Every property is unique, and outdoor lighting design should help draw the eye to what makes each landscape special. Focal point lighting is a great way to highlight distinctive items such as a statue, fountain, arbour, water feature, or even a unique tree or wall.
Often, focal point lighting is a great candidate for using a singular fixture or lighting effect not used elsewhere on the property. That helps accentuate the specialness of the focal point, by making the lighting effect as distinctive in context as the subject of the light.
There is no single type of “best” effect for focal point lighting. Really, it usually comes down to using an effect for the focal point that is simply different than most of the other lighting effects around it. A spot light isn’t inherently a focal point light, but a single spot light after five path lights will stand out.
Focal point lighting will often break a pattern, such as by introducing a new light shape, or intensity, or even direction. That doesn’t mean focal point lighting needs to be brighter. It’s difference that draws attention, not always brightness.
Of course, you need to establish a pattern before you can break it. Just like you don’t want to use too many fonts on a page, you generally don’t want to use too many different effects in a design. Not everything should be the same, but not everything should be different either.
A common technique for focal point lighting is to narrow the effect around the subject. Spot lighting a piece of art or a fountain, for instance, is a great way to separate it from its surroundings. This is especially effective with items against darker backgrounds, or where the colour and/or texture of the subject is very different from its backdrop. In this case, the surroundings become a sort of frame or stage for the subject.
When the focal subject is close to its backdrop, such as a small statue nestled in a garden, then the focal point lighting fixture should generally be placed slightly offset from the typical viewing angle. This will let the subject’s own shadow create a dark outline, making the subject stand out from the surroundings.
Statues should generally be illuminated from an oblique angle, so that shadows on the statue help bring out its 3D shape. Straight-on lighting can artificially flatten a statue, while lighting too much from the side will create long shadows across the statue that can also wash it out. A slightly askew angle is usually best to create the right balance of depth and highlight.
Using direction to draw focus, rather than colour or intensity, can add emotional impact to the design. It feels to the viewer like they’ve selected the focus on their own rather than having it demanded of them, which means the design can have more personal resonance. It just “feels right”.
For instance, if a design was lighting most trees with well lights or up-facing flood lights, then a subtle way to draw the eye to one particular tree would be to illuminate it from an angle instead. All the lights could be the same flood effect, and share the same colour and intensity, but the direction of the light helps highlight a unique view.
A good rule of thumb with focal point lighting is to keep the word “singular” in mind. That doesn’t mean a focal point should only have one fixture, but rather than the design should underscore its uniqueness. A given zone of a property should probably have a single focal point light. If everything is a focal point, then nothing is. As one of our designers puts it, “not everyone in the band can play lead.”
When you’re selecting the best focal point lighting for your unique property, we’d love to help. Give us a call any time for a free on-site lighting design consolation.