Classic lighting design is about identifying and blending four core lighting groups:

  • ambient, accent
  • decorative
  • task lighting

And when it comes to the outdoor lighting very much the same principles to create successful interior lighting apply but before we examine these further, there are a few key differences to take note of.

Outdoor Lighting Design Secrets

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 them seem even darker.

This lack of reflected ambient light means that many common indoor lighting techniques won’t work in the garden, but it also means that you can use this darkness to create interesting effects and in extreme cases design a night-time garden that apparently bears no relationship to the daylight version by emphasizing certain features and concealing 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 ambient light is used indoors as a foundation for the other lighting types, outside it is difficult to use it this way due to the lack of reflective surfaces and so ambient light tends to be deployed as a lighting form in its own right. Ambient light in a garden is often used simply to create a pleasant indistinct background glow and solar powered garden lights are ideal for this application.

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 serves much the same overall purpose as accent lighting in that it is there simply to look attractive and catch your eye; the principal difference is that decorative lighting doesn’t illuminate anything else – it is itself the focal point. And like accent lighting, most modern decorative lighting is in fact LED based.

Led Based Garden Lighting

Garden task lighting is not really concerned with being able to read a book and such like but simply providing enough light for people to move around in safety. So path lighting, those LED deck lights that seem to get installed everywhere (and not just in decks) and lighting around areas where people might want to have some vague idea what they’re drinking or eating.

The key to effective garden lighting is the same as with interior lighting design, which is to combine all four of the basic lighting types (it also helps if you can arrange to be able to operate task lighting separately). Like indoor lighting, reliance on just ambient light will result in a drab and indistinct look, while using only accent lighting is likely to come across as harsh and overdramatic, and if you over-rely on decorative lighting it will almost certainly come across as disconnected and frankly cheesy.

A really simple way to get a rich combination of the main lighting types is to just buy an assortment of varied light fittings. So pick up some spotlights that cover a range of beam angle and luminosity plus the standard lanterns and path markers. Introduce a few colored lights to the collection and also aim to use both solar powered and mains low voltage powered lights. As you might expect, contemporary examples of both formats are now LED based.