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Light The Night

If you’re going to be outdoors at night, you’re going to need lights in the landscape, on decks, and on patios. Lighting is a practical concern, of course. You need it to see where you’re going and to do what you need to do. But lighting can be dramatic or fanciful, too. Lighting the landscape, deck or patio will make it seem bigger at night. And inspired and sensitive lighting is artistry that can reveal qualities in your landscape that you never knew it possessed and transform it into another world at night. You will need different kinds of lighting for different uses outdoors. In nature, light is ever-changing. Natural light doesn’t stay the same over the course of a day, a season, or a year. It brightens and dims, and it strikes the ground at different angles at different times of the day and the year, casting different shadows. Your outdoor lighting will be more successful if it, too, can change and adapt to different situations. Outdoor lighting works best— and looks best—when it is not the same all over.

There are three main reasons you need light outdoors at night: for safety, for utilitarian purposes (to do things) and for purely aesthetic qualities. Foremost is safety. Walkways, driveways and stairs need to be lit at night so they can be navigated without injury. This kind of lighting needs to be even and reasonably bright, but not glaring. Low lights mounted on 12 to 18 inch high posts with deflectors can direct light downward toward the ground. To light stairs, you can mount lamps right on the stair risers, on the undersides of railings, or on a wall next to the steps. For a driveway, a lamppost at the beginning is a classic technique. Farther from the street you could use lanterns on poles to illuminate a path. Or line a drive or path with low voltage lights that sit close to the ground. Solar lights need no wiring and work well, if they get enough sunlight during the day to recharge. On decks and patios, you need to arrange light that is bright enough to cook by, if that’s what you want to do, or you can light spaces for gathering and socializing, or relaxing for mood and ambience.

In a cooking or other utility area, use even flood lighting to wash the area, or spotlighting to focus on the grill or stovetop and preparation areas. Mood or ambient lighting can be softer than the focused task lighting.

Lighting designers use several techniques to turn gardens into theatrical realms at night. You can use them, too, when you think about how you want to light your outdoor world and discuss your ideas with a designer or electrical contractor.

Uplighting: Light shines up from below to highlight trees, statuary, fountains, and other landscape features. Uplighting is dramatic; don’t overuse it.

Downlighting: Light shines down from above. Downlights can come from a large single source, such as a floodlight, or from several smaller sources, such as pinpoint spots. Lampposts and hanging fixtures with hoods and shades also create downlighting.

Contour Lighting: A specialized kind of downlighting that uses lights with hoods or covers to define the edges of things with light. They can illuminate the edges of a pool, a garden border, or a patio.

Moonlighting: Fixtures concealed in trees create interesting patterns of light and shadow on the ground, like moonlight shining through the canopy.

Spotlighting: Concentrated light focused to light a small area. Spotlights are dramatic and best used in a limited way for exciting accents.

Background lighting: Used along with other kinds of lighting, it washes or punctuates the background of a scene, such as a hedge behind a statue. It can be very dramatic or soft and subtle.

Silhouetting: Casts a shadow on a background surface. A bright light hidden behind a piece of sculpture or an interestingly formed tree can throw its shadow onto a wall or other flat surface.

Grazing light: This light flows softly across a surface to point out its texture and create interesting patterns of light and shadow. Grazing light might be used to illuminate a complicated pavement pattern or, perhaps, the interesting texture of a dry stone wall.