How Do I Light Up a Tree?

I guess I should start by adding a disclaimer to this article by highlighting the “I” in the title of this article. I will never use the word “should” because that word implies that “I” am the expert and end all for How to light, up or down a tree or grouping of trees. Through my experience, the techniques and fixtures that I use seem to work well for me and my clients are pleased with the results. Professionals in Florida, for example, my have entirely different methods for getting the results that they desire and if I can learn from them a better way to do lighting, then that is ultimately what I desire. But for now, that’s my statement and I’m sticking with it.

Question: What Effect are you Trying to Achieve?

Great question and with lighting it is not always what do you want to light but what effect do you want to achieve. Using our example when you want to light up a tree, do you want to highlight the silhouette of the tree with a soft light? Add to it, do you want to add color? Is the target tree against the structure so that the light is only going to be visible from the front? Is the tree visible on all 4 sides and you want to light it evenly on all those sides? Add to these questions, is the target tree small enough and open enough that you may want to light it from the from and throw the shadow onto the wall behind it or for that matter the reverse. The bottom line is that, as is always the case, there are many ways to achieve artistic results through lighting. Hence the reason that I enjoy lighting as an art form and as a profession.

Typically Speaking …..

In our area (Virginia, DC, Maryland) if you were to look at a large cross section of lighting owners, commercial or residential, the typical tree is lighted with one light fixture. The fixture is typically a bullet style uplight and sometimes some variation of a par 36 fixture. My guess is that the fixture has a beam spread of around 40 degrees. For a bullet light the lumens may be 250 and a par 36 slightly higher. The one fixture configuration may be perceived economics as customers still ask “how much will it cost in electricity costs”. My retort to my clients on that questions is that you will not even see the difference. My retort to a colleague on that question may be a bit more brusque something like the former and add to it “if they are adding outdoor lighting to their home or business, they can afford the very little uptick in electricity usage”.

Par 36 LED vs Bullet Lights

A single light up lights a very narrow portion of the tree.

I am currently working on a new construction project for an existing home. There are two beautiful trees, a Bloodgood Japanese Maple and a mature Crape Myrtle. Both are multi-stem and both have a canopy spread of 12′ to 15′. Using 1 light to light the trunk and part of the canopy will produce the results of lighting a small portion of the tree even if you use a 60 degree beam spread. Two will do a better job. Even using a higher output lamp will still produce good results but not “great” results.

Par 36 Lighting. The entire under canopy is well lighted.

If you were to look at photo-metrics of these lamps you would see that if produces a fairly consistent beam. These bullet lights are suitable for going fairly high vs spreading out. That’s why I prefer to use a Par 36 lamp. The spread is wider and while the beam intensity does not go as high as a bullet light, it does produce a better range and width. And if the tree is larger and wider, add a third or a fourth if needed. And be sure that the customer is happy with the results. You have to be careful about lighting it too much in comparison with the rest of the lighting design. If it is the focal point….light it up.

Light Up that Big Tree with Big Lights

Note that the lights are outside of the canopy lighting the entire facade of the tree on all sides

And then there is the instance when you have one very big tree that the client wants to light the entire tree. In addition to the “how to” also consider winter vs summer. In our area there is a beautiful tree that sits in the middle of the entrance circle to a local community. The tree stands some 60′ tall with a width that is not to far off of that height. The under canopy is planted with Daylillies and Liriope. I mention that because the lights sit low and in the growing season the light is more diffused because the planting partially obscure the light output. The tree is lighted using 10 high output floodlights that have a beam spread of 120 degrees. The lights are set outside of the tree canopy so that the exterior of the tree is fully lighted, as if you were lighting a large wall. Kelvin is probably about 3500. The results are a single tree that stands out on all sides. To me, when the leaves drop and the structure of the tree is exposed, that is my favorite look. The tree is spectacular, though, all year round.

It’s Your Choice and Your Clients

I have given you my opinions and what I like. My clients generally listen to my recommendations and are happy with the results. I have lighted hundreds of trees and found what works for me and my people. You should do the same. Try it. Ask your clients. Tell them that you want to try out different looks to arrive at the best results. And if you have better ideas, please do let me know. I would love to see different results that work.

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