Creating a Night-Time Oasis: Transforming Landscape Design Using Light and Shadow

Our aim in lighting a landscape is to create a pleasant environment that allows us to use the space at night. For public realms or commercial premises, landscape lighting allows night-time activities which could generate income from the space being utilised at night.

| Photo: Erco


Ultimately the main objectives of landscape lighting are to provide safety – so we won’t trip over in the dark; to provide security – so we can prevent intrusion and trespassing; and lastly to create a pleasant atmosphere – so people can stay and enjoy the space after the sun goes down.


When lighting a landscape, firstly we think about the daytime appearance of the space, if there are any elements we want to emphasise, and what exactly we want to be seen at night.


Light possesses an ability to make objects visible at night or hide them altogether. Light can be used to emphasise the natural appearance of the space or create a new feature from itself. Therefore, we have to think if there are elements in the landscape that we want to see at night. Or if there are no elements that we want to emphasise, do we want to create new features using light itself? Is the background of the space important? If the background was left dark would we lose the sense of scale of the space?



Now that we know what we want to see at night, we can start creating a night-time scene using lighting techniques.


Firstly, we need to consider the various elements of the landscape, for example; textures, tones, and colours. Texture will become very noticeable when lit and could be used as a dramatic feature. For tones and colours, we want the surfaces to appear equally lit, darker surfaces with a lower reflectance need more light than lighter surfaces. However, the good news is we don’t want all the surfaces to have the same light level anyway because what we are trying to achieve here is a dynamic night scene with a hierarchy of light.



Hierarchy of light within a space is usually determined by the depth of a space. When we view a landscape, we will notice a focal point which, as a name suggested, is a focus of the view. This is the element we want to emphasise and provide high illumination. In the same view, we also see the background, this should be brightly lit to draw the eyes toward that direction. A foreground which is the area near the observer also needs to be illuminated so one’s immediate environment is seen. And lastly the midground, the space in between which we don’t want to be prominent but still needs to be lit to link the focal point, the background and the foreground together. Balancing light levels between these elements is how the hierarchy of light is created.


To balance the light level between the foreground and background (and the space in between), we also have to consider where the observer will view the landscape from. Would the landscape be seen at night from inside a building? If so, the landscape lighting outside the building will have to be brighter than the interior lighting to help with visibility. One common mistake that we often see here is when people light the surface opposite the window so brightly that the reflection on the window obscures the view of the landscape at night.


Once we know where we will view the landscape from, we can start thinking about creating a lighting scene. As in painting, we need to know the tools available to us before we use them to paint the canvas. Tools in lighting are not just light fittings but rather different qualities and effects of light. Here are some basic attributes of lighting that we can used as our ‘tools’ to create a lighting scene.


First of all, let’s understand the quality of light. Intense light accentuates contrast. It defines texture and shape but is also likely to cause glare. Soft light provides diffuse illumination that reduces the contrast.



Direction of light, similar to theatre lighting, can manipulate how the object is seen. Frontlighting flattens the object but allow details to be seen. Sidelighting emphaises textures and creates shadow. Backlighting creates extreme shadow and accentuates the object’s silhouette. The secret to creating an engaging lighting scene is to employ a combination of these three directions and different qualities of light.


| Photo: Studio 29 Lighting


When lighting a landscape, we also think about the balance of a landscape composition. Symmetry creates visual stability which gives a sense of the space being established and formal. Asymmetry emphasises informality and encourages movement within the space. Lastly rhythm of elements helps direct our eyes through the space. It is useful for a transitional area as it guides people through space.

| Photo: Studio 29 Lighting


Lastly to create a lighting scene, we want to emphasise key elements within the space but also to connect them together to create one cohesive landscape vision. As we mentioned before, not everything needs to be lit at night. This is also the principle we use when we have to work under tight budgets – we only illuminate the elements that we want to see, the elements that will make the most impact. We then also use the combination of lighting techniques – direction of lights, different contrast levels, varying brightness – to create a lighting scene that makes the landscape pleasant to be in at night. To be a night-time oasis, the landscape has to be comfortable for occupants as well as undisruptive to the neighbours. Therefore, we always keep glare and intrusive light to the minimum.


By explaining the thoughts behind landscape lighting design and various lighting techniques that we use, we hope to convince you that there is more to landscape lighting than just blasting light.


| By Sunny Sribanditmongkol