The Bright Ideas Blog

Design inspiration and outdoor lighting tips and advice for homeowners

3 Patio Lighting Tips for Beginners [Free Design Guide Download]

Successfully lighting your patio space can be tricky. You want your lighting to make your back patio look and feel like an extension of your indoor space. Not sure where you need lighting or where to focus your attention? There are three lighting elements you should really try to incorporate: functional lighting, task lighting, and ambient lighting.

functional/entertainment lighting

When it starts getting dark in the evening, the party doesn't have to head inside if you have good functional lighting. 

Functional lighting does what it implies, provides you and your guests with a functional light source. However, terminology can get confusing. Not all exterior light sources work as functional lighting for entertaining guests or having a late night read. 

Do those big flood lights off the back corner of the roof count as functional lights? Well, technically yes. Does the coach light by the back door qualify as a functional light? Again, in a way it does, yes. But I've always thought of these lights as more of an auxiliary light than a functional light.

These light fixtures around the house that have a high lumen (light) output, are in my mind more of a security light you turn on when you hear a noise in the backyard or want to let your dog out in the middle of the night. They are far too powerful to create an inviting atmosphere. They act as more of a glare bomb. 

The best way I can put it is this: Functional lights are something we use and enjoy while the party is happening; Auxiliary lights, or security lights, are the lights we turn on when its time to let everyone know the party is over and its time to clean up. 

So what qualifies as functional lighting? In mind, good functional lighting should accomplish two things: provide us with useful lighting, and create a sense of atmosphere. Our two favorite forms of functional lighting are bistro lighting & down lighting:

  • Bistro Lighting
Most people are familiar with bistro lighting due to its increased popularity over the past few years. Bistro lighting is the kind of string lighting you would see suspended over head around a cafe's outdoor seating area. See the photo below:

Bistro lights are great because they don't just provide functional lighting, they also set the scene. Setting the tone is one of the most important parts of good functional lighting. After all, if the aesthetic isn't working for us, what was the point? 

One of the best things to do with your bistro lights is to have them controlled by a dimmer switch. This allows you to turn the lighting volume up or down to match the evening's tone. 

  • Down Lighting

Down lighting is another great lighting approach to provide functional lighting to your patio space. See the photo below:



Down lighting is done by placing a special kind of light fixture up high in a tree or mounting it off the architecture of your home. These fixtures should not be confused with a big flood light. They provide a softer, more subtle, effect. 

One of my favorite things about down lighting the the effect they create when they are mounted up high in a tree. The dappled shadows from the leaves and branches cast onto the ground are able to really make your patio stand apart. 

Your guests will be impressed by this kind of lighting approach. But more importantly, they will have functional lighting for enjoying dinner, conversation, dancing, etc.

task lighting

When I think of task lighting I primarily think of safety lighting. For example, the sort of lighting used to help people who are coming and going. Task lighting isn't so much about providing functional lighting for entertaining. And its also not about providing beauty or ambiance. Task lights are much more utilitarian in their use. They are there to insure people can traverse your back yard safely so no one gets hurts. 

  • Path Lighting
Cream Beach Photo Pinterest Graphic

For example, path lights are often used as a form of task light to illuminate pathways and help guide people from the front yard, around to the back. They are also useful for helping people see elevation changes, like steps, so no one stumbles or falls down in the dark. 

What is a path light? Traditionally a path light is a fixture comprising of a post sticking up out of the ground with a light source located at the top. A top hat, or other method, is used to reflect or cast the light source down towards onto the pathway. You shouldn't be able to see the light source when you are standing next to one.

Path lights are often one of the most abused and misused fixtures we see in landscape lighting design. The only place a path light really belongs is along a pathway. 

Many attempt using path lights to illuminate flower beds or other plantings. However, using path lights for this specific purpose rarely achieves desirable results. When in doubt, remember that fixtures should be used for their intended purpose. There is a reason why they are called path lights. 

  • Tread Lights

Steps are real hazard at night. Tread lights are a fantastic option for illuminating stair cases and steps. 


What is a tread light? A tread light is a fixture that is either recessed back into, or surface mounted to, the tread of a step. Its intended purpose is to cast light down onto the step below. Safety is something you want to always consider with steps at night. 

ambient lighting

We've covered lighting areas for entertaining as well as lighting areas for safety. Next, lets discuss lighting for atmosphere. Ambient lighting is the light that reflects off of different surfaces to fill the space light. Some of the best ways to achieve or create ambient lighting is to use lighting to create a backdrop.

Set the scene by providing lighting that captures your surroundings! The landscape around your patio space should be show cased. In addition, accenting key features provides you and your guests with greater visual control over your surroundings.

  • Up Lighting

Up lighting a few of the trees around your patio space can really make a world a difference. It adds that subtle touch that elevates a space and makes it feel comforting. If you take a look at the image below, we can see how down lighting is being used to illuminate the pathway, acting as a form of task lighting. But what really makes this pathway feel safe is are the trees being up lit on either side.   


Trees, statuary, and even water features should be captured to lend a greater, more pleasant, visual experience to you and your guests. It really doesn't take a lot to elevate your surroundings through up lighting. 

What is an up light? Up lighting is when we take a fixture and place it in the ground at the base of the desired target. Light is then projected upward to capture the target. 

While it might seem tempting to light every single tree and plant in the landscape, often times its better to just focus in on a few of the key features in order to achieve a sense of balance and composition. If we light everything than everything quickly loses its dimension. Remember, shadows should take a persistent in good outdoor lighting design. Shadows are what create intrigue and drama. Too much light will make everything appear flat. 

bringing it all together

Functional, task, and ambient lighting are all distinct parts of a good patio lighting design. However, its the culmination of the three together that will really make a patio look spectacular. Take a look at the design below:


In this lighting design we can see how all three lighting elements are brought together in beautiful balance. We have our functional bistro strands, our tread lights providing us task lighting, and our ambient tree accents that really finish the whole scene. 


Patio lighting isn't just about throwing lights up. Setting the stage requires a careful eye and putting the scene together often times requires different kinds of lighting that can work together cohesively. 

want to learn more about landscape lighting design?

If you'd like a quick crash course in outdoor lighting design to help you take your patio lighting game to the next level, please download our free lighting design guide!

Free Landscape Lighting Design Guide

looking to get help from a professional lighting designer?

If you are looking for a high quality lighting system for your home but don't know where to start, take the first step and request a free consultation here! Let our designers create not only a functional property, but one that highlights the beauty of your home even at night. 

At Landscape Lighting Pro, the art of outdoor illumination is a real passion we work to perfect. Designing elegantly bespoke landscape lighting systems is simply all we do. For nearly 20 years, our award winning team of designers and craftsmen have striven to bring the best outdoor lighting experience possible to people's homes and businesses across the Wasatch Front & beyond. 


Patio Lighting