Lighting And Aquatic Features Go Hand In Hand

photo of Gambino Lighting project
All photos courtesy of Mike Gambino, Gambino Lighting, Simi Valley, Calif.

Armed with years of experience bringing outdoor spaces to life after the sun goes down, landscape lighting specialist Mike Gambino urges homeowners already investing in beautiful exterior environments to extend their hours of enjoyment with the addition of well-designed lighting systems. And when those properties include pools and spas, he adds, the aesthetic opportunities become far more exciting still.

Landscape lighting and aquatic features, especially swimming pools and spas, go hand in hand, or at least they should. Yet, when you talk about combining light and water, a great many people think only in terms of the lights inside the pool, those familiar sub-surface niche fixtures that make the water and interior surface materials glow.

What these homeowners miss are the vast creative opportunities that exist when illuminating elements around the water's edge – be they plantings, rockwork, architectural features, statuary, as well as decks, pathways, steps and other changes in grade.

In general, landscape lighting is a fantastic way to expand the time that homeowners can enjoy their properties. Consider that many people work all day and are home only at night much of the year; outdoor lighting therefore affords them the only opportunity to enjoy their exterior spaces during the week.

Added to that, when you consider high-ticket features, such as pools and spas, it only makes sense to maximize the value of those investments by increasing their aesthetic beauty and by stretching the hours that they can be enjoyed.

Light Sculpting

Lighting around the water's edge is all about maximizing opportunities quite simply because the aesthetic effects you can achieve with landscape lighting and bodies of water are potentially dazzling.

photo of Gambino Lighting project
The mirror images of the plantings reflected in the water's surface imbue the space with almost hypnotic visual layers, an added dimension that only comes out at night.

The design process always starts with the clients and their ideas and wish lists. Often times, there are specific views or elements in the landscape they want to see at night. Those objects might include rock structures surrounding a pool, beautiful plantings and planter structures, pilasters and wall treatments, statuary and especially moving water in the form of fountains, streams and waterfalls.

Added to that list, I always prioritize lighting steps, landings, pathways, surrounding decks or gateways. Doing so not only offers lovely aesthetic possibilities, but lighting the places where people move, rest or entertain adds important additional levels of safety and comfort.

Certainly, how the clients plan on using the area is of primary importance, as well. If entertaining near the water at night is a priority, then making sure those areas are visible tops the to-do list. By the same token, if night swimming is part of their plan, then lighting areas of entry and egress from the water is equally important.

What most clients don't realize, however, is how their landscape features can take on even more dramatic visual impacts at night by way of the lighting effects. Or how the landscape takes on a sense of depth and mystery by lighting different areas while leaving others to retreat into shadow. Also, with lighting you can create a sense of destination within the space. Perhaps there's a detached spa located in a private nook some distance away from the house. By lighting the elements surrounding that spa, you can create a beautiful oasis that welcomes and invites you to enjoy the space.

In terms of design, once I know what the client wants, I observe the property with my own ideas in mind, stopping at key focal points β€” those places where the clients and their guests are most likely to pause and take in the scene. I consider views from the house's side or from interior locations, looking across the water or out toward the borders of the property and surrounding views.

Ultimately, the design process is all about visualization and often that means using my own professional experience to imagine the possibilities on the client's behalf. I try to imagine all the things they would want after interviewing them to discover how they picture themselves using the space after dark.

Mirror Images

Far and away my own favorite nighttime effects – often not a part of the client's thinking – are the vast possibilities afforded by reflection.

When I'm working on a space that includes a swimming pool, I always ask the clients if they're going to use the interior pool lights every night, or only when the pool is in use at night. The vast majority of my clients tell me they use the interior lights only when the pool is in use. (The most common reason being they have a sense that servicing in-pool lights is an expensive challenge and they want their lamps to last as long as possible.) Yes, there are those that love the glowing look of the water, particularly if it has a deluxe interior surface such as glass tile, but those people are definitely the exception.

photo of Gambino Lighting project
Lighting plants around the water's edge can be used to great effect accentuating features such as the texture of these palms' trunks and broad leaf structures. Even relatively ordinary plants can take on dramatic characteristics and become important focal points in the landscape.
photo of Gambino Lighting project

That's good news from my perspective because when the pool lights are off at night you gain a beautifully reflective surface that can be used to tremendous effect.

The aesthetic principle is both simple and dramatic. Anything you see reflected in the surface of the pool during the day can be lit to create a mirror image at night. During the day those reflections, while potentially very nice especially if you have a dark interior surface and the right viewing angles, are vastly more pronounced when articulated with lighting at night. It's the lighting designer's job to skillfully and creatively choose and position the fixtures to create these effects.

Consider the simple fact that the view of an object doubles in size because of the reflection. By sheer scale alone, it becomes far more dramatic. Edge treatments such as raised beams or simple hedges double in size. When you apply the beautiful highlights and articulation created by effects such as graze lighting on tree trunks, or up-lighting beneath the canopy of a Japanese maple or olive tree, the impact becomes far more pronounced. You can reveal forms and textures at night not readily visible by day, and then double the impact by way of reflection.

Also, depending on the viewing angle and the size of the object being lit, these reflected objects can be well back from the water's edge. Again, if it shows up in the water during the day, you can light it at night and reveal reflections the clients didn't even know were there.

You can also create a sort of indirect type of reflection with silhouette lighting. When you backlight an object, it creates a shadow image where only the outlines are visible. These visual forms create haunting effects, especially so when reflected in water.

As I mentioned just above, clients are often unaware of the reflective opportunities even the simplest of pools and landscape elements can provide. This is why I sometimes don't even mention the reflections beforehand, but instead wait for the night when we finally switch on the system and let the beauty of the reflected scene surprise them.

It's a wonderful way to inject the "wow factor" into the experience.

Glare Stare

For all of the fantastic creative potential, if you're not careful, water's reflective qualities might also aggravate the biggest aesthetic peril in lighting design – glare.

Nothing destroys the beauty of a lit environment more thoroughly than a light shining directly into the viewer's eyes. It's always annoying and for some people glare produces physical pain. The problem with water is that a light source that might be otherwise hidden from most viewpoints could well be reflected directly up onto the onlooker's face from certain angles.

You run into trouble with glare primarily with forms of down lighting, for the obvious reason that these fixtures are pointed toward the ground and from various angles can often be seen via the water's reflection. That's why when using down lighting of any kind near the water's surface, it should be carefully placed, directed and shielded so the light never reflects off the surface of the water.

Other common sources of glare come via domed spread lights often used to light open areas, paths or decks. If these are located too close to the water's edge, they will create horrible glare where you're essentially looking up into the underside of the fixtures, which should never be seen. The key there is to simply keep those types of fixtures far enough away from the water's edge. Naturally, the taller the fixture, the farther back you need to keep it.

You should always keep in mind that glare can come from unexpected sources, as well. For example, it's common to shine spotlights from across the water to light fixtures of the far side. This happens where there's no suitable location for fixtures immediately adjacent to the structures or plants you want to see lit. That can require powerful lights with high outputs that if not carefully placed and shielded can create glare from peripheral locations.

One very specific example occurs when you have a raised spa on the far side of the pool that you want lit at night because it has a beautiful raised wall treatment or interesting overflow. Lighting from across the pool is a great way to spotlight the spa, until, that is, someone decides to take a soak in the spa at night. Now, all of a sudden they're in the spotlight β€” staring straight into a beacon. This is not the way to enhance the spa experience.

In that situation, I always place a separate switch on that light so that when someone uses the spa, they can do so in privacy without the light shining in their face.

Light Collaborations

I've found that landscape lighting around water presents far more opportunities than it does drawbacks. Maximizing the potential effects often means working directly with pool builders, landscape architects or even general contractors because when you design and plan with specific effects in mind, greater sets of options are available.

Simple things like placing a specimen palm a few feet one way or the other might mean the difference between lighting it as a central focal point or not. Also practical consideration such as conduit runs beneath decks or other structures are easily accommodated ahead of time but all but impossible once the hardscape features are installed.

One of the truly wonderful aspects of lighting around water is that it's a way to enhance the beauty of the aquatic feature, whether it's a simple pool or fountain or something far more elaborate with multiple elements. Plants can become more beautiful, architectural features more dramatic, overall environments safer and more inviting. Even a system with just a handful of well placed fixtures and carefully considered effects can make a huge difference.

Keep in mind that no matter where you are on the planet, the sun shines exactly half the time. Ultimately, I believe it makes sense to invest in the enjoyment of the nighttime as well as the day.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide
Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library