Principles of Landscape Lighting Design

 The Building Blocks of a Good Landscape Lighting Design
Part 1: Depth
Creating a Dynamic Scene with Visual Interest Near and Far
Lighting design, whether it be for a stage or a landscape, is the process of directing the visual experience. The designer controls the viewers gaze, setting focal points, transition areas and visual destinations.

The principle of "Depth" refers to the distance the viewer's gaze travels as he or she views the scene. In the photo on the left, moonlighting creates a subtle yet fascinating foreground focal area that acts as a starting point for the viewers experience. The gaze naturally travels down the driveway finally ending at the visual destination of the house. The overall experience is far richer than if the moonlighting were not present.

In addition, as the viewer walks or drives down the driveway, he or she experiences entering the scene, becoming a participant – heightening the emotional impact.

A lighting design with "Depth" can turn a viewer into a participant – the difference between good lighting and great lighting.

Part 2: Perspective
Creating Visual Interest from all Possible Perspectives
The landscape of an homeowners property is a three dimensional canvas for the lighting designer. The viewer experiences this from outside the property, at its boundary and in many locations within. With this in mind, the designer needs to consider all points-of-view (perspectives) and create a continuous rich and effective experience.

Cinematographers are acutely aware of perspective. When they map out a scene, they meticulously light all foreground and background elements ensuring that from each camera's perspective, the effect supports the desired visual impact. With the homeowners as our actors, we light the landscape with the knowledge that they will move from place to place.

One of our most difficult transitions is when our actors enter the house. When they pause to look out the living room window will they see their beautifully illuminated landscape? Or will it be in darkness? Will the lighting be unobtrusive? Or will they be blinded by a poorly aimed spot light? The lighting designer needs to assess the inside lighting as it affects the viewers outdoor gazing. Ideally, inside lights will be on dimmers and indoor lamps will not cause reflections on windows or in any other way obstruct outdoor viewing.

Part 3: Focal Points
Establishing Visual Destinations in the Gazing Experience
Try to slowly and smoothly sweep your gaze across the far side of the room. You'll notice it's nearly impossible to do. Instead, your eyes move from one point to another, stopping briefly each time. The brain forces this stop and go action because it can not process a moving image. As lighting designers, we use this knowledge to create an overall design consisting of visual destinations (focal points) and the illuminated spaces between them.

We need focal points in the landscape to act as stepping stones for the eyes. A good design will take the viewer through the landscape, directing the visual experience to take in the statuary, the specimen trees, the water features or whatever combination of elements elicit the desired experience. Just as with real stepping stones, focal points should not be too far apart and there should not be complete darkness between them.

A careful selection of focal points and the appropriate lighting of them allows us to guide the viewers experience and meet the goals of the lighting design.

Part 4: Quality and Direction
Painting with Light
Just as a painter carefully selects brush type, size and shape, the lighting designer selects fixtures that paint light broadly or narrowly, with soft or hard edges, with elliptical or round beams. The painter also applies brush strokes in well defined directions; in the same way, the lighting designer directs light from upward or downward, from behind, or in front, or from the side. All these decisions are inspired by the artistic sense of the lighting designer and used to achieve the goals of the design.

In lighting, 'Quality' is a subjective term that refers to a combination of factors, such as beam spread and shape, level of diffusion and the overall appearance of lights relative to each other. This term should not be confused with 'quality' as it is used to refer to 'value'. Lighting 'Quality' is what primarily sets the mood. Typical 'Quality' terms might be, 'dramatic', 'natural', 'inviting', 'romantic', 'subdued' and so on. If a homeowner asks for 'Romantic' lighting, it is the quality of lighting she is specifying. The designer learns with experience how to achieve various 'Qualities' using the right tools and techniques.

Direction simply refers to the direction that fixtures project their light. 'Direction' is combined with 'Quality' because it is the most important factor that defines 'Quality' of landscape lighting. Here are the various lighting directions and some qualities they can elicit:

  • Down lighting: natural, subdued, romantic, mellow
  • Up lighting: dramatic, uplifting, grand, spooky
  • Back lighting: ethereal, understated, defining, mysterious
  • Front lighting: revealing, dramatic, flattening

Some other tools and techniques that affect 'Quality' are:

  • Using narrower beams to uplight a structure is more dramatic than using a wall wash.
  • Using a diffusion lens with an MR-16 fixture softens the edges of the light beam making it less dramatic and more subdued and natural.
  • Using tree lights to spread a low level of light across unlit areas, creates a moonlit effect, making the scene more natural, romantic and welcoming.

By skillfully controlling 'Quality and Direction', the landscape lighting designer paints one masterpiece after another, building a reputation as an artist of light.

Part 5: Symmetry and Balance
Highlighting the Structures and Forms that have Intrinsic Beauty
Symmetry is defined as an exact correspondence of form on opposite sides of a dividing line, a plane or an axis. Symmetry abounds in the natural world; animals have symmetrical limbs, eyes and ears; plants have symmetrical branches and leaves; while the inorganic world gives us symmetrical snowflakes and other crystals. Humans find symmetry beautiful and landscape designers use symmetry to evoke a positive emotional response.

Lighting designers look for any symmetry that may be present in the landscape or in the structures. If they find symmetry, they illuminate it so that it becomes recognizable to the nighttime viewer.

In the landscape, typical symmetrical components may be bushes that flank either end of a wall, stones that border the edges of a walkway, or posts that frame an entrance to the property. On the structure, we find symmetrical columns, windows or other architectural features.

The designer needs to carefully select fixtures that cast equal illumination on the symmetrical features. If one side is lit more brightly than the other, a disquieting feeling could result. Also, the designer should favor spotlighting rather than flooding (washing) symmetrical features – this will increase the dramatic effect.

There is also room for a creative lighting treatment of symmetrical elements. If, for example, there are sets of symmetrically placed windows on the face of a building, simple spotlighting may be uninteresting. Instead, the designer can place fixtures so they project through plant material and cast shadows on the building. The symmetry will still be recognized, but the shadows will add visual interest.

Symmetry is recognized and enjoyed by the viewer. The designer uses this knowledge to create designs that viewers instinctively enjoy.
landscape lighting cohesion

Part 6. Cohesion
Connecting Focal Points to Create a Unified Design
Homeowners cherish the land they live on and the houses they live in. These private properties and homes are not mere collections of trees, bushes, stones and wood; they are miniature worlds acting as stages for the myriad plays that comprise each of our home life experiences. For this reason, when tasked to illuminate a property, we first look at the land and the house as one cohesive whole. Then we design the lighting so the nighttime experience presents an impression of wholeness rather than a scattering of unrelated elements. By lighting in this way, we set the stage for a richer experience as the viewer enters into the homeowner’s world.

Cohesion in landscape lighting speaks to this concept of wholeness. It refers to the connection between the various visual elements. It is not that we want to shed light everywhere; there is great beauty and mystery in the interplay between dark and light. Instead we want to selectively illuminate pathways between the visual destinations, and illuminate areas in the scene that contribute towards a good overall composition. We do this in a way that the experience is one of continuous enjoyment as the viewer sweeps his or her gaze from one visual destination to another.

To create a cohesive design, we keep in mind the desired overall look and feel, the focal points, and the safety and security needs. We then look at how we can tie together visual destinations to achieve cohesion between the separate elements. Here are some of the techniques we use to tie elements together.

Moonlighting. This is, by far, the best technique to illuminate wide expanses of lawn or driveways. Tree lights are used for this purpose and mounted 20 to 30 feet above the ground. Ideally, they project through branches for a dappled effect.
Lighting the Periphery. If you have a situation where moonlighting is not possible, then consider lighting elements that are in the background of the scene. These may be bushes, fences or trees. You will need to light them at a low enough level so they do not distract from more important focal points.
Area/Path Lights. If there are garden beds or other landscape features that can serve as cohesive elements, these can be illuminated by MR-16 area lights, bullets or one of the path lights.
It can be a challenge in a large property to provide cohesion between all focal points. In such a case, you might consider dropping the light level of these elements so the difference in luminance between them and the surrounding area is less.

Sometimes, due to budget restrictions, it is just not possible to connect the various elements with light and you are presented with focal points separated by “black holes”. In a case like this, you may want to propose a phased approach to the homeowner; fully lighting one area of the property with good cohesion and then lighting the other areas as funds become available.

A landscape lighting design without cohesion can interfere with the nighttime enjoyment of the scene. With cohesion, the experience is smooth, pleasing and reflects the richness of the homeowners world.
(Document No. 00074: Created on: 07/31/08 Last modified on: 05/18/15)