Light Your Way

Outdoor Party Lights: Lighting Ideas and Fixtures for Your Patio, Deck and Yard.

Outdoor party lights can add an entirely new dimension to your backyard celebration.


Outdoor party lights can completely transform your backyard and your entire celebration. Almost like in a theater, you are working with an fully black backdrop in which you can place whatever lights you wish. As a result, you have great control over the appearance and mood of your party. However, there are some very common mistakes made in the selection of outdoor party lights. If your yard, deck or patio doesn’t have sufficient lighting to begin with, no amount of decorative lighting will make it a pleasant place for a party. Your guests will still be stumbling around in the dark.

As a result, picking the best outdoor party lights is a matter of first setting the right tone for your overall backyard lighting, and then adding the decorative lights that are normally called “party lights”. This will create a celebration space that is both useful and attractive.

Step One: Background Lighting

Outdoor Party Lights

Candles can make wonderful decorative objects outdoors, but generally provide poor lighting.

There are two common mistakes made when choosing outdoor party lights. The first one is to simply hang a few decorations (often Christmas lights or candles) around the yard. While this is pretty, it’s actually terrible for parties. When we are inside, we don’t simply hang up some Christmas lighting, turn off all the other lights, and call it “party lighting”. Yet somehow this mistake gets made outdoors.

The other mistake is to simply turn on the porch light or even a security light and then add some decoration. The problem with this is that people naturally want to see. They will end up huddled around the sole source of useful lighting, which is blinding to look at and attracts bugs.

Instead, outdoor party lighting follows exactly the same principles as any other lighting. People need to be able to see what they are doing. As a result, outdoor party lights will include all of the standard types of lighting.

Task Lighting

There should be enough lighting for any tasks that need to be performed. For outdoor parties, this could include barbecuing, changing music, getting food, mixing drinks or eating. In addition, make sure you light anything potentially dangerous, like stairs, large obstacles like rocks and your swimming pool.

People Dancing at Light

Poor party lighting leads to light bombs and people huddled under a single porch light.

Barbecuing lights follow the same basic principles of other cooking lights. First, use a white light like LED light fixtures or a fluorescent light, not an incandescent or halogen light. This prevents your food from being lit with pink light, which can easily lead to overcooking (especially if you are used to cooking during the day). Also, don’t put the light behind the cook, or he will be dodging his shadow even more than cooking. A common way of lighting the barbecue is to use a desk lamp (if your barbecue is near the deck rail or near a window) or arc floor lamp (if not) to light the food clearly.

Ambient Lighting

People’ faces should be lit enough so that they do not look like they are encased in shadow. Normally, this is done by bouncing light off of walls and ceilings, exactly what you are missing outdoors. Instead, you can cheat by using multiple frosted light sources that don’t cause glare. You can also create ambient lighting by bouncing light off of an exterior wall, fences, trees and the ground.

Ambient lighting can be created by stringing lights across the party area. The lights can be affixed to trees, the walls of the house or even to poles that are temporarily placed in the ground. If this is done, make sure of a few things. First, make sure the light is properly frosted, as the light will otherwise create quite a bit of glare. Second, make sure that these lights are not just decorations. If they are not bright, they won’t really light anything (which is why Christmas lights are not suited to this purpose).

Accent Lighting

Accent lighting highlights the features of your yard or patio that you want to accentuate. Lighting statues, plants and architectural features provides your outdoor space with dimension, improving the overall feel of your outdoor space. Accent lighting can provide some ambient lighting, but don’t rely on it too heavily.

Some of the best places to light are your plants and your pool. Plants should be lit using a white or blue light, as redder lights make plants look like they are dying (which why they turn red in the autumn). The pool can be lit in any way you like, but be careful not to put too much blue light on your guest’s faces, or it makes them look clammy.

Step Two: Decorative Lighting

Now comes the fun part. What differentiates outdoor party lighting from hanging-out-on-the-porch-with-my-friends lighting is the use of decorative outdoor party lights. What makes lights decorative is that they basically aren’t being used to actually illuminate anything. Rather, their goal is just to look like attractive sources of lights in themselves.


One of the most common sorts of decorative outdoor party lights is candle lighting. Candle lighting is a much dimmer light than other forms of lighting, and it has a pleasant motion to it which is strangely mesmerizing. Like any firelight, it evokes the feelings of warmth and security we historically had in the cave.

Decorative Candle Holder

Candle housings provide the opportunity to express your creativity.

Candle housings are a great opportunity to show off your creativity to your guests. Just about anything can be suitable candle housing, and you can make your own unique light fixtures for your party. For example, you can use the following as housing for your candles:

  • Glass bottles.
  • Pottery (with holes in it).
  • Flower pots (fill the pot and put the bottom of the candle inside the filler).
  • Cups or bowls (use the same strategy as flower pots).
  • Old pots with holes drilled in them.
  • Glasses (make sure the candle is secure inside using sand or candle gel).
  • Large fruits like pumpkins (jack-o’-lanterns are only one example; there are other options such as watermelons).
  • Literally thousands of decorative candle holders that can be purchased.

Just about anything that is either partially glass or has holes in it can serve as a housing for your candles. Just make sure that the candle is secure and that anything flammable is kept away from the candle’s flame. Don’t use dishes or other cooking implements you intend to use again, however. Flame can permanently damage some dishes.

Candles are a fire hazard, so they should be used away from guests. Don’t use them on tables that guests are using, or you run the risk of people’s hair catching on fire as they lean over. It is very common to use open flame in centerpieces, but this is a dangerous mistake. Instead, nestle candles on the various raised locations around your backyard, such as on your fence, on your porch railing and on windowsills.


Lanterns are another attractive type of outdoor party lights. These lights can provide beautiful decoration or even various amounts of ambient or even task lighting when used appropriately.

Japanese Lanterns

Asian lanterns provide a balance of ambient and decorative lighting.

One option is to use a string of lanterns, perhaps Asian paper lanterns, across the edge of your party area. This marks off the edge of your party space, providing a sense of dimension to your entire outdoor area. Alternatively, these lights can be strung across your party area from trees, fences or the side of the house, just like overhead ambient lighting. Such lighting is usually decorative, not actually lighting your space, but only appearing to do so.

Strings of lanterns can be lit in various ways. Asian lanterns provide an especially good balance of decoration and ambiance. One option is to use candles, though if you use paper lanterns, this could potentially be a fire hazard. A second option is to use a string of LED outdoor lighting housed in each of the lanterns along the string. Rather than have these lights be bare (or almost bare), using lanterns removes any glare and warms the light. Just be sure to use white or pink led lights.

Putting It All Together

Outdoor party lights can lend excitement and vibrancy to your outdoor space, making your outdoor party something to be remembered. When putting together outdoor lighting, simply follow these steps:

  • First light your outdoor space using the same principles as with indoor lighting
  • Next, take advantage of all the creative options available for outdoor lighting, including candles and lanterns

When these steps are taken in the right order, you’ll create an outdoor party to remember.


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