outdoor lighting ideas

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the beginners guide to outdoor kitchen lighting design

Today I’m going to share outdoor lighting ideas for the patio. I remember the first time I tried to design lighting. The number of available fixtures & tips was overwhelming and frustrating, and the effect was so-so.

Outdoor Kitchen lighting is essential to building a functional area. It consists of three types of light: ambient, task, and accent. The most important goals are to illuminate grilling and dining areas. For satellite kitchens brightening up pathways is important too.

Below you’ll find a no-nonsense guide, in which I cut all the noises to show you exactly how to plan your outdoor lighting for the patio so it fits all your needs.

How to start designing outdoor lighting for the patio? 5 steps

Outdoor kitchen lighting: 5 steps to start
Outdoor kitchen lighting: 5 steps to start

To start the designing process it is important to do research. You’re here, so you’re going in a good direction. Now it’s time to get to know your own backyard better.

It’s time to sit down in a backyard and create a plan of the area you’re going to work with. It is going to help later on with both strategy and choosing light fixtures.

  1. Decide on the exact area that you’re going to work with. It can be bigger than an outdoor kitchen and include plants nearby or pathways.
  2. Draw the whole area in a proper scale, with an outdoor kitchen, dining table, fireplace, and everything else located in it.
  3. Mark all the workspaces, dining, and relaxing areas.
  4. Draw paths people are going to follow to reach the restroom and kitchen.
  5. Look around for interesting elements worth accentuating, like a brick wall, bar, grill, stone countertop, a plant/tree.

Now you have your plan. Time to figure your strategy.

Outdoor lighting planning strategies

Outdoor kitchen lighting strategies
Outdoor kitchen lighting strategies

Types of lighting are an important piece of knowledge. When the time for action comes it’s worth incorporating it in one of the strategies:

  1. The simple outdoor lighting strategy
  2. The standard outdoor lighting strategy
  3. The sophisticated outdoor lighting strategy

The simple approach is for everyone who wants to have a well-illuminated space according to function – so usually one type of task and ambient lights used when the action takes place.

Standard outdoor kitchen lighting design is going for the same goal, but with supplemental lighting. This means each part of an outdoor kitchen can have separate ambient lights, and task lights are tailored to specific tasks.

The standard outdoor kitchen lighting design can be taken to another level: sophisticated. Here the function is still important, but the goal is to use light to produce an effect: accentuate textures, show off details, build drama.

It is essential to decide, at the very beginning, on the strategy. A simple one is going to be the quickest. A standard one is going to bring in a bit of luxury, but more fixtures often result in more circuits needed, therefor may occur more pricy. A sophisticated design requires way more time and attention to detail. It may pay off though, as it can upgrade the whole area.

3 Outdoor lighting types

Outdoor kitchen lighting: 3 types
Outdoor lighting types

Outdoor kitchen lighting has three basic goals: keeping hosts and guests safe, creating the mood, and making food preparation convenient. All of these can be achieved with three types of lighting:

  • ambient,
  • task,
  • accent.

Ambient lighting is the one that keeps the whole area well illuminated. This one most of all is going to need a dimmer, as people need less and less light when the night is passing. In fact, lowering the intensity of light is going to help to fall asleep later. The intensity of light influences also the speed people eat. When the light is intense they tend to eat faster and finish night earlier. So if you wish for your party to last a dimmer can be a useful tool.

Task lights’ goal is to brighten up every area where work takes place – from a countertop to inside of the shelf. This is the crucial element for safety. Cooking outside can be a pleasure, but also a challenge. First of all insects – when you don’t see them you can both cook them or eat them. Second is serving uncooked food. The third is working with high temperatures with limited views. All mentioned should be avoided.

Accent lights are used to stress the surface structure or a specific element of the area. This last element to the outdoor kitchen lighting puzzle is able to improve the overall look of the area, with attention to detail or plant, but also guide guests, and make accents where needed. Finding a switch, or accessing a house shouldn’t be problematic when they’re well designed.

What is important to know at this very moment is: one fixture can fit more than one type. The design can be minimal, but it doesn’t have to. It all depends on your budget, needs, and taste.

Now it’s time to talk a bit about different fixtures that can be used for each type and their benefits. These paragraphs are going to be useful especially for simple or standard strategy. To a sophisticated approach, we’re going to move later on.

Below is the list of outdoor light fixtures and their categorization.

Fixture typeAmbientTaskAccent
A fan with light fixture
String lights
Recessed outdoor kitchen lights
Grill lights
Above countertop lighting
Under countertop lighting
Cabinet lights
Track lights
Landscape lights
Pathway lights

As you can see there are plenty of fixtures that can deliver more than one lighting type. This matters when you try to limit the number of fixtures, as more fixtures usually need more power. This results in both: higher monthly bills and an additional budget for the electrician.

The first thing to design in ambient lighting. Look at your space now to figure which areas need enough light to be able to clean them during the night. Spills happen, food sometimes ends up on the floor, and not everybody enjoys feeding raccoons and insects.

Outdoor kitchen ambient lights

Outdoor kitchen lighting: Ambient lights
Outdoor kitchen lighting: Ambient lights

Ambient lights are usually used in the cooking and dining areas. There are so many types! An ambient fixture is an element of outdoor kitchen lighting that can add a lot to the style to the area, as well as bring additional function. My all-time favorite is a fan with a light source.

Must-have of the outdoor kitchen area: a fan

Outdoor kitchen lighting: A fan
Outdoor kitchen lighting: A fan

Why is it so great you may ask. Let me tell you. First of all, it is a device that combines plenty of much-wanted features. It not only illuminates the space but also adds breeze when the scorcher appears. Some are that multifunctional, that they can also spray the mist (the dreamiest ones).

Fan moves, so spiders are not in love with it (as the opposite of string lights), and so are not other insects. In fact, it helps big time with keeping the whole area flying insects free. And this is crucial at night when the lights are on.

There are plenty of fans to choose from. There are inexpensive options available on the internet and in local stores, are more fancy ones made by designers. In my opinion, they can fit any outdoor kitchen style, as the number of fixtures is crazy.

It works great for an outdoor kitchen, and it is excellent for the dining area. The important thing is to figure the proper size. Outdoor fans come in multiple sizes. The bigger space, the bigger the fan has to be (or more have to be installed).

Space sizeFan size
up to 75 sq ft29 – 36 in
76 – 144 sq ft36-42 in
144 – 225 sq ft44 in
225 – 400 sq ft50-54 in

How to work with the table? If your space is 144 sq ft you can either install one fan 36-42 inch or two 29-36 inch. One is going to work better in an area closer to square, two might be a better solution for rectangle space.

How about using a fan when the ceiling is finished, or the enclosure is not permanent? I know two ways:

  • portable fans with light sources (they come with a cable to plug into the socket),
  • standing fans with light sources (same story).

Portable and standing lights may be useful also in places, where the weather changes drastically during the year. Snowy winter is not an issue when your fixture is stored in the garage, is it?

Outdoor kitchen lighting: chandelier

Outdoor kitchen lighting: A chandelier
Outdoor kitchen lighting: A chandelier

This is a fixture that is not going to work for every style, as it is usually a statement (btw if you’re looking for advice on styling your outdoor kitchen area with light fixtures go to this blog post). It can help though with design. It is going to draw the eyes’ attention, and though can help in creating a focal point in the area. It can be used to full the eye, as using a-slightly-to-big one may actually visually enlarge the space.

Chandeliers work best on patios, as they can be used to enhance the much-wanted indoor-outdoor experience. What is great about this exact fixture, it can be used for sophisticated strategy, as it is perfect to get a glitter effect.

It is important though to use outdoor-rated chandeliers. And yes, it applies to all outdoor fixtures, but it drastically cuts the number of accessible products in this category.

String lights create an atmosphere

Outdoor kitchen lighting: String lights
Outdoor kitchen lighting: String lights

String lights can add a tone of charm to the whole area. They’re inexpensive, look amazing, and illuminate with a soft light a lot of space. There are plenty of rules to follow with them though. I find this guide helpful, especially from the technical perspective (choosing proper bulbs and electrical safety limits).

There are at least 6 patterns to hang string lights:

  • The Horizon Point
  • The Scalloped Square
  • The Tent Point
  • The V
  • The X
  • The Zig-Zag W

In my opinion 3 of them are going to work better than the rest: the horizon Point, the tent point, and the zig-zag w. These patterns have more bulbs close to each other, so they’re going to deliver more intense light.

String lights length should be the space measure + 2-6 ft. It needs to hang a bit to look good. So if your space is 30 ft wide, your string lights should be between 32 and 36, depending on how much hung are you looking for.

How about traditional scones?

Outdoor kitchen lighting: Scones
Outdoor kitchen lighting: Scones

These lights can do miracles to the area. There are three different configurations of outdoor scones:

  • uplight,
  • downlight,
  • up/ downlight,

Uplight, scones are designed to cast light upwards. They’re designed to make the area larger and more open.

Downlight scones can make an area look warm and cozy. If you have the feeling, that your outdoor kitchen area is too big it is the one to go for.

Up/ downlight scones give light in both directions and help to balance the space. These are my favorites. Most often this is the type to go for, especially as an ambient lighting source.

There are plenty of types of outdoor scones, like half-moon, lantern, candle, sign light. If you already have them around the exterior of the house buying the same is a good idea.

Wall scones are installed 60″ – 72″ above the finished floor, and traditionally would be placed 6′ apart. What is important to know is they should be installed 24″ – 30″ above the countertop.

So how to figure perfect hight for yourself? If you’re not going to install scones above your outdoor kitchen countertop you can simply choose from the rage whatever suits you best. If your countertop is 38″ high the end part of scones’ shade should be placed 62″ – 68″ high. For a standard 36″ countertop the distance from the floor to the scones’ shade should be 60″ – 66″.

Scones are working great in the areas that are not too deep, in others, additional light sources need to be added. They work well with multiple styles. It is pretty easy to find modern, rustic, or traditional.

Recessed outdoor kitchen lights

Outdoor kitchen lighting: Recessed lights
Outdoor kitchen lighting: Recessed lights

This is a solution for every type of design. It allows illuminating all the important spots and gives an even effect. It’s hidden in the ceiling structure, so does not affect the style of the area too much.

Planning them depends on your needs. If you’re going for an even illumination 1 recessed light should be installed for every 4-6 square foot of the ceiling. It doesn’t have to be done this way on the whole ceiling, but it is worth illuminating this way crucial spots, like dining and cooking areas.

I would recommend mixing it with other types of light, as the later it gets the less light is needed. The dimmer is a must-have solution for recessed lights.

Outdoor kitchen task lights

There are multiple types of light that can be used as task lights in the outdoor kitchen area. Below I’ll reveal my picks.

Outdoor kitchen grill lights

Outdoor kitchen lighting: Grill lights
Outdoor kitchen lighting: Grill lights

If there would be only one thing to illuminate with task light in an outdoor kitchen area it should be the king, I mean the grill. There are plenty of solutions to choose from. Inexpensive clip-on the handle lights, on countertop lamps with deck or clamp base, halogens, downlight scones. There is literally something for every budget.

The great advantage of such lights is the possibility to turn it on and off when needed (avoiding flying insects). They can be assembled also in a no roof outdoor kitchen island.

It is important to choose one that provides enough light for cooking. The amount to go for is 100 lumens or more.

As this one makes cooking in the dark way more convenient it is also an excellent gift idea for fellow outdoor chefs.

Outdoor kitchen counter lights

Outdoor kitchen lighting: Counter lights
Outdoor kitchen lighting: Counter lights

Preparation of food without light is not as dangerous as grilling it, but using sharp tools in a dark is rather not a too clever idea. There are plenty of solutions here as well.

Outdoor kitchen countertop lighting is going to illuminate pretty well the dry zone of your kitchen, so the space you prepare your food at, before grilling. Installing lights slightly above the countertop is going to help a lot with preparation, but also accent the material it was made of. It is going to add a special effect on polished surfaces.

Outdoor kitchen under countertop lighting, on the other hand, helps a lot with orientation in the space and shows off the structure of the finish. The light goes down, so it is going to accentuate the beauty of stone or brick. It also shows where precisely the cabinets are, which is not that obvious in the dark.

Outdoor kitchen led lighting

Outdoor kitchen lighting: A led strip
Outdoor kitchen lighting: A led strip

Led lighting at the outdoor kitchen can help a lot. Especially as led strip lights mounted under the countertop edge and in cabinets lights. If you store anything useful in these cabinets it’s worth adding a few lights to them to be able to see what is inside without a flashlight.

If you’re looking for convenience led strips and cabinet lights should be placed on your list. They’re not expensive, but super-helpful.

There are fellow chefs who like to celebrate specific occasions, like the 4th of July, with proper decorations. How about using led strips to show a patriotic attitude? This is an additional advantage of led strips with a remote.

How about an outdoor kitchen pendant?

 Outdoor kitchen lighting: A pendant fixture
Outdoor kitchen lighting: A pendant fixture

This is a type of lighting that is rather not going to work with the simple strategy, but can work pretty well with standard and sophisticated, as it usually is a part of supplemental lighting (turned on while needed). It can lovely create a focal point above the bar or dining area.

These fixtures are usually hung on a sight level, so have to reflect the overall style of the outdoor kitchen. If you’re going for rustic woven or metal can do great. If you’re going for industrial a metal, glass or concrete can work well. For modern look glass and geometrical forms are going to do an excellent job.

There are multiple rules to follow while installing pendant fixtures:

  1. They should be installed at least 12″ from the edge of the countertop
  2. They should be installed about 30″ apart
  3. Bottom of the lamp should be 30″ – 36″ above the countertop

There are multiple types to choose from: drum, dome, linear, lanterns, bowl, and mini. There are so many outdoor-rated pendants it is easy to choose fixtures that fit a specific style.

It’s worth knowing that pendants can actually be a task, accent, and ambient light fixture. With dark color shades, pendants are going to work as a task lighting. Ambient lighting can be created when a pendant is equipped with clear or light-colored shades. Accent lighting can be created out of two pendants hanging over the side table or a focal point.

Outdoor kitchen accent lighting fixtures

Accent lights can not only beautify the space but also guide guests. It is easy to omit them, but they add so much to the overall design of the area it is not worth it. Some of the fixtures described before work as accent lighting too, but below additional types are explained.

It is harder with accent lights to figure their purpose. First of all, what we’re looking for is creating an effect, which interests the eyes. It can be used to guide people – show the light switch, or entrance. If space lacks a real focal point it can be created with light. Options are really limited by imagination and budget.

Outdoor areas are very often constructed out of interesting materials like stone or concrete. What outdoor kitchen lighting can do is showing them off at night in a whole new light. The texture is something accent lights are going to enhance in an amazing way.

If there is a great plant or tree in the area it’s worth considering illuminating it. The effect often exceeds expectations.

Outdoor kitchen track lighting

outdoor kitchen track lighting
Outdoor kitchen lighting: track lighting

It can work easily work as a multifunctional light source. It can accentuate the smoothness of the wall, by washing it with light. Track lighting is wonderful for visual tricks. It can be used for a sophisticated strategy. It allows also to illuminate multiple areas at the same time.

Installing a track light is quite tricky. If the ceiling is up to 9″ track lights should be placed 2″ – 3″ from the wall. For higher ceiling the distance is 3″ – 4″. The distance between fixtures should be same as the distance from the wall.

The directional recessed fixture or downlight

outdoor kitchen lighting wall features
Outdoor kitchen lighting: Wall structure

The recessed fixture goal is to show the texture of the surface. Do you remember listing all the features of your outdoor kitchen area? If one of them is, let’s say, brick wall, installing a recessed light close to it, is going to show the structure in an amazing way.

The downlight goal is the opposite. If the surface is super soft, like a polished stone, it is going to enhance the smoothness. Track lights can do it really well.

Landscape lights

Outdoor kitchen lighting: Landscape

This is actually an amazing way to add an interesting factor to outdoor kitchen lighting. The great benefit of an outdoor kitchen is its location. Stressing nature in the backyard cannot be wrong.

This trick works with both, plants and trees. It can move a visual border of the area a little further and enlarge it.

How to enhance outdoor kitchen lighting design to be sophisticated?

sophisticated outdoor kitchen lighting design
Outdoor kitchen lighting: How to use a sophisticated strategy?

Now you know a lot about the possibilities an outdoor kitchen lighting has to offer. The basic design offers mainly function. Standard allows you to illuminate specific areas of an outdoor kitchen area when needed. Sophisticated is all about creating new quality.

There are multiple effects an outdoor kitchen lighting can produce, as:

  • key light (shining light on an object from a single point source of light),
  • fill light (shining light on an object from two sources for more drama),
  • silhouetting (intense of diffused fill light showing off the silhouette),
  • sparkle effect (producing sharp reflections on specular surfaces),
  • glitter effect (a light fixture itself produces an effect),
  • grazing surfaces (light strikes the surface at a sharp angle)
  • washing surfaces (light strikes the surface at a wider angle).

To bo above the functional design taking these into consideration is crucial. Going for sophisticated design is most often not choosing different fixtures, but using chosen purposely.

Outdoor kitchen lighting technicals

How many lumens?

That is actually a very important question to ask, and a great check-up for an outdoor kitchen lighting design. There are areas of an outdoor kitchen area that need plenty of light, and some can have less. The dining area (table, bar) needs about 30 – 40 lumens per 1 sq ft. An outdoor kitchen needs about 30 – 40 lumens per 1 sq ft. Grill and sink should get about 70 – 80 lumens per 1 sq ft.

How many lux?

This is a way to rather figure the power of a fixture than the overall design. 1 lux is the size of the area a candle can illuminate. A standard 100W bulb produces about 1,500 – 1,700 lumens.

How he fixtures I choose, affect electricity costs?

If you want to be cost-efficient in the future it is worth picking LEDs from the very beginning. LED lights use 50% less energy than CFLs and last up to 5 times longer. Additionally, they work well in outdoor temperatures and become fully bright immediately.

What temperature lights to go for?

The best temperature for the outdoor kitchen lights is 2700 – 3000 Kelvin (warm color temperatures). These lights are used after the sunset, so the goal is to create a calm, pleasing environment. As the night passes by it’s worth lowering the intensity of light.

The last but not least: A dimmer

This is an absolute must-have for the area. The needs of people change as the night passes, as they’re getting to get rest. The intensity of light plays a major role here. To be able to comfortably use the space adding a dimmer is crucial.

As it is so important for our species it can be also used to manage the party. This is actually what restaurants do. If the light is intense people eat faster and leave faster too. Using a dimmer, on the other hand, can elongate the party.

I hope this guide made an outdoor kitchen lighting design easier for you. What is the most important part of the process for you? Please share your opinion in the comment section.


Magdalena Dutkiewicz

I like looking for solutions that lead to specific plans. Of course, looking for inspiration for outdoor kitchens is something I really enjoy too. But translating it into an action plan is something that pushes me to act.

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