Outdoor Lighting: Warm VS. Cool

Your exterior lighting plays a vital role in your home’s aesthetic, atmosphere, and safety. Without proper lighting, you can’t entertain guests or enjoy your outdoor space. But with different temperatures, styles, and designs, it can be difficult to choose the best light. So, what’s the difference between warm and cool exterior lights?

Warm outdoor lights are better suited for illuminating architectural elements and features. Warm lights create a welcoming, inviting, and calming atmosphere. Cooler lights can illuminate garden beds, pathways, or security devices. However, they can give off a more formal vibe.

So, is the answer really that simple – just use warmer lights on architecture and brighter lights for pathways? Not quite. Lights have different temperature scales, best-use scenarios, and styles. Read on for everything you need to know about warm versus cool lighting.

Should Outdoor Lighting Be Warm or Cool?

Closeup of craftsman outdoor and indoor luxury hanging light for interior and exterior illumination at night

The choice of outdoor lighting will come down to personal preference, style, and budget. Exterior lighting can highlight certain elements and features of the home. For instance, using warmer lights to accentuate architectural elements can create a more inviting and welcoming atmosphere.

If you’re trying to highlight a garden bed, foliage, or a path, you can use lights with a cooler temperature. Don’t go too bright – using brighter lights with cooler temperatures can bring an unnatural look to landscapes and environmental elements.

And before we get too much further, it’s probably going to be useful to check in and make sure we’re talking about the same things, so, for quick reference, here’s an example of a warm outdoor light: the SUNVIE 30W 3000K Warm White Landscape Light (on Amazon). Note the warmth is called out in ”kelvins” or ”lumens” on the product listing. Let’s make sure we know what that is.

What’s The Kelvin Scale?

Lights are measured on the Kelvin Scale. Kelvin measures the pure color temperature of light bulbs. The higher the Kelvin (K), the whiter the light will appear. The primary Kelvin range used in residential exterior lighting ranges between 2500K-4000K.

A good rule of thumb is to use warmer light temperatures (between 2500K-2700K) on architectural elements and cooler lights on plants in the landscape (3000K-4000K).

2000K and below: Gives off a dim, warm glow, similar to a flickering candle. Tiki torches, bonfires, and lanterns all give off similar light ranges.

2000K-4500K: Creates a soft, yellowish to white light. Good for highlighting architectural elements and dining areas.

4600K-6500K: Emits a blue-white light that can be seen as sterile, unnerving, and creepy. It can sometimes be used to illuminate organic elements or used for security purposes.

Can You Mix Warm and Cool Lighting Outside?

Yes, you can definitely mix warm and cool lights outside. This is actually a good idea, as you can highlight the different features and elements of your home.

Use “Moonlighting” Techniques

One way you can mix and match light temperatures on the exterior of your home is by using “moonlighting” techniques. Moonlighting refers to aiming lights at plants and foliage from up above.

Using 4000K lights with this technique can create a more natural and organic feel. Try aiming a 4000K light from a tree, pole, or other high areas to achieve this effect.

Use 2000K Lights For Entertainment

If you use your outdoor space for entertainment, consider using lights on the lower end of the Kelvin scale at around 2000K. This light temperature will create a warm reddish glow that mimics the light from a candle.

Placing this style of light around your entertainment area creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Try placing a few of these lights on an end table to transform your space into a rustic and intimate getaway.

Use 2700K For Landscapes

Psychologically speaking, warmer lights around 2700K are thought to be more welcoming and soothing than higher color temperatures. Use this light style for illuminating landscapes, garden beds, and other organic elements.

This lighting style will create a more natural and inviting feel when used properly.

3000K Can Highlight Greens and Blues

Although 3000K is a bit bright, this temperature can highlight different shades found in natural landscapes. Use 3000K lights to accentuate dark green vegetation with blue shades.

This light temperature may take a bit of trial and error to get perfect, but many pros prefer this light style.

4000K and Above Can Be Useful

If used correctly, 4000K lighting and above can be an effective lighting solution. 4000K lighting and above can still be utilized despite giving off an unnerving and unwelcoming feel. 4000K lighting highlights whites, blues, and bright greens in vegetation.

Lights above 4000K should be considered for pathways, porches, and security purposes.

How Does Color Temperature Affect the Mood?

Light bulb decor in outdoor party

Although there are no hard and fast rules to outdoor lighting, the color temperature certainly affects the mood. The best light temperature will be one that reflects the atmosphere you’re trying to create.

Warm: Warmer, or more yellow-ish lights, are best suited for highlighting architectural features. Warm lights are preferred for outdoor dining and lounging areas as well. This is because lights on the warmer spectrum create a more welcoming and inviting atmosphere.

Cold: Colder, or more blue-white lights, are best suited for highlighting garden beds and foliage. However, going too bright can create a sterile and unwelcoming vibe. Practice restraint when using colder lights outside – aim for temperatures around 2700K to 3000K.

What Type of Outdoor Lighting is Best for Security?

The best type of outdoor lighting to keep intruders out and your family safe will be brighter and colder. Cool-white lighting ranging around 4600K-6500K is often used for security purposes.

Lights on the lower end of this spectrum are commonly used for pathways and porches. Bolder lights closer to 6500K are more likely to be used as motion sensors and security lights.

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