If you’ve been spending these lovely early fall evenings outdoors, you already know that there are a few essentials for making night hangs a success: a cozy blanket, perhaps a small fire, and definitely some good lighting. The blanket speaks for itself, but the lighting, well, that’s a bit more complicated.
Great outdoor lighting has to be many things at once: it should illuminate the space, but not be so bright that you feel like you’re in a fluorescent-lit parking lot; it should add ambience, but not be so precious or fussy that you, as the host, are distracted by its maintenance; it should work with the space you have, so that you’re not required to rewire your backyard in order to spend an evening on the porch. Above all, it should make your space feel really special, so that every time you step outside you feel a twinge of delight, whether you’re entertaining or enjoying one final drink before bed.
To achieve these lofty lighting goals requires some creativity, so I turned to Jennifer Taylor, the woman behind the event planning company A Taylored Affair. Jennifer designs everything from over-the-top weddings to special occasion parties to corporate events, and adds a touch of magic to every party she helps plan.
When I ask her what her go-to outdoor lighting strategy is, she laughs. “There are so many options!” she says. “It all depends on the feel that you’re going for. The first thing to think about is what do you want your dinner or party or space to feel like: do you want it to feel rustic or fancy or cozy or casual or nautical? Think about what you want it to feel like and then, going from the outside in, trying to figure out the lighting for that.” Jennifer is obviously a planner, but her advice holds true for the rest of us. “Look at the space that you’ve got and figure out how to work with it, then plan it out and think about what you want it to look like,” she says.
Here are some top tips for creating magical outdoor lighting, whatever your vibe and whatever your space.
“When you’re stringing lights, try to get a structure to string it to, rather than stringing from tree to tree to house to whatever, because that can often look like a connect-the-dots adventure. If you go to Home Depot and buy poles and create some sort of structure, it makes such a difference. It makes it look like it was really intentional, which makes the space feel complete.”
“As a DIY thing, something we’ve done that looks really cool is you can turn Christmas lights into vintage-looking string lights by putting a hole in a ping pong ball or using an X-Acto knife to make an X in the ball and putting it over the light. You can use basic white Christmas lights and it makes them so cute. It’s such an easy way to elevate the lighting.”
“If you’re going to put up a giant canopy of string lights, that could be something that you decide to do for the summer. You could install it every summer, the way people might have their air conditioners removed every winter. It’s something that will look good all summer long.”
“Always spend more money on candles so that you get the long-burning ones because otherwise they won’t last throughout the party. You don’t want them to go out while dinner is going on. It’s not that much more expensive and it’s so worth it.”
“I’m a big fan of flooding everything with candles. Do a long table with dense candles all along it instead of flowers on the table. Candles can take the place of flowers often, especially if you’ve got a nice garden with a lot going on, or if you have a floral-heavy backyard.”
“You can get away with LED candles outside; inside they look like LED candles, but outside they look good and more natural.”
“You can use tea lights as filler, so if you create a dense candle table—which I love, I think it looks so good—you can use tea lights to create that look without having to use so many high votives, which can be expensive.”
“Tea lights need a vessel, some kind of votive holder for them to go into. But a votive holder doesn’t actually have to be a votive holder; it can be a plate from your cupboard or a candy dish or a makeup jar or ramekins.”
“If you put a grouping of bud vases with one flower each and one taper candle and a few little tea lights in little glass jars, you’ve got a beautiful, simple centerpiece.”
“I always think a pool is something fun to use. If there’s a pool, you can place lights inside it. Surrounding the pool is great, whether you’re doing hurricane candles or luminarias or those LED white balls in different sizes. Throw some fun lights in there, put a vignette of furniture around it like it’s a waterfront. Pretend your pool is a pond!”
“For anything that’s not tabletop lighting, whether it’s lanterns, luminarias, LED balls or anything like that, create borders with them so you’re giving the illusion of a room outside.”
“Basic luminarias are a good way to create a hallway-type space. Think about the actual bag that the candle goes in, there are so many options.”
“Consider the entryway, and how guests are approaching the dinner. If there’s a driveway, uplighting on the trees can create a tunnel of light as guests are approaching.”
“Let’s say you have a big beautiful tree—you can hang Mason jars with tea lights inside all along the tree, almost like a Christmas tree, to highlight that tree. (Remember that someone’s going to have to light all these candles, so it’s a good idea to line all the Mason jars up without the tea light inside and then just drop the lit tea light in when you’re ready to go.)”
“Meteor lights work well for a more formal look. They come in a clump and they look so good on trees. You hang them with the flow of the tree and they add more glimmer and magic.”
“Tiki torches are fun, but not too many. You don’t want a wall of tiki torches, but a couple here and there can be really fun. Or place them further away, sort of in the distance, which adds a nice touch. The same with LED balls.”