There are two ways to illuminate trees. You can either use uplighting, where you shine the light up, or downlighting, which is the opposite. The approach you take will depend on the result you want to generate.

This article covers fundamental principles of uplighting and downlighting trees. We’ll discuss the different techniques and the types of trees you can uplight or downlight.

How to Downlight a Tree:

With downlighting, the lighting fixtures shine downward. You use downlighting to create a dappled effect on the ground. Think of how moonlight casts attractive shadows, and you’ll understand the idea behind downlighting.

Downlighting works best for deciduous trees. It would be best to have a wide canopy to create those dappled shadows. Downlighting doesn’t work for conifers that have a tight canopy. Ideally, the lighting fixture should be at least 25 feet from the ground. This way, you illuminate a large area.

Downlights are best placed on tree trunks and large tree limbs since. Those locations make it easy to hide the lighting fixtures. Low-voltage LED lights work best for downlighting since they’re energy efficient.

Downlights can also add to the safety and security of your yard. This is important since large trees can cause shadows and dark spaces. These can create hiding spots for intruders.

The number of downlights you need for a tree depends on the tree’s size, shape, and desired effect. We find two fixtures per tree works typically. Try to project light through some branches to create those beautiful shadows on the ground.

How to Uplight a Tree:

Uplighting fixtures focus light upwards. For illuminating trees, uplights are usually placed at ground level. The best placement is around the tree's base, aiming the lights toward the trunk and lower branches. This will create a dramatic effect emphasizing the tree's height and texture.

The placement of the lighting fixtures depends on the height and width of the tree, as well as the type of tree. The image above provides some examples of lighting placements.

You must ensure your uplights offer the right amount of light depending on where they’ll be placed. Here are some lumen output tips to help you make the most of your tree uplighting:

How Many Lumens Do You Need to Uplight a Tree?

Since the main objective here is to uplight your trees, you’ll need a different lumen output depending on the height of your trees.

You need the correct lumen output. You want to illuminate the tree softly. This will create a nice ambiance. With too much light, you lose this ambiance. With too little, it can feel spooky.

The perfect output eliminates the possibility of blown-out subjects or fatiguing the eye caused by high output. It also prevents leaving a feature unnoticed due to using a light level that is too low.

Here are some general guidelines to achieve the perfect balance:

  • Level 1 (80-120 lumens): This level—the lowest lumen level—is excellent for lighting from ground level up to about 6-10 feet. While this light level works well for plants like hedgerows, bushes, and shrubs and complex objects like sidewalks, decks, and porches, it can also work well for smaller trees.
  • Level 2 (140-180 lumens): This light level is best used for medium-sized trees. You can also use it to create a shadow effect on two-story homes.
  • Level 3 (230-270 lumens): If you have bigger trees in your landscape, you’ll want level 3 lighting, for sure. You can also use this lighting level for three-story and larger homes.
  • Level 4 (350 to 1000 lumens): Use level 4 lighting for 50-80 foot tall oaks and pine trees and lighting chimney tops and prominent home peaks.

Read this guide to learn more about lumens and landscape lighting.

Finally, you may want to consider cross-lighting your trees, depending on the size and density of the tree canopy. Cross-lighting a tree can help reduce harsh shadows. 

In addition, cross-lighting creates a three-dimensional effect that highlights a tree’s texture, shape, and color. So, for instance, you may use one lower-level light on the tree trunk and multiple fixtures on the canopy if your trees can be viewed from various angles.

What Beam Angles To Focus on When Lighting a Tree?

You may have the best uplighting fixtures on the market, but if you don’t aim those beams of light in the right areas, you won’t get the lighting, security, and safety effect you’re going for. 

The beam angle determines the light’s width and spread, affecting how the tree looks and feels in the surrounding space.

Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind:

  • Use low and wide beams to create a wash effect, eliminating bright spots and dark areas.
  • Smaller trees require a narrower beam angle to create a dramatic effect.
  • Narrow beam angles are ideal for highlighting specific tree features, such as the trunk, branches, or foliage.
  • Wide beam angles illuminate more significant areas, such as the ground beneath the tree or nearby buildings, making them ideal for downlighting trees.
  • Since uplights offer a shadowing effect, it’s best to place lighting fixtures in the ground and then angle them to focus on the trees and the surrounding areas.

The perfect beam angle for illuminating a tree will depend on the size and shape of the tree and the desired effect. You can experiment with different light placements and beam angles till you find the right balance.

Halogen vs. LED for Landscape Lighting a Tree? Go with LED.

You’ve figured out your perfect design, beam angles, and light levels, and now you’re thinking, should I go with Halogen or LED lights? The answer is a big yes to LED. Here’s why:

  • LED lighting will save you time because you won’t change bulbs as often (which can be tricky with downlights) since LED bulbs last 10-20 years vs. 1-2 years for halogen.
  • You’ll save energy (and more money!) since LED bulbs use up to 80-85% less energy than halogen lights.
  • LED light bulbs are more durable than halogen lights and can withstand harsh weather conditions like rain, wind, and extreme temperatures. 
  • LED bulbs also get easier to operate and manage with time since they’re less likely to break or malfunction. 
  • You also get more customization options with LED lighting, allowing you to control the light’s intensity, color, and direction. 

Read this guide to learn more about LED vs. halogen lights.

Ready to illuminate the beautiful trees in your landscape or anything else landscape-related? Contact us—we’re happy to share our knowledge and expertise to help you create the landscape lighting plan of your dreams.