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Stage Lighting Guide

We all can remember moments where masterful stage lighting has heightened the drama of a theatrical piece, pumped up the audience of a concert, or created the magic behind a magician. Good lighting can be pivotal in creating a show’s “wow” factor—the element that thrills audiences, gets people talking, and most importantly makes that production memorable.

The people responsible for this critical part of live shows are called stage lighting designers. Stage lighting designers are artist-engineers who design, set up, and program the lighting needed for performance. They sometimes study lighting design in college or university, but oftentimes they begin elsewhere in event production (like as an audio engineer, stagehand, etc.) and step into lighting because a gig was short-staffed.

If you relate to the latter example and have relatively little experience in lighting, have no fear! This guide is for you. In this article, we’ll look at the different types of stage lighting available to designers nowadays. Hopefully, by the time you’re done reading this, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s attached to the lighting truss above you at your next show.

We’ll start by exploring the two different kinds of light sources: conventional and LED stage lighting. Then, we’ll talk about special types of lights called “moving lighting” and “follow spots.”

A conventional ellipsoidal reflector light


Conventional Stage Lighting

The most traditional kind of theatre lighting is called “conventional stage lighting.” More technically, these are any kind of stage lights that are produced using analog quartz or tungsten halogen lamps. Halogen stage lights can be very affordable at first, making them great to fill a stage quickly and easily without much initial investment. Color can be added to each conventional light using “gels,” or pieces of colored film placed in front of the light. Conventional lights are dimmed and brightened by changing the current provided to them.

Conventional lights come in many forms. The standard forms of conventional lights include ellipsoidal fixtures, border or strip lights, and Fresnel lights. Ellipsoidal fixtures produce a round, focusable beam of light at a fixed size. They allow a designer to light specific areas of the stage without it bleeding onto unwanted areas. Border or strip lights are stage-floor lights that are meant to evenly light up a large surface. Another example is “cyc” lights, which are meant to evenly cover a backdrop called a cyclorama. Finally, Fresnel fixtures are able to provide a powerful, yet soft-edged, beam of light that has a variable focus ranging from “spot” to “flood.” They’re great for filling spaces with evenly bright light. An alternative to Fresnel lights is PARNels, which are a kind of blend between the wash of Fresnel lights and the direction of PAR (parabolic aluminum reflector) lights.

The affordability and classic amber color of conventional stage lighting have made it the mainstay in most venues. However, as new forms of lighting like LEDs have emerged, the flaws of conventional lights have become more apparent too.

For instance, conventional stage lights produce a lot of heat, and this can make them sometimes dangerous to handle when in use. Additionally, if installed for theatre or concert lighting, this intense heat could make performers on stage uncomfortable. Since so much of the energy sent to conventional lights is dissipated as heat, it also makes them less efficient compared to LED lights. For instance, a 40W LED lamp can be as bright as a 500W conventional lamp, making the LED option over ten times more efficient. We’ll discuss more of the benefits of LED lights in the next section.

Conventional LED
Brightness Varies by lamp and wattage Varies by wattage
Default color Amber Anything
Color variability One color per light per installation Any color at any time
Available with “moving head” Uncommon Very common
Heat A lot of energy dissipated as heat Stable moderate temperature
Efficiency At 500W, as bright as 40W LED (over 10 times less efficient). At 40W, as bright as 500W conventional (over 10 times more efficient)
Lifespan Around 2,000 hours Around 10,000 hours
Outdoor Use Outdoor-rated models exist Temperature-sensitive, but outdoor-rated models exist
Cost Cheaper initial cost, more maintenance More expensive initial cost, less maintenance
Comparing and contrasting conventional and LED stage lighting


LED Stage Lighting

Although light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have existed since the 1960s, it wasn’t until after 2005 that they began taking over the events industry. Their popularity is owed to several factors, such as their efficiency, lifespan, and, possibly most importantly, color. Additionally, it’s easier to find LED moving-head lights than conventional moving-head lights, but we’ll discuss this more later.

As mentioned previously, LED lighting can be much more energy-efficient and much less hot than conventional lighting. This makes them easier to handle, more comfortable to be under on stage, and save money on your electricity and air-conditioning bills

Another popular aspect of LED lighting is that it lasts substantially longer than conventional lighting. Conventional lamps burn out and have to be replaced around every 2000 hours of use (this number varies based on the light). On the other hand, LED lamps can last around 10,000 hours. Although conventional bulbs are easy to find and replace, the constant maintenance required to keep them functioning can become expensive compared to relatively maintenance-free LED lamps.

LED wash lights

These qualities alone are enough to make LED stage lighting incredibly appealing. One of the most appealing factors of LED lights, though, is that they’re capable of creating any color imaginable at any moment. Early in their development, LED lights were limited to blending the colors red, green, and blue (RGB). However, now many LED lights come with white or amber components (RGBW or RGBA, respectfully), allowing them to produce truly any color and even mimic conventional lights’ classic amber shade. And, unlike a conventional light which has a static color, an LED light’s color can be changed at any point during a performance and at any pace desired. Instead of needing ten lamps to produce ten different colors, one LED PAR can is able to cover all those colors and more.

The primary downside of LED lights is that are substantially more expensive than conventional lights. However, with the reduction in maintenance and energy costs, it’s possible that using LED lights could save you money in the long run.

Any type of conventional lighting—like ellipsoidal, border, Fresnel, and PAR lights—can today be found in an LED version. However, since LED lights are already controlled via digital signals and are therefore considered “intelligent lighting,” they’re easier to be found as “moving-head lights.” Read on to learn more about this advancement in lighting technology!


Moving Lighting

Moving stage lighting, also known as moving-head lights, are lights that can be redirected or moved via digital signals during an event. These digital signals can be pre-programmed or, with a skilled enough engineer, controlled live. Since LED lights are also controlled digitally, it’s more likely that a moving-head light will be based on LEDs rather than a conventional lamp.

The reason they’re called moving-head lights is that the base of the light stays fixed or installed into truss or the stage floor, while the “head” of the light (or the container that holds the lamp) pivots, rotates, or tilts to move the light’s beam. These moving-head beams can create dazzling effects in concerts, theatres, or even corporate events. For instance, if you’ve ever seen stage lights moving in tandem to a song during a concert, chances are you were witnessing the magic of moving lights.

Moving beam lights attached to overhead truss

 

Since these lights can be moved during a performance, they also can reduce the overall number of lights needed during an event. This factor, combined with the fact that LEDs can change color on command, can substantially reduce the overall number of lights needed for a performance compared to static, conventional lights.


Follow Spots

Another unique form of lighting, and perhaps one familiar to you, is called the follow spot (also called followspot or stage spotlight). Stage spotlights are used to highlight one particular area of the stage, usually an important individual like a keynote speaker, an actor giving a monologue, or a singer performing an aria. Sometimes two followspots can be used to track two individuals when they both share importance on the stage.

Follow spots are unique because they are one of the few kinds of lighting controlled manually during a performance by a skilled technician. They are often quite large, powerful, and, because only one color is required (generally white or amber), use conventional lamps. This can make them quite hot and dangerous to handle. While LED spotlights are growing in popularity due to their longevity, conventional followspots are by far more popular.

A spotlight on two ballet dancers


 

We hope this guide was able to clear up some of the differences between common stage lighting sources. If you want to hear more from Gearsupply, make sure to join our newsletter!

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