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How To Choose The Perfect Outdoor Lighting


These days a residential garden or yard is expected to perform so many functions that it is commonly referred to as an outdoor room. It needs to be everything from children’s play area to adult retreat.

Initially, the idea of how to choose the correct lighting for such a multi-purpose area can seem a bit daunting. Maybe you have already looked through catalogues, searched online or visited lighting suppliers to see what lighting is available, only to feel overwhelmed by the sheer variety of outdoor lighting products out there. The market is huge!

Before you begin, it’s good to have an idea of the basics of outdoor lighting.

Outdoor Lighting Basics:

Whether indoor or outdoor, any artificial lighting can be classed under one or more of three headings according to its intended purpose:

General Lighting means lighting that supplies illumination over a general area, such as a car park or play area. General lighting is usually white and practical, but can also be coloured and used aesthetically.

Practical Lighting is exactly that. It’s lighting that is used for practical reasons, like lighting a path or driveway. Use this lighting to show the way, or to highlight after-dark hazards like ponds and steps.

Accent or Feature Lighting is used to draw the eye to a particular aspect of your space. You may use accent lighting in your garden to bring attention to a decorative sculpture, fountain or specimen plant. Alternatively, you may use lighting as a feature in its own right or a special effect, such as lighting architectural plants from below to throw an interesting shadow on a wall behind.

Each lighting unit can also be classed by technical specifications:

Beam: The beam describes the shaft of light emanating from the lighting unit. This beam will either be straight or graduated. A straight beam is used to direct light onto an object. A graduated beam is a wedge of light which widens out from the unit. The beam angle is described on the packaging, usually as a spot light covering a narrower area or a flood light covering a wider ares. Often the beam is specified by degree, the higher the beam angle number, the wider the area of illumination.

Throw: The throw is the effective distance the beam will go before it becomes ineffective – in other words, the distance the beam travels from the light unit. This is usually an approximate measurement in meters or feet because it will also depend on the size of the area/object you wish to illuminate. The beam will get weaker the further away it is from the source.

Focus: The focus dictates whether a lighting unit gives a hard or soft intensity of illumination. A hard focus will give hard lines to shadows and is a very effective way to highlight objects in detail, while soft focus is a gentler, more forgiving light, which throws soft shadows and can be used to subtler effect. The distance of your light unit from the object/area to be lit will also affect the focus – the further away, the softer the focus. To light areas for social occasions, select a soft focus that is flattering to you and your guests.

Lumens: The lumens indicates how bright the light at the unit is.

Amperage: The amp measurement tells you how much energy it consumes.

Your outside space:

Now that you are more familiar with the basics of outside lighting, you can apply them to your unique outside space. Any area of professional design begins with thinking in terms of form and function. What are the physical characteristics of your space (form) and what do you intend to use it for (function)?

Form (physical characteristics)

What are the actual dimensions of the space? You do not need incredibly accurate measurements for this, but you do need to be able to talk about your space in terms which other people can clearly understand. Measurements in meters or feet are required, rather than a vague “big” or “average”. What is big to one person will be compact to another. You do not need to get plans drawn or be absolutely accurate with your measurements. Pacing out the boundaries is enough to get an idea of the approximate size of area. This tells you how large an area you may want to light.

What are the features of your space? Are there any obvious things that stand out? For example, the space may contain a lot of trees, or a swimming pool, or both. It may be adjacent to a taller building and have one or more high walls as boundaries. There may be pathways that you use for access through your space to a garage or other outbuilding. Is the area very steep? Is it mainly hard landscaping (paved or decked) or mainly soft landscaping (plants or turf)? Your answers help determine what accent and practical lighting you require. If you have chosen a particular style or theme for your outside space, you will probably want to carry this through to the style and design of the light units. If you do not currently have a style or theme, you can create one through your choice of unit by selecting units that are traditional, classic, contemporary, minimalist, or whatever matches your taste.

Function (what it’s used for):

So far this article has described your outside area as your “space” as a cover-all term, but you might describe your space as a garden, a play area, a place to meditate at the end of the day, somewhere to entertain, or all of these combined. Identify and list all the ways you use your space. This informs what atmospheres you wish to create for different times and occasions.

It is important to list who you expect to be regularly using your space, especially any children, disabled or elderly. Identifying the needs of the people using the space is an important factor when considering practical lighting to reduce health and safety risks.

Choosing outside lighting for your space:

With the above points in mind, take a walk around your garden/yard with a flashlight after sunset. If you already have some form of lighting outdoors, turn it off before you start. Make a note of areas which require lighting for safety/practical reasons. Play around with the flashlight and shine the beam from varying angles onto features you think may look attractive with an accent light on them. See if there are any interesting shadows cast.

You are now familiar with the basics of lighting and you have refreshed your awareness of your outside space and clearly defined how it is to be used. You have a list of safety considerations and some ideas of what features you would like to highlight.

Finally you are ready to work out a budget for your outdoor lighting. Remember that it needs to include not only the lighting units, but also any hardware in the form of wiring, cables, outdoor circuit breakers, control switches etc. You also need to consider the annual energy costs. Energy saving or solar powered lighting is available and is worth considering. It is essential to contract a qualified electrician to install/upgrade outdoor lighting systems, so this cost needs to be included in your budget.

Now you are ready to contact an outdoor lighting supplier and finalize your design.

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