Exterior Lighting Design Ideas

Exterior Lighting Design Ideas:

We have a separate article on general external lighting, focus on functional lighting for factories etc.
This document looks at some ways to make buildings, houses and external spaces more interesting using exterior lighting design ideas.
The first thing to remember is that you will need darker areas to accent the lighter areas. A very common mistake is to put too much exterior lighting in, and the result is that your building/garden is lit up like a golf driving range. If in doubt, do a little bit at a time.
You can easily test out individual effects. Just take a similar light outside on a long extension lead and play around with where to place it, point it, and even try dimming it. If you are thinking of using coloured light then you can play around with different bits of coloured plastic to test the effects.
You can easily trial different lights this way, but it is hard to trial the combined effect of all your lights.
So, let’s look at some of the effects used by exterior lighting designers. You can consider these for the different areas you want to highlight with light.


If you use a light source with a small point source, it can be used to purposely create sharply edged shadow on a wall. This can be used to good effect to project a silhouette of a statue, a row of flowers, or the branches of a tree on to a building.

Silhouetting:If you illuminate the area behind an object, the object will appear darker and have a sharp outline, creating a ‘silhouette’ effect. With shadowing you get the illuminated object and the shadow. With silhouetting you get the background area illuminated and the silhouette.

Uplighting:This is a wonderful technique with dramatic effects. Why does it work so well? When we see objects in daylight, they are always lit from above (by the sun). Reversing the direction of the illuminating light shows the objects in a way we don’t usually see them. This is very popular for the inside of arches, trees and bushes.


With uplighting being so dramatic, downlighting seems a little boring. But it does have its place providing general illumination of pathways, terraces and it can be used in an interesting way as a contrast to an area which has a lot of uplighting.

Accent Lighting:This is simply illuminating a feature to highlight it over its surroundings. Typically it is used for statues, specific plants, etc. What you are lighting will determine whether you illuminate it from the ground, above or the side from a wall or tree perhaps.

Spot Lighting:This is basically accent lighting, but the light source is located some distance away from the feature. Just like a spotlight beaming down on an actor on the stage. This is used when getting lights near the feature is not feasible.

Spread Lighting:This is a favourite technique of ours. It involves using low level lights which emit light in all of the angles from horizontal to downwards. They usually have ‘caps’ or ‘tops’ which prevent any light escaping upwards and giving glare. The effect is a lovely glow

Wall Washing:

Washing a wall with light or colour requires an even coverage of light. To achieve this, the light source must be a little bit away from the wall so that the light falls on the wall.

Grazing:Like wall washing, but with the light source at the bottom, top or side of the wall, so the light travels across the surface of the wall. This highlights any texture as shadows of each bump ,ripple, etc are created.

Moon Lighting:This is a version of shadowing. Low power lights are located within a tree with the objective being to create shadows of the branches and leaves on the ground. It can also be used when there are structures which could create interesting shadows too.

Vista Lighting:When illumination of an area is required in the foreground but it must also be possible to see the view beyond. For example, you would want a terrace area lit, possible from the bannister surrounding it, but you would still want the garden to be easily seen without glare from the terrace lights. Vista lighting is similar to spread lighting and often the light is all directed downwards.


If there is a pool, pond, or significant water feature, then this can be very effective. If you use one of the above techniques to illuminate and area or a feature on the far side of the water, the water (at night) acts like a dark mirror and gives a mirror image. This only works if the water is dark, so any pond or pool lights must be switched off.

You might choose some method of control for your external lighting.
Lighting your garden all night, when everyone is asleep, is just a waste of energy. You could have it on a timer to switch off at a certain time.
Some lighting control systems already have great functionality for external lighting built-in. Imagine this scenario:

You have three circuits in your garden:
1. Uplighting of a tree.
2. Grazing Lighting of a wall.
3. Shadow lighting of a bush.

By using a lighting control system and dimmable lights you can easily adjust the lighting combinations to achieve a ‘look’. That will be very nice. But you could do more…
Now imagine each of the three lighting circuits gradually getting brighter and dimmer over a cycle of ‘X’ minutes. But, X is different for each circuit. So, for example:

1. The uplit tree gets brighter and dimmer over a 11 minute cycle.
2. The grazing on the wall gets brighter and dimmer over a 13 minute cycle.
3. The shadow of the bush gets darker and fader over a 17 minute cycle.
The result is that every time you look at the garden, you will see a different combination – the garden will always be changing. You could also have pre-set combinations of your favourite ‘scenes’.

Why not try out a few of these ideas using a light on a long extension lead and do some experimenting for yourself?
We are available to undertake external lighting design ideas for you. Please get in touch for a chat.