A Practical Approach to Low-Voltage Lighting Design
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A Practical Approach to Low-Voltage Lighting Design

Jul 20, 2018
Video Length:  53:48
Presented By:  Brian Quall
Need to design a low-voltage lighting system? This webinar – the first of a 2-part series – will show you the fundamentals of lighting design, including fixture placement, visual objectives, proper transitions, and the three levels of light. We'll discuss how to create a “lighting portrait” rather than solving a lighting problem, and go over the structure of creating a landscape portrait. Stay tuned for part 2 in this series, where we'll take a look at how the design techniques covered in this webinar will translate into a lighting plan.


Webinar Contents:

Note: The following catalog of content covered in this webinar is time stamped to allow you to follow along or skip to sections of the video that are relevant to your questions. You can also search for content on this page using the FIND command in your browser (CTRL + F in Windows, Command + F in Mac OS.)


  • Intro
  • Why Design With Light?
  • Why Not to Sub Lighting Design Out to an Electrical Engineer
  • Fundamentals of Light / Structure of a Lighting Portrait
    • Concept
    • Visual Objective
    • Proper Transition
    • Levels of Light
  • Types of Lighting

0:00 – 4:18: Intro

Low-voltage outdoor lighting: intro (3:25)

Easiest method of providing lighting to the outdoor environment for the purpose of enhancement, atmosphere, safety, and security.

  • The systems are based on 12 vs. 120 volts.
  • One of the fastest-growing segments in the green industry.

4:19 – 6:59: Why Design with Light?

  • It visually enhances your designs well into the night.
  • If you don’t light it, you can’t see it.
  • Lighting alters the way outdoor space is used.
  • Lighting changes the feel of space.
  • Lighting can visually connect spaces together.
  • There is no sense of space without light.
  • Why would you let someone else decide what to light?


Examples of outdoor lighting (5:03)

7:00 – 13:05: Why Not to Sub Lighting Design Out to an Electrical Engineer

  • Don’t think of lighting projects as an electrical engineering problem – think of them as lighting portraits.
  • Highlight your landscape design by painting a picture with light.
  • You are the designer; you will surprise yourself with how closely your lighting design will follow your planting design.


Creating a lighting portrait involves (7:51):

  • Eliminating black holes
  • Eliminating glare
  • Using ambient lighting around the project to enhance the beauty
  • Lighting and highlighting the home/gazebo/structure


Photo examples (8:50)


Examples showing the concept of depth (9:10)


Why Brian doesn’t like path lights (9:30)

  • “Targets” for power cords, hoses, etc.
  • Overused
  • Make long pathways look like runways


More examples (10:20)


Lighting arbors, walls, statues, etc. (11:13)

13:06 – 33:58: Fundamentals of Light / Structure of a Lighting Portrait

Creating a lighting portrait requires four items:

  • Concept
  • Visual objective
  • Proper transition
  • Levels of light


Concept (13:40)

To initiate your concept:

  • Look at your planting plan. Your original landscape concept is the backbone for your lighting concept.
  • Identify your viewpoints and sightlines. These will help give you a good perspective of the lighting project.
  • Frame it out. You must concentrate on enhancing the landscape and the physical property itself.


Incorporate the home, patio, and/or other structure into the portrait. Balance by lighting on both sides of the entryway. (14:28)


Choose one or more focal points. (15:11)


Institute rhythm or continuity. (15:18)


Light up the fun stuff! (17:10)


To determine what and what not to light, ask the following questions (17:25):

  • Why am I lighting that?
  • What’s the purpose?
  • Why am I not lighting that?
  • Will this light draw attention to that space, and is that acceptable?


Once a fixture is placed into a space, you give that space identity, which could force you to add more fixtures to create contrast and transition. (18:44)


You must have a design strategy as part of your concept.


Photo example showing concept (18:56)


Three essential elements to a successful lighting portrait (20:18):

  • Placement
  • Quantity of fixtures
  • Light effect from the lamp


Visual Objective (20:26)

Establish your viewpoints. (20:36)

Once you’ve decided your viewpoints, fixture placement will be easily defined.


Determine your theme or establish your view. Who is this property going to be viewed? (21:15)

  • Front, back, street, sitting, standing, inside, and outside?
  • From a pathway?
  • From what elevation?


Photo examples showing visual objective (21:25)


Examples of visual objectives (24:29):

  • Lead people to the front door
  • Lead people to a destination spot (arbors, benches, trellis, and/or pathways)
  • Identify the driveway
  • Create a lighting scene from a window
  • Create a focal point
  • Provide safety and security
  • Create space
  • Provide a feeling of comfort


More photo examples showing visual objective (24:54)


Proper Transition (28:20)

How the eye works: The eye will always be drawn to the brightest object in your portrait. Changes in light levels will cause your iris to either expand or contract. This is why uneven lighting and black holes are unnatural and cause the eye to bounce from object to object, tiring easily. Soft, cohesive transition lighting is the key.


Photo example showing transition (in this case, the lack thereof) (28:40)


The best lighting job can be ruined by glare. Be aware of glare that comes from existing fixtures or even inside the house.


Annoying glare: fixtures with no shielding of the lamp. Use baffles, shields, correctional lenses, and proper fixture placement. (29:37)


Photo examples showing proper transition (30:00)


Levels of Light (31:22)


3 area levels (32:00):

Level 1 (Soft)

  • Paths
  • Sidewalks
  • Driveways


Level 2 (Medium)

  • Transitions
  • Connecting
  • Focal points


Level 3 (Brightest)

  • Focal points
  • Depth


How do we achieve levels of light? (32:25):

  • Primarily through placement.
  • Different wattages of lamps.
  • Fixtures.
  • Lenses.


Level 1 (Soft) (32:44):

Level 1 is also used when you want dim lighting to fill in dark areas or provide secondary or perimeter and/or boundary lighting. The usage of lower-wattage lamps, lenses, and screens is appropriate to tone down the intensity of the lamp. Do not place lamps farther apart, as this only creates black holes within fixtures.


Levels 2 (Medium) and 3 (Brightest) (33:05):

Levels 2 and 3 are achieved through proper fixture placement and technique, and not generally through the wattage of the lamp. The key is to provide adequate contrast.


This is the best way to distinguish between your visual fields. This goal can be achieved through different fixture placement to front, side, or back.


Photo example showing levels 1, 2, and 3 (33:40)

33:59 – end: Types of Lighting

  • Up-lighting: front
  • Up-lighting: cross
  • Backlighting
  • Silhouette lighting
  • Down-lighting/moon-lighting
  • Mirror lighting
  • Step lighting
  • Graze lighting
  • Atmosphere/romance lighting


Up-lighting (34:10)

Levels of light (1, 2, and 3): Achieved through different fixture placements and use of optical lenses


Effects: Mirror, graze, silhouette, cross, front


Up-lighting: front: Use on houses, trees, shrubs, walls, pillars, and fences

  • Eliminates shadows
  • Downplays dimension of plants and shrubs
  • Minimizes textures (depending on placement)
  • Produces higher light levels
  • Shows little detail


Up-lighting: cross (34:55)

  • Brings in texture, adds shadows, adds character


Backlighting (35:41)

Up-backlighting: Use on trees, translucent leaves, open and airy plants

  • Produces a halo effect
  • Strengthens dimensions
  • Establishes depth
  • Provides sharp contrast
  • Shows little detail
  • Few shadows
  • Little texture
  • Lower light level


Silhouette lighting (36:41)

  • Fill lighting, bridge lighting, backlighting trees to provide depth, produce contrast on branches and tree canopies.


Down-lighting (37:32)

  • Provides a soft area lighting, produces moonlight effect, provides higher levels for dining and barbecue areas, lights a large area.


*If you do down-lighting, you’ll need as many up-lights as you have down-lights.


Moon-lighting (39:27)

(Moon-lighting is simply down-lighting with a different color.)

  • Levels of light: levels 1 and 2
  • Technique: Down
  • Uses: Trees
  • Benefits: Simulates moonlight


 Mirror lighting (40:42)

  • A mirror reflection of the landscape or structure on still water


Step lighting (41:07)

Timing is critical with step lighting (for example, the lights need to be installed before concrete is poured).


  • Graze lighting (42:25)
  • Levels of light: Levels 1 and 2
  • Techniques: Up-lighting, down-lighting
  • Benefits: Enhances textures, adds contrast, defines
  • Points of concern: How spots closer to the fixture


Graze lighting reveals the surface and texture of anything. Typical applications would be to highlight flagstone, brick, or other rough surface material.


Atmosphere/romance lighting (43:47)

  • Invites the homeowner outdoors, connects outside to inside.


Brian’s contact info:

Email: Brian.qualls@uniquelighting.com

Phone: 480-381-6901


Question: Is it possible to achieve the bouncing light effect with all down-lighting in areas with dark-sky ordinances? (45:57)

Answer: You can aim light at walls using wall-washers with frosted lenses and/or shrouds, rather than using a bullet light or well light.


Question: What’s the best way to hide the wires of lights placed on roofs? (47:32)

Answer: Wire can be tucked into the gutter, stapled under the eaves, or even hidden in a channel cut into stucco.


Question: What is your rule of thumb for step lighting? For example, is the step light needed for each step, or every other step?  (48:48)

Answer: It’s highly situational. Brian tends to light every other step because placing lights on each step often requires an excessive number of fixtures. It also depends on the width of the stairs – if the staircase is excessively wide, he might light every step but stagger the lights in a triangular pattern.


Question: Do all manufacturers have dimmable fixtures? (49:34)

Answer: No. The majority of manufacturers’ LEDs are dimmable. The dimming can happen before or after the transformer. Some dimmers are specifically designed for 12 volts. Some are dimmable through an app.


Question: Any tips for bistro lighting on a small rectangular courtyard? (50:45)

Answer: It’s a matter of personal preference. However, Brian likes zigzagging the lights rather than running them around the perimeter.


Question: Does Unique Lighting Systems offer bistro lights? (51:38)

Answer: Yes. Unique came out with 12-volt bistro lights in 2018, making them one of the few manufacturers on the market offering 12- volt lights (as opposed to 120-volt). The lights are 100% LED and can be wired into landscape lighting systems. The wires are 25 feet long, and four fixtures in a row can be wired together.

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