String light strands along the roof perimeter of an outdoor room to accent party space. Here, lights glow against the redwood slats of an outdoor bar in a backyard retreat.

Thomas J. Story

An expert shares his best tips for illuminating your backyard or porch

Sarah Yang

With summer in full swing, you’re probably spending most of your time enjoying the great outdoors—and that likely includes relaxing in your backyard, or hosting friends for a dinner alfresco. Don’t let the fun stop once the sun goes down just because your outdoor lighting is nonexistent or inefficient. Not all outdoor lighting is created the same, and it requires more than just putting up a wall light or some string lights and calling it a day. To create ambience, it’s all about choosing the right type of lighting fixture for your backyard. Luckily, Michael Murphy, Interior Design and Trends Producer for Lamps Plus, is here to help. Here, Murphy breaks down the different types of outdoor lighting, where to place fixtures, how to calculate how much lighting you need, and much more. Use his tips and you’ll be able to enjoy those fun summer nights even more.

Include These Three Types

Make sure to incorporate the three basic types of lighting: ambient, task, and accent. Ambient lighting can be achieved through hanging lights, post lights, and wall lights. Task lighting includes pathway lights, plus deck and security lights. And you can get accent outdoor lighting with landscape kits and spotlights. “For a small patio and a modest budget, consider string lights, solar spotlights, or LED candles,” Murphy says.

Calculate

Before you start shopping, you’ll need to figure out exactly how much lighting you need. “To determine how much light a space requires, try this quick calculation: multiply the square footage of the area you want to light by 1.5 to get a rough estimate of the total wattage required,” he says. “For example, 100 square feet of space would require 150 watts.”

Plan Ahead When Choosing Fixtures

Observe your space and take measurements so you don’t choose fixtures that are too large-scale. “Check the size and position of a fixture before you buy using a simple piece of paper,” Murphy says. “Use a paper template to determine exact placement to review the size before buying. For either the front porch or the back patio, the size of an outdoor wall light should be approximately one-third the height of the door.” You’ll also want to make sure you’re choosing sturdy lighting, one that’s made of high-quality and weather-resistant materials. 

For a lawn quick fix, Murphy suggests using a landscape lighting kit. “Try a kit that plugs directly into any outdoor outlet,” he says. “These kits typically consist of several ground spot lights strung together on a single cord. Arrange them in a garden to cast dramatic shadows or place around the perimeter of a patio to set a festive mood.” You can also try solar landscape lighting as well.

Use LEDs

“They use far less energy than halogen or incandescent bulbs,” he says. “Plus, they are almost maintenance-free, so you won’t have to change bulbs.”

Take a Look from inside Your Home

This can help you decide on which lighting to choose and how place it around your yard. “Consider how patio spaces, gardens, and pathways look like from inside your home,” he says. “Lighting gardens or shrubbery that can be seen from living or dining rooms give a room-expanding view to the outside at night. Think path lighting for garden areas, or use solar outdoor lighting for a quick and easy style update.”

Use Subtle Light for Entertaining

Your dinner guests won’t want a bright spotlight on them while they’re enjoying their outdoor meal, so stick with lighting that gives a soft glow. “Outdoor rooms, especially outdoor dining areas, benefit from subtle, indirect lighting that helps create a restful mood,” Murphy says. “We're seeing more use of outdoor lanterns, pendants, and ceiling fans equipped with light kits to illuminate seating and dining areas. Use a dimmer with these fixtures; turn to full light when cooking or preparing food, or dim it down for eating and relaxing.”

Think about Security

Outdoor lighting not only provides ambience, but it can also secure your home. “Make sure all entry points of the home are well lit,” he says. “Outside the garage, mount a wall lantern on each side of the garage door or install a single fixture above. For added security, illuminate any side of the house in the shadows with spotlights installed on your eaves or use wall lanterns at side doors, windows, and garages.”