Essential Landscape Lighting Terms and Definitions
Did you know that October is National Outdoor Lighting Month? They really have a holiday for everything nowadays. Anyway, that means the fall is a perfect time to think about adding landscape lighting to your outdoor space. The nights are coming earlier and earlier, meaning if you want to enjoy your yard into the evening like you did all summer long, you’re going to need to install an outdoor lighting system (and maybe a fire pit to keep the chill away).
When you’re searching for ways to beautify your yard, the things that pop into your head first might be big features like fountains or flower beds, or maybe you’ve got your sights set on a pool. Whatever you think of first, make sure landscape lighting isn’t left out. Getting the right outdoor lighting system is imperative to making sure your outdoor space is as beautiful and functional as possible. Make sure you’re making the right choices by educating yourself on all aspects of landscape lighting. We’ve made it easy by compiling all the most important terms you need to know before diving into the world of outdoor lighting systems.
Some of the terms are pretty self-explanatory. We don’t mean to insult your intelligence — we’ve included pretty basic ones on here so that we can talk in depth about their benefits and unique features. Read on to see how much you can learn about landscape lighting.
There are some definitions you just have to know before you can talk about landscape lighting with any degree of familiarity. Here are those basic concepts.
Ever felt like a light was too harsh and clinical? Or especially nice and cozy? Those feelings likely had a lot to do with the color temperature of your light. We measure color temperature in degrees Kelvin, and that measurement can range from 1,000 to 10,000. The lower end of the spectrum (typically from 2,000K to 3,000K) is considered warm white light, and that’s how you get those cozy feelings. It has a bit of a yellow or orange glow. Cool or bright white is the next designation, ranging from about 3,100K to 4,500K. That color temperature is obviously cooler — so much so that it might even be slightly tinted blue. Daylight color temperature is anything above 4,500K. This is the kind of color temperature you want for outdoor lighting systems that have a security focus because it’s so severe.
These often get confused with watts, which we’ll touch on in a bit. Lumens measure how bright your lights are. The more lumens, the brighter the lightbulb is. Remember that lumens are also different from the color temperature measurement because they do not take color into account. You could have two bulbs at the same lumen level, but one is cooler in color temperature while the other gives off a warmer, yellow glow. Lumens only measure how much light a bulb produces.
When buying lightbulbs for your outdoor lighting system, you might be looking for a specific wattage, thinking that’s how bright the bulb will be. That’s not the case — as we explained, you should look at lumen levels for brightness. Watts merely measure how much energy a lightbulb uses.
This is how much area a light covers and the width of the beam. As the light moves away from its source, it spreads out, becoming dimmer and less intense the farther it goes. A light with a large beam spread is going to cover a bigger area at first but not reach as far, whereas a narrower beam is likely to stay more concentrated but reach farther.
LED lights are increasingly popular choices for landscape lighting. The acronym stands for light emitting diode, and the technology works by transmitting an electrical current through a microchip to produce visible light. They’re more energy efficient than traditional bulbs for a variety of reasons, including heat management. A regular old incandescent lightbulb releases around 90 percent of its energy as heat, which is vastly less efficient than an LED. Using LEDs in an outdoor lighting system can lower costs by increasing that efficiency.
This sort of outdoor lighting system reduces the voltage used through a transformer. If you’ve got an area that would be difficult to light with full standard-voltage equipment, low voltage lighting could be a good option. You can also rearrange low voltage landscape lighting with much more ease than you could standard lighting.
Types of Lights
Now that you have a solid understanding of baseline landscape lighting vocabulary, let’s dive into the different varieties of lights you might want to use in an outdoor lighting system.
This type of fixture is installed beneath ground level. It’s ideal for areas where things or people need to go over the area that also needs a light. So, you don’t need to worry about tripping over a well light or running over it with the lawn mower. They can also be helpful when you want to start lighting something as close to the ground as possible. We’ll discuss the different lighting strategies you can use in a landscape lighting project a little later, and that’s when it’ll become clear how useful a well light can be.
Path and Area Lights
Perhaps the most common features in landscape lighting, path and area lights can be highly useful. They’ll guide your guests directly to your house and eliminate some safety hazards in the process. Path and area lights can also be one of the more accessible options on this list — DIY path light kits are quite common, so you can create your own outdoor lighting system without involving the professionals.
Stairs can be treacherous in the dark. To keep yourself and your guests safe, step lights illuminate each step so everyone can see where they’re going. They can be on the stairs themselves, or they can be mounted on an adjacent wall.
These are the big guns. They’re often used for security purposes in commercial settings due to their power. Floodlights have a high wattage and a wide angle, making them well-suited to brightly lighting any hidden spot you don’t want shady characters hanging out in. That wide angle means they can light up a large space, and they’re put to use in a lot of stadiums and other big outdoor venues. A floodlight isn’t going to be the cutest choice for your outdoor lighting system, but when you need a big, bright light, it’s definitely the way to go.
No, we’re not talking about the kind you’d find on the stage (unless you’re trying to put an amphitheater in your backyard, which would be pretty sick). Spotlights in a landscape lighting context are a lot like floodlights, except they tend to have a much narrower beam spread. They’re best for accenting specific features or areas rather than boldly lighting up a big space.
Wall Wash Lights
Here’s one that’s pretty much self-explanatory. Wall wash lights illuminate a wall. Typically, wall wash lights are spaced out evenly so that the whole wall is lit up regularly. This technique draws attention to the wall — maybe it has a special feature you’d like to highlight with your landscape lighting, or maybe it’s making the entrance to your home clear.
You can embed lights into all different parts of your deck — the steps, the railings, and the posts are all fair game. These lights are just as functional as they are pretty. By signalling where the edges of the deck are, you can keep your guests and your family safe from falling or running into anything. You can also get creative with the kinds of deck lights you use, combining different kinds to find your perfect mix.
Okay, so we’ve gone over the basic terms that explain landscape lighting and the different types of lights you can use in those outdoor lighting systems. Now, let’s look at the kinds of lighting strategies you can accomplish with those different kinds of lights.
This technique uses an item of interest to create moody shadows. You do it by putting the light source in front of the object and then making sure there’s a wall or other flat expanse behind the object where you can enjoy those shadows. As for which types of lights are well suited to this type of lighting, you can use spotlights, well lights, or floodlights.
Instead of placing the light source in front of the item you’re trying to light as in shadowing, silhouetting has you putting the light behind the object. It’s most dramatic if you can’t see the light (which is most often a spotlight or a well light) from the viewing area. You’ll create an interesting silhouette that you could never appreciate in the light of day.
Some of these lighting practices are meant for functionality, and some are more decorative. Grazing definitely falls into that latter category. If you’ve got a retaining wall or other surface that has a bit of texture to it, your outdoor lighting system could be a great candidate for grazing. This style has you put a light next to a flat surface and angling it up or down, illuminating the surface.
Not all of these lighting strategies need a lot of explanation. Spotlighting is just the use of spotlights to draw attention to specific features you want to highlight with your landscape lighting. Point a spotlight toward your gazebo, lawn ornaments, or other landscaping features and figure out the best angle for the light to strike them. Pretty simple.
The goal here is to simulate the effect of a bright moon shining down through your tree branches. To add this technique to your landscape lighting, place a light source high in a tree and point it down toward the ground.
This kind of lighting isn’t unique to outdoor lighting systems — diffused lighting is soft, less intense light that’s been scattered by something. That can be accomplished by bouncing the light off a rough surface or by filtering the light through a special coating. Think of the kind of lighting on a cloudy day to get a feel for this technique.
Downlighting is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You can place lights under overhangs (like your gutters, eaves, or beams) and have them project their light downward. If they’re on your house, they’re usually wired into its electrical system, meaning downlighting is often best left to landscape lighting professionals. Downlighting can be a great addition to your outdoor lighting system if you’ve got hardscaped structures like gazebos or arbors on your property.
This is another landscape lighting technique that’s really all in the name. You can use spotlights or well lights at the base of a tall object to create a bit of visual interest. Trees big and small are great candidates for uplighting. So, if you’ve got a particularly tall tree you’d like to highlight with your outdoor lighting system, consider adding some uplighting.
Put your landscape lighting knowledge to good use.
This primer on terms used in the landscape lighting business is really just the beginning. You can use your newfound knowledge to dive deeper into all the different kinds of fixtures you can put to good use in your outdoor lighting system, and you can start to get a good idea of how landscape lighting can take your outdoor space to the next level.
A great outdoor lighting system is going to use a variety of techniques and lights to create variation and multiple points of interest. It’s definitely possible to create some of these lighting effects on your own, but it might be a good idea to call in the experts. They’ll be able to help you design and implement a stunning outdoor lighting system, and you won’t be on the hook to do all the work. Whatever route you decide to go, you should now be able to hold your own in any landscape lighting considerations.