Uplighting vs. Downlighting Landscapes: The Difference and When to Use Them

The science of perfect landscape lighting is more complex and nuanced than it might seem on the surface. Even concepts that seem simple enough demand an understanding of proper technique before you can leverage them into a stunning landscape lighting aesthetic. Two of the most-used landscape lighting techniques are also two of the most misunderstood and oft-confused terms. We’re talking about uplighting vs. downlighting, of course.

There’s more to uplighting and downlighting than up vs. down. The visual aesthetic these two lighting strategies create can change the way your landscape and its features look, and it takes careful consideration to choose the right lighting approach. Let’s take a look at the chief differences between uplighting and downlighting, and when to consider using one vs. the other.

What is landscape uplighting?
Landscape uplighting is aptly-named because of the direction the light is cast. These lights are mounted below the feature they’re lighting, so they cast a swath of light upwards. The result is an imposing feature. This is because uplighting casts shadows upward, making the feature seem bigger and more enveloping. It also creates a lowlighting aesthetic, where shadows are more dramatic, giving the lit feature more dimension.

One of the many unique opportunities of uplighting is to play with depth by moving the light closer or further from the feature you’re uplighting. Closer creates more dramatic effects; further away softens the intensity of uplighting. There are also opportunities to create depth and perspective using different lighting intensities and beam concentration.

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Benefits of landscape uplighting

  • Enhances shadows and creates depth using undertones
  • Brings dimension to flat surfaces like fences and architecture
  • Great layering properties that work with background lighting
  • Many great options for customization using depth, light style

Opportunities for uplighting

  • Statues are one of the best landscape features to uplight. Uplighting statues creates dramatic effect that’s perfect for standalone features that deserve focal recognition.
  • Uplighting standalone trees is a great way to bring ambiance to your landscape. Uplighting will catch the bark and canopy to deliver amazing light and shadow effects.
  • Tall architectural features such as pillars and trellises benefit from uplighting because the light attributes to their already-imposing statue, providing depth.

What is landscape downlighting?
Downlighting is, for all intents and purposes, the opposite of uplighting in that it casts light downward from a higher fixed position. Downlighting is generally used for broad illumination, similar to how you’d use flood lighting from a lower perspective. The chief purpose of downlighting is illumination for the sake of illumination—not necessarily to distinguish any one accent.

That said, there are ways to customize downlighting and its effects on whatever you’re illuminating. For example, you can change the swath of the light for different lighting effects, as well as the hue to create a certain type of ambiance. Wider lighting is more general-purpose illumination, while focused downlighting is a great complement to specific features.

Benefits of landscape downlighting

  • Great for lighting larger areas and swaths
  • Ideal for lighting ground-level features and plants
  • Great layering properties that work with feature lighting
  • Better for softer and less concentrated lighting

Opportunities for downlighting

  • Ground-level features are best downlit because they’re not tall enough to benefit from the effects of uplighting. This often includes shrubs and bushes.
  • Downlighting is also optimal for areas where uplighting might not be possible, such as near walkways or where terrain prohibits proper lighting at ground level.
  • Areas are better downlit; features are better uplit. Downlighting is a great way to illuminate the entire side of your home or a full garden, for example.

Using uplighting and downlighting together
While there are benefits to both uplighting and downlighting, the real benefit to your landscape’s ambiance comes from using them together. Uplighting and downlighting are very complementary when used together in the right capacity.

Generally, downlighting creates a soft ambiance that provides general illumination for an area. Then, uplighting provides more focused lighting opportunities that distinguish specific features within the context of a moderated backdrop. For example, downlighting a flower bed can highlight the unique colors of your foliage, while uplighting a trellis with creeping plants on it makes for a distinguishing focal point. The same is true for a water feature. Downlighting from nearby architecture illuminates the water, while uplighting on a waterfall brings depth to the entire feature.

The trick to combining uplighting and downlighting is to understand the role each plays in distinguishing landscape features. Recognizing the background potential of downlighting and the featuring capabilities of uplighting unlocks new opportunities for depth, ambiance and aesthetic across the entirety of your landscape.

Create captivating landscape depth
Used accordingly across your landscape, uplighting and downlighting can transform your property in a variety of aesthetically pleasing ways. The result is curb appeal after dark, with lighting that’s practical and beautiful.

Be sure to uplight and standout features you want to bring attention to on your property. These are the first items people will see when they look at your property from the curb. Often, it’s statues, trees, unique architecture, flagpoles, retaining walls and more. These features should immediately attract attention and will serve as the defining articles of your landscape.

Downlighting around your house is the most practical, since lighting needs to be mounted higher than whatever it’s illuminating. This makes it great for subtle architecture, planting beds, ground-level shrubbery, hardscaping and more. It’s also best-used to provide general ambiance as a backdrop for your uplit centerpieces.

Make your landscape stand out
Strategic uplighting and downlighting for your landscape have the power to come together to create a wealth of depth and focal cues for anyone looking at your property. They can make it seem bigger, broader and more complex than your landscape might look in flat lighting, and will exude personality. Don’t be afraid to tinker with lighting intensity, depth and hue when mixing uplighting and downlighting, either. The right combination of both is the secret to making a landscape stand out.