Originally Published on April 14, 2020. Last Updated on August 7, 2023.
Lighting has a significant impact on exterior design. It influences the ambiance of a space, draws the eye to specific areas, and plays functional roles in safety measures.
From fairy lights and fire pit tables to motion-activated LEDs, there’s a broad spectrum of backyard lighting options. We’ve compiled some basic lighting information along with decorating tips and other bright ideas so you can illuminate and enjoy every corner of your outdoor space.
Types of Outdoor Lighting
There are four main light source categories: ambient, accent, decorative, and task.
Ambient lighting is the space’s primary light source. Also called all-over or general lighting, it illuminates an entire area. The desired effects are to make a space inviting, which is why most ambient lights cast a warm, diffused glow.
Use accent lighting to add a bit of drama to a space or direct attention to specific areas. Spotlights directed at fountains or wall art are considered accent lights.
A decorative light is the space’s main attraction. Chandeliers, fire pit tables, and strings of holiday lights are considered decorative pieces.
Task lighting helps you see what’s in front of you. It’s brighter and more directed than ambient lighting, perfect for illuminating outdoor kitchen counters, work benches, and work-from-home spaces.
Outdoor Lighting Mistakes to Avoid
Here’s a list of common lighting faux pas and how to sidestep them.
- Too much light: Spread the light source evenly around the places your family uses most. Overbrightening a single space can hurt your eyes and lead to extra-dark areas around it, making it unsafe for anyone trying to walk through.
- Too many fixtures: A lot of lights can make a room look busy and leave no room for other decor. A few well-chosen pieces will give you plenty of shine and style.
- Clashing tones: Choose lights emitting colors that complement your outdoor color scheme. A desert-themed color palette is best highlighted with warm yellow lights, but a grey scheme with blue undertones needs cool white lighting.
- Wrong size: Pick fixtures proportionate to your space. A large chandelier will illuminate your eight-person dining set better than a tiny teardrop light.
- Wrong type: Select lighting that makes sense with your outdoor layout. If a fire pit table is the focal point of your upper deck, consider that your decorative light. Line the stairs with LED strips so guests can watch their steps, and install a bright wall sconce above the door so you can find the handle in the dark. For your accent lighting, shine lights on the pretty planters that line the deck railings.
- Using only one type: Layer your outdoor light sources to create a well-rounded design.
Outdoor Lighting Ideas
Give your outdoors the glow-up it deserves with these brilliant ideas.
1. Space-Saving String Lights
When lighting your patio dining area, you don’t want to eliminate floor space with a sizable standalone fixture. Instead, hang string lights overhead. Go with soft fairy lights for a relaxed, bohemian feel, or criss-cross antique bulbs for a rustic farmhouse vibe.
2. Understated Pendant
An overhead pendant lamp with a thick canvas or opaque glass shade directs light on your dining set and doesn’t interrupt anyone’s view of the starry night sky.
3. Stress-Free Solar Lights
Avoid complicated electrical work with sustainable solar lights. These ambient adornments charge during the day and automatically turn on after sunset, emitting a gentle glow bright enough for another round of cocktails or a second helping of birthday cake.
4. Lanterns That Light the Way
Show guests where the party’s at by lining walking paths, stairs, and ledges with unobtrusive lanterns. They’re pretty and practical options to light the way.
5. Statement Chandelier
If your dining area sits beneath a sturdy balcony or second-level deck, a large sparkling chandelier suspended overhead will add a touch of magic to every meal.
6. Low-Profile LEDs
If you have stairs, deck railings, or low-elevation borders, consider lining the edges with strips of subtle LEDs. These accent lights offer a calm glow that clearly marks barriers, which helps prevent tripping hazards.
7. Light-Bulb Moment
For spaces where casual reigns supreme, homeowners have shifted away from cool white lighting and cozied up to warmer hues. This color scheme creates inviting, intimate spaces, encouraging conversations to play out long after the sun goes down. Dim and elegant lighting can help you capture the mood you seek while adding functionality to your outdoor living room.
8. Unexpected Light Sources
Think outside the lamp when choosing the fixtures for your outdoor entertainment space. Try light post caps, an outdoor rug with sewn-in LED strips, or an illuminated planter that’s as vivid as it is verdant.
9. The Welcoming Wall Sconce
What better way to greet guests than a front door flanked with matching sconces? Go for a modern design with straight lines or veer toward a more timeless look with gentle, curving bowls.
10. Dangling Deck Lights
Whether your deck is topped by an awning, pergola, or the open sky, hanging overhead lights enhances the ambiance and keeps the party going. Suspend a long, linear pendant in the center of your pergola, or run vintage-inspired Edison lights between tall poles installed in the corners of the room.
11. Gazebo Glow-Up
Transform your gazebo into a magical haven with glimmering fairy lights. Tuck the lights up into the rafters so you can’t see them, but you can see their glow. Bonus points if you get color-changing lights with multiple flashing modes.
12. Garden Ground Lighting
Installing landscaping lights in your garden is as much about fashion as it is about function. For practical purposes, pathway lights clearly mark areas safe to walk in so you don’t accidentally step on your strawberries when watering early in the morning. They can also set the mood: Solar-powered garden globes hidden throughout the foliage add an ethereal glow to evening strolls.
13. Large Floor Lanterns
Take inspiration from modern desert homes and place oversized lanterns at the corners of your porch or deck to simulate a soothing cabana feel.
14. Tall, Trim Balcony Lamps
Find a few vibrant, striking floor lamps and place them around the perimeter to visually distinguish the space and set it apart from a footpath or entryway.
15. Recessed Lighting for Relaxing Spaces
For areas primarily used for relaxation, recessed lighting is the right choice. These fixtures sit out of the way and emit soft glows that don’t interrupt the mellow mood.
16. Size-Enhancing Landscaping Lights
Place ground lights among the flowers in your planters and garden beds to make a small space appear larger. The light spreads over the foliage, allowing you to see more which gives the illusion of more room.
17. Mood-Boosting Uplighting
When you want to steal a moment on the comfy couch or lose yourself in the colors of the sunset, uplighting will make a room feel cozier while creating a dramatic contrast.
18. Overhead Lights for Small Dining Spaces
When tablespace is the central point of a room (think breakfast nooks or alcove bar tops), stick to suspended light sources. Whether battery-powered fairy lights in a wooden lantern or a metal-worked hanging lamp, an aloft light improves visibility without taking up square footage.
19. Outdoor Ceiling Fans
Ceiling fans keep open-air kitchens and covered porches lit, circulate cool air, and push flying pests away on long summer nights. There are a variety of fan styles to choose from, but the main thing to remember is to pick one rated for outdoor use.
20. Fire Pit Tables
Add a spark of style to any space with a user-friendly fire table. Powered by propane or natural gas, these tables feature built-in burners surrounded by ample serving space. Gather the family to cook s’mores over the open flames, or let the fire warm your hands while friends warm your heart.
What type of lighting is best for outdoors?
The best type of lighting depends on your needs. Motion-sensing flood lights are by far the best for added security around your front yard, driveway, or outbuildings. Path lights are great for helping guests safely navigate walkways and stairs. For visual appeal, you can’t go wrong with a show-stopping chandelier centered above your spacious outdoor dining set or deep seating sectional.
What is the easiest way to light up your backyard?
Solar-powered lights are the easiest way to light up your backyard. These lights charge under the sun during the day, then automatically turn on at night. All you have to do is set them up in a sunny spot, and they’ll take it from there.
How do I illuminate the outside of my house?
Use uplighting to illuminate your home’s exterior. Install well lights in your entryway and garage, and point directional lighting up to accentuate architectural features.