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Night Visions

When do you think about the exterior lighting for your watershapes and their surroundings? Is it an afterthought, or part of your plan from the beginning? In his experience, says veteran lighting designer Mike Hersman, the former is too commonly the case – and that’s a bad habit this designer and installer of lighting systems would like to change because of the visual wonders that can be unveiled once the sun goes down.

When do you think about the exterior lighting for your watershapes and their surroundings?  Is it an afterthought, or part of your plan from the beginning?  In his experience, says veteran lighting designer Mike Hersman, the former is too commonly the case - and that's a bad habit this designer and installer of lighting systems would like to change because of the visual wonders that can be unveiled once the sun goes down.

It’s a simple fact: No matter where you are on the globe, ultimately it’s dark exactly half the time. So no matter how beautiful your watershapes may be, if you don’t fully consider lighting as a key component of your projects, you may be robbing your work of half its potential for pleasing your clients.

That makes it a bottom-line issue, because lighting adds real value to most any watershape installation with a long list of benefits. For starters, it extends the time a watershape can be used beyond daylight hours. It also adds depth, width and height that are otherwise lost in the dark; draws attention to specific features to an extent that can’t be achieved in daylight; produces reflective surfaces for natural and man-made features; enhances safety; and adds a measure of security.

Yes, you can cobble this list of benefits together after the fact, but all of these benefits are maximized at the least possible cost when you develop your lighting plan as part of the initial design process. At that stage, you can consider the way the space in and around the watershape will be used, get your clients involved in defining spaces and create the sort of visual excitement that will build their satisfaction with the project through years to come.

To illustrate this point, let’s see what emerges when the lighting is considered right from the start.


With lighting, the basic function of illumination drives the design, especially when it comes to two fundamental benefits: the extension of time and the definition of space.

Simply by illuminating exterior walkways, steps, patios, spas, pools, ponds, waterfalls, fountains, statuary, architecture, garden furniture and plantings, you invite clients and guests to step out and enjoy exterior spaces after dark. This benefit alone often makes it easier to explain the value of lighting and of making certain a good lighting plan is part of the budget.


Seen in daylight and illuminated at night, this garden urn shows the distinctly different quality of light the designer can manipulate once the sun goes down. The urn looks great day and night, but careful night-lighting adds a sense of drama and even mystery to the scene. (Photos courtesy Nightscaping, Inc., Redlands, Calif., and Night-Hawk Lighting, Miami, Fla.)

That budgeting consideration is a key point, because many clients (and builders) take lighting for granted and few give it any thought at all as they seek out designers and express their ideas. All it takes on the designer’s part is a few questions about lifestyle, about time spent away from home and about entertaining to get clients interested in stretching the time they’ll be able to spend outside – and truly excited when they see the range of lighting and control options available these days.

Step into the Light

I’ve always been surprised that more watershapers don’t focus on lighting, partly because light and water make for powerful visual and aesthetic combinations, but even more because most watershape clients are rarely home during the daylight hours.

These upscale clients leave for work at sunrise and return after sunset, and even weekends are filled dawn to dusk with errands and activities that carry them away from home. By making certain our projects engage our clients during the hours they are most likely to be home, we enhance enjoyment, increase satisfaction and, lest we forget, create a literal extension of their living space.

Rather than being last on the list of considerations (and the first to go if the budget tightens), I’d argue that lighting should be among the first. The reason it’s not – and I’ve spent years forming this conclusion – is that many designers and builders think of lighting as so elementary that they make a false assumption that there’s really nothing to it.

But it’s not so simple, even in terms of basic installation – and it only gets harder if it’s an afterthought. In fact, the incorporation of lighting calls for conduits or open wiring runs, fixture placements and power service that should be included in every job from the point of conception.

And the results can be glorious. The watershape, landscape, hardscape, statuary and structures can all be enhanced if you attend to the clients’ needs for atmosphere, beauty, tranquility and relaxation – after dark.

– M.H.

And the nice thing with today’s control systems is that lighting is easily integrated into an overall system designed specifically to control a watershape. On one extreme, automatically controlled landscape lighting welcomes a family home at the end of a long day; on the other, even a simple manual switch gives clients immediate access to an inviting, relaxing outdoor space.

But there’s more to lighting than just the extension of useable time: Lighting may be used to add depth, width and height to a scene through complete or partial illumination of walls, trees, palms, rocks, plantings and watershapes. In other words, lighting can be used to define space, creating a nighttime environment that is remarkably different from what clients will experience during daylight hours.

Consider perimeter lighting, for example: Just by staggering the depth of illumination,
you add interest and can create the impression of a far greater space. (It’s much easier to fool the eye at night than it is during the day.)

Must this kind of exterior lighting treatment be included in initial planning? Look at it this way: If you haven’t set up a receptacle at the property’s back line for a span of perimeter lights, you’ll need to set up cabling runs, work through flower beds, cut across lawns, tunnel under or cut through decks, move around obstacles and go to a lot more work and expense than would otherwise be necessary. And if trenching is shared with other lines, the more the better.

Careful lighting around watershapes creates specially inviting settings after dark, when the water, either calm as in this image here or gently rippled as it is in the photograph on the opening pages of this article, sets up unique reflections of the lit background. Again, it’s a means of adding drama to the outdoor setting that only happens this way after dark.

Those savings are even greater in and around watershapes. Illuminating moving water and boulders is an extremely effective way to satisfy clients’ after-hours needs, and it can be done much more efficiently if the watershape itself is designed and wired to create hiding places for lighting equipment. Prior planning in these cases can simplify backlighting, shield viewers’ eyes from light sources by letting you build niches into walls or rockwork or planters – and make you look like a genius while saving the clients’ money.


A while ago, I mentioned a key feature of lighting that makes it superior to natural lighting when it comes to creating a sense of depth, drama and interest in a backyard: The fact that lighting fixtures can be directed to highlight specific rocks, specific flows of water, specific trees and specific plantings gives you the opportunity to act as a set designer, manipulating the space to create theatrical effects.

Lighting the Way

Beyond the aesthetic concerns discussed in the accompanying article, safety and security are major reasons to plan ahead for exterior lighting.

• Safety means that someone interacting with an environment can move through the space with the same visual confidence as they do during daylight hours. If the person walking through the area has to struggle to see where he or she is stepping, then he or she is not going to be sufficiently at ease to enjoy the surroundings.

This does not, however, mean that the solution is to saturate the area with light. In fact, this is one of those situations where less is more.

Projecting big beams of light over a pool, deck, patio, flower bed, walkway or steps will often blind people as they move through the yard – or distract them as they sit and talk with others. This “floodlight mentality” often obliterates any sense of beauty or relaxation. The key, I believe, is to distribute light over the area using smaller, more localized fixtures.

• Security means that the area is not conducive to intrusion and aligns with the thought that a well-lit home is the first line of defense.

Security in this context is often considered to be the job of the floodlight-on-the-eave approach to backyard lighting – an approach I don’t recommend because it creates blind spots and strong shadows and therefore gaps in coverage.

Instead, I recommend placing lights at perimeter locations, at lawn edges and around hedges, bushes and trees: Anyone moving through the space will be seen much more easily than would be the case with building-mounted, high-wattage floodlights.

– M.H.

Lighting design truly does put you in control, letting you highlight the canopy of a huge tree, the surface of a particularly craggy rock or the rushing of a particularly well-realized section of a stream or cascade. With more items to view, more places to explore, more scenes to take in, the whole backyard becomes more interesting and inviting.

And if you complement the grander features with careful illumination of seating areas, walks, statuary, fountains and privacy areas, you draw people into the garden and reward them with compelling views and viewing points. Seen from the inside, these spaces become powerful draws. Unilluminated, however, the view out the window is, for the most part, lost exactly half the time.

These illuminated nighttime views can be remarkably subtle, with colors far more vibrant than they are under the bright sun. A statue or tree silhouetted against a daytime sky is quite beautiful; that same statue or tree at night can be made the center of a backyard universe, a gem against a black background. In daylight, the poolside palm is a picture of serenity. Up-lit at night, the same palm takes on a whole different character as a dedicated lamp emphasizes the textures of the trunk, the fronds and their colors.


In their own ways, these five images show up the limitations of illuminated nighttime photography: Cameras do not “see” light the way people do, so these images are more than a little distorted. Even so, they show something important, that is, the way a bit of uplighting or downlighting creates highlights and adds interest to illuminated spaces. Whether it’s the trunk of a tree in the background (top left), low shrubs demarcating a seating area (middle left), an interesting specimen in the landscape (middle right), intriguing vertical lines set up by tree trunks and structures (right) or thoughtful accenting of a portal (bottom left), the lighting attracts attention, sets a mood and invites people to venture forth from indoor spaces to enjoy their surroundings in the way few dark spaces ever could.

To achieve these effects, I generally use low-voltage halogen lamps, which are recognized as the best-available tool for almost exact color rendition of watershapes, plants and architectural features. With the possibility of controlled beams of light, these lamps can also produce a refined and defined illumination that other luminaire types can’t touch.

High or Low?

What’s the difference between low-voltage lighting and systems run on what is typically referred to as “household current”? There are lots of ways to answer this question.

The main point to consider is that 110/120V systems can kill you, which is why these systems are enclosed in their own conduits and junction boxes in accordance with strict provisions of the National Electric Code. (For reliable technical discussions of these issues, I strongly recommend reading Jim McNicol’s “Things Electric” in every issue of WaterShapes.)

Low-voltage lighting still involves electricity as well as the NEC and must be treated with respect, but it has key advantages because of its operating principles. As the name implies, these are systems that run using voltages far lower than those required to run household appliances. The systems are available in two levels: under 30 volts and under 15 volts. Most landscape lighting systems are in the under-15-volts category, typically at 12 volts.

The power for a low-voltage system is derived from the standard 120-volt service; a transformer connects to the service and reduces the voltage to 12 volts. Exterior low-voltage systems contain at least one circuit breaker and often a timer of some sort, but they don’t carry the same sort of NEC requirements for conduits and junction boxes, instead using direct burial or open-plenum cable in place of conduit. The cable connects to leads from the fixtures without the use of junction boxes.

There is one requirement that applies to both household- and low-voltage systems: Both must be protected by a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) if the potential for water exposure exists – which is certainly the case in any exterior application.

As I mentioned, the NEC governs all of these systems, and all components used are to be “listed,” which means that the equipment has been tested and has passed the tests performed by a certified testing laboratory. Only listed equipment should ever be used!

– M.H.

I have worked with household-voltage halogen lights, but control is easier with low-voltage systems. Incandescent floodlights throw uncontrolled light patterns and cast a yellowish light (or blue with mercury vapor lamps, green with metal halide lamps) and develop excessive, distracting and unnatural reflections. Sodium lamps and their orange light simply do not belong in the garden because of the poor color rendition they offer.

Does that mean you shouldn’t use powerful colored lights? Of course not, and lights of each type can be used to great effect so long as you plan for the widespread light patterns and power the incandescents provide. For my money (and my clients’, more to the point), the best way to achieve the effects I’m after is with low-voltage halogen systems.


The big issue in lighting, of course, is placement. Most pool builders, for instance, know to place the main pool light so that it doesn’t shine right into the clients’ windows at night. Exterior lighting also has its rules of thumb, a few basic principles I find myself using over and over again.

Get up close and personal. If you are targeting a waterfall or a piece of statuary or a fountain, the installer who hasn’t given lighting much thought will tend to place lighting fixtures at a considerable distance from the object because that is where last-minute installation is easiest. This means that an excessive amount of light will spill over onto less important surrounding items. The impact of the target is lost; it may even recede into a pale, light-washed background.

More than any other image included with this article, this one captures the value of getting close and using uplighting to set off objects in landscapes. The afterthought approach so often used would have flooded the entire area with light. In this case, uplighting illuminates the water and the fountain, leaving the surrounding space in dramatic shadows and half-light. Such compelling effects are relatively easy and inexpensive to achieve – but only if lighting design is incorporated in a project in the very first stages of development!

My preference is to get up close with as contained a beam as necessary and light the focal object from as many angles as are needed to show it off, isolate it and truly target it. The light sources should always be hidden – protected by a lens, set behind foliage or buried below grade. So long as you are mindful of glare and plan accordingly, this approach will win out over a long-distance wall-of-light approach anytime.

On the Beam

In looking at the aesthetic differences between household-voltage systems and low-voltage systems, the main difference boils down to the beam of light generated. A beam of light is typically defined as light with a concentration that may be directed toward a limited area.

Household-voltage systems rely on familiar incandescent lamps, which spread light in a wide, often 360-degree pattern. Floods that are often used under building overhangs typically have beams that spread out to about 90 degrees around a brighter, focused area of about 40 degrees of maximum illumination. In lighting-design terms, this is an overdose of light in most applications.

By way of contrast, low-voltage lamps often use built-in reflectors that can be set to direct a beam of light to a relatively precise area in anywhere from 5 to 40 degree spreads – without significant spill beyond the designated field. This is a key advantage to low-voltage systems, but there are others, including long lamp life, consistent light output over the lifetime of the lamp, smaller lamp size, easy installation and safety.

For me, it’s low-voltage all the way.

– M.H.

• Accentuate the positive. Accent lights provide helpful illumination of walks, drives, steps, patios or any garden or watershape detail you can think to target – and in mostly unobtrusive ways. Set up the fixtures approximately 24 inches above almost any low-lying item as a hidden source of light that directs, leads, hints, suggests, illuminates and emphasizes.

• Guarantee your access. A key point of this article is the value of preplanning, but what I’m addressing here is practical planning for the unanticipated. All you need to do is ask the subcontractors who are laying decks or installing driveways or setting pavers to run 2-inch PVC lines under their work to reduce to a minimum any possibility that you’ll have to tear it up. More than most things, this can make you a hero later on.

• Plan ahead. I couldn’t resist making this point one more time. Planning ahead with the overall picture in mind will offer the designer an opportunity to emphasize the most important items and allow for approaches from uplighting to perfect placement of hidden sources of light.


Absolutely, you don’t have to be a lighting expert to include top-notch illumination in your projects. Many landscape designers and architects specialize in lighting and want to be involved – particularly if they can do so from the start. If you’re observant, you’ll learn a lot, come to appreciate the subtle effects that can be achieved and be better prepared to tackle your own lighting needs.

Often, effects that truly dazzle clients require relatively few fixtures and are probably not as expensive as might be assumed – especially when the construction end of the installation is handled while the whole yard is torn up. The bottom line for the customers is 24-hour-a-day access to their backyard; for you, it’s the satisfaction of knowing how much more beautiful your work can be after the sun sets slowly in the West.

Mike Hersman is president of Night-Hawk Lighting, a landscape lighting design/supply firm based in Miami. With an engineering degree, Hersman began his career in 1971 and has since worked for a variety of engineering and design firms specializing in exterior lighting systems. He recently wrote Low-Voltage Landscape Lighting, a self-published book on planning, design, equipment selection, installation, maintenance and safety of low-voltage lighting systems. He has traveled extensively, working as a consultant on projects in the United States and abroad.

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