Landscape Lighting Tips – Where to Begin ..

Landscape Lighting Tips - "Getting a Plan"
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Starting by Watching the lighting patterns and shadows created by natural elements, like the sun and moon, during the course of a day take a moment and let nature give you "clues" about how to create very impressive landscape lighting effects and designs.

For example, look at the effects of direct sunlight versus diffused light; or the interplay of shadows on buildings; or the playful dancing of water in a fountain or pool when the sun or moon shines light on and through it.

We can create similar patterns by the skillful placement of 12 volt lighting fixtures to create intriguing shapes, colors, shadows and reflections.

"The Vision"

Whether you are wanting to light an established garden or new landscaping, you will need to go out after dark because things look entirely different. Columns that may have looked impressive in the afternoon will disappear when it's dark... Try to schedule several evening visits to fully understand each site's advantages and limitations.

Use simple flashlights to experiment with effects and be especially sensitive to areas that may be overlooked during the day. As you prepare your lighting design, also remember to take the neighbors into consideration by avoiding light placements that could shine into their homes or adversely affect their own lighting schemes. Or have Our Design Specialist come and giving you an Evening Lighting Demonstration and Estimate.

The View From Inside

When considering the plants and garden features to highlight, ask the homeowners to allow you to view the property from inside the house also. Take note of the trees, shrubs, flowers, fountains, patios and other items that are easily seen from the living or dining rooms and other entertainment areas. The effect created by looking out the window is as important as the effect from outside.

Water is used extensively in outdoor landscape design but often its effect is lost at night. Review water sources such as fountains, waterfall, pools or ponds, and extend their beauty into the night. Water can be used as a reflector, diffuser or conductor of light and color. Experiment with light across a spray of water, and the glow of water lit from below the surface line. The light will dance back and forth with the movement of the water.

Technical Tips

Before installing 12 volt fixtures, make sure any directional lights do not shine in the viewer's eyes. Use shrouds and careful placement to accomplish this. Beware of the glare from path lights - even an elevation change of a couple of feet will direct light into the eyes of a person 20 feet away.

Better still are fixtures that are engineered to reduce glare. The lamps are recessed inside the fixture, and there is a glare filter built right in. The result is plenty of light with no discomfort to the viewer.

Use Quality Products

Also consider the use of halogen lamps whenever possible. They will last longer than standard incandescent lamps and they provide a whiter, truer light. Plants and flowers will retain their natural color under a halogen lamp.

Always use high quality waterproof wire connectors when splicing or attaching your lighting fixtures. When you have a project near the ocean, or other harsh environments, use lamp fixtures made of corrosion-resistant materials such as the new 12 volt composites.

Outdoor Lighting Design Tips

While you will gain more expertise with experience, even installers just starting out can produce beautiful results by employing design tips, and by driving around looking at residences and public buildings with memorable lighting effects.

Most contractors start with the three basics: creating beauty, safety and security. Beauty is the primary focus of all outdoor lighting. Trees, plants and landscape features become part of a "wonderland by night." Views are extended and transformed, and living space is stretched for entertaining. Most customers are thinking "beauty" when they ask for landscape lighting.
Equally important is safety. Lighting can help direct the flow of traffic, point out steps and changes in elevation, and emphasize potential dangers, like the edge of a pool or pond.

Security adds another level to good lighting design. The overall plan should include the illumination of entries near doorways, porches, garages and back walkways, and the elimination of dark areas where potential intruders could lurk.

Less is often more in lighting design. Avoid the tendency to overlight a project. Instead, concentrate on the beauty, safety and security issues and try not to go overboard in quantity.

Lamps First, Fixtures Second

At Vista, we encourage designers to think about the lamps or bulbs needed before they specify the actual fixtures. Lamps will dictate the power, range and intensity. Once you have selected the lamp, you can use a manufacturer's Lamp Guide to direct you to the corresponding fixtures.

Hiding most fixtures will help create the "magic" without revealing how it was done. Avoid positioning lights that create "hot spots" or direct eye contact. "Hot spots" break the mood, detract attention from the beauty and break up the overall design. Fixtures should be hidden whenever possible, so that the light, not the fixture is the focus of attention.

Try to direct and expand attention within the overall design. Use the light to mark paths and preferred routes from one place to another. Use similar lighting at intersections where you can proceed in more than one direction. While lighting delineates boundaries, it can also be used to expand the perception of the perimeter. Light placement around the edges of the property can make the area appear more expansive. Use caution, however, with placements that may interfere with the neighbor's property.

Mix and match for the ultimate outcome. Using the various techniques described in the following Lighting Tip Sheet, you can select a medley of effects rather than installing just one. Variety adds glamour to the project and makes the property even more visually appealing.

As you work to design a garden's lighting system, remember that less is more. Part of the delight of a night garden is mystery. Highlight special plants or areas, but also allow for some darkness. For lighting to become truly effective, it must be complemented by shadow.

12 Volt Landscape Lighting Tip Sheet

Here are the most popular landscape lighting effects and how to achieve them:

Background Lighting

This creates a visual backdrop and helps set the "stage" for the entire garden. Beams of light are focused on a wall, fence trellis or dense planting. The other plants and lights then appear to sit within this backdrop.

Contour Lighting

Here you will use low fixtures to emphasize landscape forms and structures while defining the borders on gardens and paths.

Cross Lighting

You can create a three-dimensional effect by lighting an object with floodlights from above and below. When several floods are used, the beams cross one another to soften the shadows and highlight details.

Deck and Step Lighting

This effect adds to the safety of the completed project. Recessed lights are available for flush mounting onto stairs or walls and fixtures can also be mounted under the hand rail for subtle illumination and safety.

Down Lighting

By installing floodlights high in trees or above a patio, you can create down lighting for a broad illumination of the objects below. With multiple light sources, overlapping light patterns soften shadows and create more uniform lighting in recreation/activity areas. Lights can be mounted on trellises, gazebos, facades, eaves or trees. It is often better not to light the entire tree.

Consider a plant's leaves when uplighting or downlighting. For example, silver maples light poorly from below because the undersides of the leaves look a milky white.


Here lights shine across a textured surface creating illumination of the high points while increasing shadows in the recessed points. Brick, stucco, cobblestone and tree bark all radiate under the effect of grazing.

Moon Lighting

Moon lighting casts a softer light and creates interesting shadows as the light filters between the branches and leaves of trees on its way down. The effect is as if the area is being illuminated by a full moon. A dappled pattern of light and shadow is created along pathways and over low level plantings. This is accomplished by mounting fixtures in mature trees, some pointed down to create the patterned effect and some pointed up to highlight the foliage canopy. Mercury vapor lights lamps are usually used for this because of their cool color and dispersion.

Mushroom Lights

They feature large shade tops which hides the light source while directing lighting toward low foliage on borders and paths.

Path Lighting

One of the most popular elements, path lighting, uses a low level light for walkways, sidewalks or border lighting. Lighting in this manner increases safety by showing where paths begin and end. Path and spread lighting also serves as a directional feature along front drives and entranceways, leading customers and guests to a main door or point of attraction, without the glare of traditional floodlights. Pathway lighting is one technique that needs to be used judiciously.

Too often, we see do-it-yourselfers with driveways flanked with rows of pagoda lights as their only source of exterior illumination. This tends to look like an airport runway.

Perspective Lighting

This adds another dimension to the design by placing emphasis on a specific line or site axis. The light can beam through a line of trees or down a path where it comes to rest on a final focal point, like a fountain or statuary.


An installer's trick, shadowing is used to cast shadows from a object to a vertical surface behind it. Various patterns can be achieved by placing the fixture in front of and below the object while experimenting with the intensity of the light and its distance from the object.


Here is a dramatic effect achieved by concealing the light behind an object and then reflecting the light off a surface behind it. Shrubs and small trees then appear to be standing out against a lighted background.


Just like it sounds, spotlighting is used to feature special plants, statues, surfaces or architectural design with a flood light aimed directly at the object. You can focus a spotlight on a specific plant to make it jump out of its surroundings or place a light behind a plant so it stands in stark silhouette. Palm trees and other plants with clean outlines are particularly effective lit this way.

Step or Surface Mount Lights

These lights provide accent lighting in a controlled pattern and are used in areas where safety and security are important.

Tier Lights

Casting light downward towards the base of the fixture, tier lights are used to define paths, walkways and steps with a soft ring of illumination.

Underwater Lights

Used to enhance the beauty of a pond, fountain, waterfall or any other body of water, these fixtures draw attention to a water feature by dramatically lighting it from above with floating lights or below with submersible lights. Use in combination with other lighting techniques for dramatic effects.


Used on every lighting project, uplighting places the light source on the ground or recessed into the ground and angled up to highlight a special tree, group of trees or artwork. Use uplighting sparingly as it will lose effect when overused.

Well Lights

These are designed to be buried in the ground to direct light upward toward trees or large shrubs while hiding the light source.

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