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Outdoor lighting: A beginner’s guide

Tips and advice for getting started

Photo by Carmen Troesser

Warmer weather is on the way, which means more opportunities to spend time outdoors. So in addition to picking up some new outdoor furniture, it’s also a good time to figure out your outdoor lighting setup.

To help you get started, we asked two experts for tips and advice and included a handful of product picks to consider as well.

Set your goals first

“Establish what task you are looking for your lighting to accomplish,” says Jorie Garcia, creative manager at Schoolhouse Electric, the Portland, Oregon-based manufacturer of vintage-inspired lighting and decor.

A single sconce lights up the entrance of this 320-square-foot cabin in upstate NY and brings home the all black everything look.
Photo by Shane Lavalette

“I find value in addressing multiple layers of lighting, especially as we spend more time outside in the warmer months,” she says. “From looking at task lighting for safety and illumination for the entrance of your home, to using ambient lanterns, candles, and string lights to make your outdoor space more inviting.”

Drawing up your own plan is especially important if you aren’t working with a professional. “This will help you put together your budget as well as prevent you from ordering too many lights or not getting the right lights for different areas,” says Fernando Wong, a landscape designer with experience working on The Four Seasons At The Surf Club in Surfside, Florida, the Sculpture Garden at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, and numerous residential projects.

Start by identifying the outdoor spaces you want to use and then find solutions for each area.

Start with task lighting

Once you’ve figured out your goals for outdoor lighting, task lighting should take priority. “For task lighting, it is important to illuminate pathways and entrances,” says Garcia.

“If your fixture is exposed to the elements, you will want to make sure to get a wet-rated fixture,” she says. “In many instances, a damp-rated light will work with a fully covered porch.”

Just make sure to stick to lighting that’s specifically identified as outdoor lighting—even if you are tempted by a cute indoor sconce.

In the outdoor area of this modern Colorado home, carefully considered lighting illuminate the entrance and outdoor dining area. We like to think the fire pit counts too.
Photo by Emily Minton Redfield

Bright lights that wash a house or columns not only add drama, but also security, as outdoor lighting can be an enormous deterrent for would-be burglars, Wong explains.

There are loads of options that help boost security, from Wi-Fi-controlled LED light bulbs that can be controlled remotely to motion-sensor lights with distance and size controls.

It’s also important to bear in mind that lighting for security is all about location, primarily the front door, driveway, and garage. “If you are using spot lights/motion sensors, it’s best to position them in a location that does not bother you in the house or your neighbors,” Garcia says. “Install them during the day and adjust them at night to make sure they are not a burden on you or your neighbors.”

Think about scale

To make sure the fixtures look right, another thing to consider is the scale of your space, which can help determine the size and shape of the fixture as well as the wattage of the bulb. Here are some tips from Garcia.

Wall sconces: Generally, a sconce should be about 25 percent of the height of the door. Another little trick to eliminate the guesswork completely is by cutting out the rough size of the light on paper and taping it up to give you a visual.

Surface mounts or pendants: Blow a balloon to the size of the shade and hang it from a string to understand overall length and scale.

Wattage: For an exposed bulb, get a minimum of a 60 Watt equivalent. If the bulb is in a glass shade, try the 75 to 100 Watt equivalent range.

Less is more

As with most things in life, simple is best. “If you light everything nothing is special,” says Wong, whose work often highlights trees as a statement.

Garcia agrees, “Take time to plan and focus your lighting for particular features: walkways, the doorway, landscaping.“

One of Wong’s projects, in which strategically placed outdoor lights emphasizes the tree at the center of the yard.
Photo courtesy of The Jills

“Outdoor lighting allows you to accentuate your home and the architectural elements that you love most,” she says. “Shine on what you love.”

And remember: The view from inside can be just as important For Wong’s projects, he spends quite a bit of time checking how many sides a tree—or whatever outdoor feature you want to feature—will be seen from the inside. “That will better determine how many lights you will need,” he says.

Use LED lights

“They use 80 percent less electricity and you never have to change the light bulbs,” says Wong. “When they first came out we shied away because the light was too harsh, but the technology has caught up and now many nice soft lights are available.”

Motion-sensored and solar-powered lights are other ways to save energy with outdoor lighting.