Landscape design: The basics of outdoor lighting effects

Photo: McKay Landscape LightingPhoto: McKay Landscape Lighting

Outdoor lighting is a popular upgrade for customers who are wanting to extend the amount of time they can spend outside.

Landscape lighting provides beauty and enhances the overall landscape plan,” says Bruce Dennis, president and CEO of Lightcraft Companies, in APLD’s The Designer. “Lighting also provides safety and security, which are incredibly important.”

Landscape lighting often is more of an art than a science, but Dennis says landscapers can remove some of the guesswork by reviewing the lighting at all stages of the installation, especially at night.

Below are some of the various elements to consider when installing lighting in a landscape, what specific effects achieve and when to use them.

Lighting can help make your customer’s space both beautiful and functional after dark. Photo: Chip-N-Dale’s Custom LandscapingLighting can help make your customer’s space both beautiful and functional after dark.
Photo: Chip-N-Dale’s Custom Landscaping

What to light

If you’re just getting into landscape lighting, you might think it’s your job to simply light up everything in the space, but it’s more about balancing between what you should light up and what should be left in the dark.

When thinking about your lighting plan, the first goal should be function. Consider what needs to be well-lit for safety and security. This includes entryways, paths, stairs and any hazards such as slopes, rocks or ponds. Look at the house and see if there are any areas where intruders could easily hide and light these spots up as well.

The other aspect of landscape lighting is highlighting certain features and bringing drama to the space. Some features that look simply average in the daylight can turn into showstoppers once the spotlight is put on them.

Effects to use

Depending on what goal you are trying to achieve will determine what lighting techniques are best for a customer’s space. This list isn’t a comprehensive collection of all the options available, but rather some of the common effects that you can use.


Uplighting is well-suited for if you are wanting to highlight a specific specimen tree’s trunk and structure. One or two fixtures should be placed at the base of the tree and be pointed upwards if you want to highlight the trunk.

A fixture can be placed 8 to 10 feet away to illuminate the canopy of the tree. Uplighting can help draw attention to different focal points and create a beautiful visual.

“Lighting specimen trees and shrubs, architecture, columns and masonry can also really add a great deal of visual interest and beauty to any landscape,” says Rick Baird, national sales manager – landscape lighting for Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting.


Moonlighting can cast interesting shadows while lighting paths below. Photo: McKay Landscape LightingMoonlighting can cast interesting shadows while lighting paths below.
Photo: McKay Landscape Lighting

The opposite of uplighting a tree is moonlighting, where the light is filtered down through the foliage of the tree. It can draw attention to things at the base of the tree and creates a natural nighttime light that highlights and casts shadows as a full moon might cast.

“You go up a tree, you hang a couple of lights and you get so much more coverage than a couple of path lights on the ground,” says Jerry McKay, owner of McKay Landscape Lighting. “All of a sudden, you have a large tree next to the steps; well, you don’t have to use the path lights if you get up and moonlight those trees.”


Use silhouetting when you want to use landscape lighting to show off plants with a distinct structure or leaf shape. A spread light should be placed between the plant material or other structure whose shadow you’re wanting to cast and an adjacent flat structure.

Multiple fixtures may be needed depending on how much of the wall needs to be lit.


The reverse technique of silhouetting is shadowing. It involves washing a feature with light so it will cast an eye-catching shadow on a wall. The fixture needs to be placed directly in front of what you are trying to play up for the shadow to appear properly. The farther away the fixture is from the object, the less intense the shadows will be on the wall, house or structure.

This type of lighting should be done from low down and angled upward to provide a greater dramatic effect.


If your customer has interesting textures in their hardscaping, take advantage of highlighting this feature by grazing.

Grazing is a technique where light is directed across a vertical surface to draw attention to the rich textures of a retaining wall or other hardscape elements. This involves placing a light close to the flat surface and aiming directly up or down the surface for dramatic shadows.

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