and/or color in whatever garden features you want to emphasize. It can also be used to draw the eye in particular directions. Spotlights are commonly used for outdoor accent lighting and for a really contemporary look, LED spot lights that deliver sharp, vibrant light and also run cold and can thus go places where hot incandescent lamps can't.
Decorative lighting performs a similar function in that it is intended to look attractive and catch the eye, with the difference that the light fitting itself is the focal point. Once again LED garden lights are now used quite heavily for decorative effects.
Task lighting outdoors is obviously not so much about light suitable for reading and doing things as providing ample light for people to get about safely. This encompasses the ubiquitous LED deck lights, pathway lights and lighting around entertainment zones so folk can see what they're easting and drinking (roughly).
As with interior lighting design, the key to success with garden lighting is to blend all four types all lighting, preferably also with the option to switch task lighting on and off independently. If you rely solely on ambient light your garden will appear amorphous and slightly gloomy; conversely all accent lighting will make it look over dramatic and a bit harsh, and if only decorative lights are used the effect is likely be appear uncoordinated and somewhat chintzy.
The easiest way to guarantee a suitable blend of outdoor lighting types is to purchase assorted types of light fitting. For example a variety of spot lights with differing beam angles and intensities plus a range of lanterns and bollards. Add some coloured lights to the mix and be sure to install both low voltage mains as well as solar powered lights. These days the best examples of both in fact use LED lights and they work very well together.

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Tamsin Duchamp also highly recommends this further article all about LED garden lighting.

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