Let There Be Light: The Basic Essentials Of Production Lighting

by | Lighting, Lighting Connections, Production

We all strive to make sure our services and events sound great, but do they look good? Lights can be just as important as the sound, creating a “feel” by setting a mood/tone, whether its calming or excitement.

Modern technology has made it easier and much more manageable for this to happen. Many venues are now outfitted with LED “PAR” type and “intelligent” moving fixtures, which tend to be lightweight, require less power, and can be put up on trusses, lighting trees or sometimes on the floor. 

As a long-time lighting practitioner for a wide range of events, my first goal is to make sure the performers are lit from the front so faces can be seen, then create a backlight setting. Having front light, backlight, and some ground units as well can help in creating a full, large look with a relatively small number of fixtures.

Two Main Types

There are two main types of lighting fixtures: conventional and intelligent. Conventional fixtures are basic, static units that require a separate dimmer system for control. They’re available in a multitude of types, including wash fixtures that produce a wide beam of light that can cover a large area, and spot fixtures that produce a more defined beam of light that can be focused. Intelligent fixtures are able to be controlled directly via a lighting console, allowing the operator to adjust focus, position, color, and/or a variety of other parameters, depending on the specific fixture.

Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlights are commonly referred to as the most popular model, the Leko. This is a trade name from Strand that has become a generic term for an ellipsoidal reflector spotlight (ERS) or “ellipsoidal.” Lekos are lensed spotlights that offer focusing capability, as well as internal shutters that can shape and cut off the beam. They’re often used for projecting patterns from patterned inserts called “gobos,” as well as “specials” to highlight a performer onstage or an item of scenery.

Modern Lekos can take different lens barrels and offer from 5- to 90-degree beam angles. A variation of the ERS called the “zoom” allows the user to adjust the beam angle between a certain range, such as 15 to 30 degrees. The focus can be adjusted to light with soft or sharp edges. The industry standard ETC Source Four fixtures use an HPL lamp available in a variety of wattages and voltage configurations, with 575 and 750 watts being the most often seen on productions.  Many other companies now make their own variations on the style.

Source Four
An ETC Source Four fixture.

Par Can
Basically, par cans take the form of a car headlight with a metal casing. They put out a lot of light and create lots of heat, so great care is needed handling them.

A more modern variation is the Source Four PAR. Years ago, this different version of a PAR was introduced by Electronic Theater Controls (ETC). A Source Four PAR (S-4 for short) fixture consists of a rugged housing with a glass or metal reflector that accepts interchangeable lenses providing beam spreads from very narrow (VN) to extra wide flood (XWFL).

A wide variety of LED Par Cans are available that barely create any heat or draw power; these are quickly replacing the older Par Cans. They run on DMX, audio/internal mic, auto function or internal programming.

Light Emitting Diodes come in a variety of fixture types and have started to replace many of the older style fixtures that use traditional lamps. This is in part because LEDs draw less power, produce much less heat, and offer extremely long lamp life of up to 50,000 hours. With built-in dimming and color mixing, they also save money by not having to use dimmer racks and multiple fixtures for different colors. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-120.png
A new range of Encore Profile LED-powered ellipsoidal lighting fixtures from ADJ.

LEDs are now available in pretty much every style of fixture. These units can recreate thousands of colors with the push of a button. LEDs come in static (conventional) and automated intelligent styles, with the moving head style being the most common. 

Intelligent fixtures are controlled by consoles via the DMX512 protocol. This control system allows 512 control channels down a single cable, and each 512-channel group is called a universe. A single DMX channel can be used to tell a dimmer pack to alter the level of a channel or can used for an intelligent fixture to control a single attribute such as a color or tilt. Small lighting consoles may only output a single universe, while larger desks offer multiple universes of DMX and can handle bigger shows.

Followspots are large, bright fixtures mounted on yokes and operated by hand, allowing the operator to adjust the focus and size of the beam, add color and direct the beam onto performers.  Since many of the larger units use lamps that need time to restrike or ramp up to operating level, instead of turning off the bulb, the operator will close the shutter, which blocks light from exiting the followspot, and leave the lamp on until the next cue.

Intelligent Moving Lights
Intelligent lights are automated fixtures that can have features that are DMX-controlled and have features like color changing, focus controls, GOBOs, dimming and motorized shutters. They also come in wash and spot types and are used for adding movement and interest to a show. Intelligent lights mount the main body on a yoke and move the entire fixture head around to aim the light beam in any direction.

A Chauvet Maverick MK3 Profile CX intelligent moving fixture.

Gobos are patterns that get projected from conventional or intelligent spot fixtures. The design of the pattern can be abstract and used to shape lighting beams or realistic and used as a scenic element. For example, at special events and corporate meetings gobos are commonly printed with graphics and client logos to help brand the event.

Primary Colors

Modern LED lights can cycle between colors with a flick of your wrist, but the older analog lights all use white bulbs. To create colors, light designers have to clip cellophane “color gels” in front of the bulb.

With the older analog fixtures, if you wanted red, green, blue, and white lights, you needed four separate instruments. And if you wanted to change one of the colors, you might need two people, a ladder, and a harness to change them.

Most modern LED lights can produce seven basic colors: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow, white, amber and lime.

Red, green, and blue are considered the primary additive colors of light. Which means you can add them together to create other colors, such as red + green = yellow, red + blue = magenta, green + blue = cyan, red + green + blue = white, and so on. Of course, you can also make your own custom color combinations by adjusting the amount of red, green and blue. Some common shades include amber, teal and pink.

DMX Controllers

DMX, which stands for Digital Multiplex, is a digital communication network used to control stage lighting and effects. Most systems have a combination of lighting instruments, all controlled by a single console known as a DMX controller. It connects to the first fixture in the chain using a DMX cable, with each instrument then “daisy-chained” to the next, and so on, throughout the chain.

The DMX controller provides control of the intensity, color and movement of every fixture in the chain. It can also be used to blend colors, fade lights in and out or even time the strobes to the tempo of a track, depending on the system.

Wireless DMX is becoming extremely popular with inexpensive units now available. They’re reliable and eliminate long DMX cable runs.

Elation Show Designer 2CF tabletop stage lighting controller.

Programming Scenes

Now that you’ve got the proper coverage and understand how to use the controller, it’s time to program “scenes,” which are preset looks you can toggle between and adjust from song to song. Scenes include:

Monochromatic. One color, but most people like to use different shades. Granted, these looks can be a bit boring, but they work well for setting the stage, opening bands, or songs with colors in the title.

Complementary Colors. Two colors that complement each other. These looks work well in most situations. Common examples include red/green, blue/yellow, amber/magenta, and cyan/amber.

Triads. Although it’s harder to pull off, you can use three different colors in a scene. Pick colors that create a triangle on the color wheel. The most common options are red/green/blue, and cyan/magenta/yellow.

Adjacent Colors. Similar to monochromatic, you can create scenes with adjacent colors on the color wheel. Pulling this off typically involves the use custom colors, but it can create a cool faded look.

Color Temp. Similar to adjacent colors, you can create looks using three colors of the same “temperature.” For instance, use three “warm” colors like red, orange and yellow, or three “cool” colors like magenta, blue, and cyan.

Defining Terminology

Key terms used to describe the quality and characteristics of lights are throw, beam angle, field, field angle, spill and temperature.

Throw is the distance between the front of a lighting fixture and the object or person that the light shines upon. Just as sound waves follow the inverse-square law, so do lights – a doubling of throw distance reduces the illumination on the subject matter to one-quarter of the intensity.

Beam angle is the shape or angle of the cone of light that emanated from the front of a fixture. Most modern lights express the angle in degrees. A 19-degree beam projects a smaller circle of light on stage than a 36-degree beam angle and can throw a bit farther for the same wattage because the light is concentrated in a tighter pattern.

Field refers to how the light intensity is spread across the beam. A unit that produces a “hot spot” in the center of the beam has a peak field, and a beam that has even light intensity had a flat field.

Meanwhile, field angle is the beam that emanates from the fixture when it reaches 10 percent of the light intensity at the center of the beam. Spill is the unwanted light on stage, either from venue sources or leaked from stage lighting.

Temperature refers to the “warmth” or “coolness” of colors. A higher color temperature will appear “colder” and more toward the white and blue side of the scale than a lower color temperature, which will appear “warmer” or more toward the red side of the scale. This measurement is stated in Kelvin (K). Standard incandescent lamps are about 2800 degrees K (they appear orange to our eye compared to daylight) and tungsten halogen lamps (common in stage lighting) are in the 3200-degree K range (Daylight is approximately 5600 degrees K).

Final Notes

While the human eye and brain are good at color correcting, cameras are not. Light sources need to be balanced in the same color range when doing film or video or else objects and people on camera will appear to change hues as the different lighting sources illuminate them. Color correction filters can be placed in front of lights to balance the sources. Other filters called gels can be used to color the light beams.

Another light fixture variation is open faced and lens. Open face units basically simply contain the lamp in a reflector and direct the light out the open front of the fixture. These are useful in washing a large area with light. A lensed unit offers more control of the light and can focus the beam. Some of the newer units allow remote control of features like dimming and color selection, and they allow the operator to concentrate on just aiming the fixture.

The key to stage lighting is anticipation. Operators must be able to anticipate what the music is going to do, and they should be able to count eight bars in their sleep, in addition to being able to feel changes in the music before they happen. 

This is because lights should change in time with the music. The biggest changes should come on the downbeats, and when the song changes parts (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.). As the song becomes more exciting, the lights should become more exciting too. That means more changes, and more movement.

Feel the music and listen to the lyrics of the song. Try to enhance what the singer is saying. Try to capture the mood and the vibe of the song with the lighting.

The sound is important – without it there would be nothing to listen to. But the lighting can be what separates a good production from a great one.

Interested in getting other Lighting Connections articles delivered right to your inbox?


Sign Up for Connections, the Worship Facility Newsletter!


Learning Series: The Challenge of Historic Churches

REGISTER AND DOWNLOAD NOW Every house of worship is as unique as the community it's in and the members who attend it. Part of that uniqueness is the challenges presented by the building itself, and none more so than in historic buildings, which were typically designed...

Preventive Maintenance Best Practices

Production lighting needs preventive maintenance to perform at its best. Like anything of value, production lighting requires some tech crew maintenance time if you want it to perform at its best––and for a long time. Much of what’s involved in the maintenance of the...