Landscape Lighting for Starry Skies

In the same way that lamps and lighting fixtures are often thought of as “jewellery for the home,” exterior lighting, when professionally designed, provides a sophisticated finishing touch to your property’s exterior. By accenting select natural and architectural features, your home or cottage can project a layered, “after-dark” image that incorporates shadow and soft canopies of light for an effect just as impressive, but even more cinematic and intriguing, than its daytime counterpart. 

Those aesthetics are equally achievable when the main thrust behind installing landscape lighting is to address safety concerns, as is often the case. In Muskoka, where the terrain is generally as irregular and unforgiving as it is stunning, many cottagers want to start with a lighting system that will help ensure safe travels after dark—between the cottage and the dock, the driveway and the cottage, and indoor and outdoor living spaces, for example. “I have had clients who own or rent out their cottage and have had serious injuries occur due to insufficient lighting along uneven pathways and transition steps,” says Chris Shirchenko, owner-designer at award-winning Nightscapes of Muskoka, an exterior lighting design and installation company operating in Muskoka for over two decades. It’s Chris and his team’s professional artistry that achieves those safety aims within a larger lighting plan that also beautifies the property after dark, to stunning effect.



While achieving property owners’ main objectives, it is also important that a lighting design falls within set guidelines so the illuminations neither compete with nor detract from the gorgeous spectacle of the dark sky.  To that end, the District of Muskoka Lakes has recently implemented a series of modifications to its dark sky by-law. The by-law sets standards for lighting to limit glare and reduce light pollution but, according to Chris, it would be a mistake to assume that the regulations conflict with well-designed landscape or architectural lighting. 

“The new by-law will affect properties that already have lighting in place as well as new lighting projects,” says Chris, but for those in the former category, it doesn’t necessarily mean a costly retrofit. “Since we have always operated with the goal of achieving a marriage of safety and elegance, our projects have always been mindful of things like light trespass, glare, and reflection,” he explains. For Chris and his team at Nightscapes of Muskoka, the by-law provides an opportunity for property owners to better understand best practices for beautifying the landscape around their homes and cottages without unintentionally crossing boundaries that affect the collective experience of viewing the starry skies in Muskoka.


To begin with, Nightscapes of Muskoka carefully controls lumen output. Lumens are a measure of the intensity and brightness of a light. “We never use lighting fixtures that exceed 4 watts,” explains Chris. “The lumen output in a 4-watt bulb is completely adequate for proper outdoor lighting.” In fact, path and dock lighting typically don’t exceed 3 watts, while deck lighting, normally installed in the underside of railings, effectively illuminates the surfaces below at an output of 2 watts. 

Nightscapes also uses LED 2700K (Kelvin) warm white bulbs, which achieve a warm glow and never create a harsh, unnatural effect. “The human tendency when observing illumination is to look at the source of the light,” explains Chris, “but the objective in well-designed landscape and architectural lighting is to balance the system so that the eye is not drawn to one specific area, but rather settles on the effect of the scene as a whole.” Keeping the light gentle is important in finding that balance.


Walkway elevations vary greatly throughout Muskoka, which means that Chris and his team at Nightscapes customize each project. On steeper properties, they will typically utilize downlighting from trees, rather than path lighting, to ensure that there is no glare when looking upward from the lake. Tree downlighting fixtures, when installed at proper levels and correctly angled, will gently illuminate the path below for safe travel while concealing the light source and projecting no light upwards.

By contrast, level properties are more suitable for path lighting, where fixtures are carefully staggered to introduce the right spread of light in order to properly navigate the pathway. Path lighting follows strict cut-off specifications, meaning the canopy of light cast is carefully controlled. Similarly, where trees or other landscape features are uplit, the light can be customized to softly graze the object without trespassing beyond it.


Lighting fixtures installed by Nightscapes of Muskoka always have built-in dimming capabilities, meaning lumen levels can be decreased incrementally to achieve the specific requirement of each fixture and prevent glare and light escape. Nightscapes systems also employ zoning or grouping of features, allowing property owners to activate and deactivate lighting in specified areas whenever necessary. For example, when guests leave the cottage to travel home by boat, the walkway from the cottage to the dock can be switched on temporarily without needlessly activating the entire lighting system. Timers and remote control via a user-friendly app similarly allow property owners better control over when, where, and how their lighting system operates when they are and are not at home.



“In terms of the new by-law,” says Chris, “I encourage people to view the regulations not as restrictions, but rather as parameters inside which they can have a really beautifully illuminated property and feel good about it.” For those who already have architectural and landscape lighting in place, Chris and the Nightscapes of Muskoka team can assess the property in terms of its compliance with the new by-law, make suggestions as to where the lighting system does and doesn’t need to be adjusted, and retrofit aspects of it if necessary.

For those embarking on landscape and architectural lighting for the first time, Nightscapes will help design a system that not only falls into step with dark-sky friendly regulations, but also shows off the best features of their property in a totally new manner. Either way, Chris is excited to be part of the field of landscape lighting as people gain more curiosity and understanding about it. “I encourage people to contact us anytime with their questions,” he says. “That’s what we’re here for. Outdoor illumination is our job and our passion.” 

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