A Beginner’s Guide to Church Lighting Systems

by | Lighting, Lighting Connections, Production

Welcome back everyone! This month’s question comes from Bud Edwards in Little Falls, NY, he asks, ” I am currently new to the lighting world, and I am not sure where to start in designing and what things I should be looking for, can you give me some guidance?” Well Bud is not alone. Understanding the basics is vital to creating impactful church lighting designs. So let’s help out our new volunteer church tech, who needs to learn the fundamentals about lighting fixture types, system design and safety.

IRiS InSite 2.5mm pixel pitch ETL listed indoor LED video wall true HD quality 16 to 9 aspect ratio by Blizzard_Grace City Church-2019-1.jpg

The main consideration of front lighting is the ability to shape and control the light. This enables you to keep the light from hitting areas that would be detrimental, such as your projector screens, or the heads of the people sitting in the front row of your room.

If you’ve never worked with a theatrical lighting system before, working with your first system can be an intimidating task. Let’s take a look at the basic lighting positions, the functions they serve, and the LED-based fixtures that work well for them.

Infrastructure Support

Before we get into the fixtures themselves, it’s important to point out that your facility needs some amount of infrastructure to be able to support the lighting system. Lighting fixtures need a structure from which they can be hung, and your facility needs enough electrical power to support the number of fixtures you want to install. Lights are normally hung on professionally-installed lighting battens or truss, which are attached to structural parts of the building sufficient to support the weight over the long haul. Theatrical fixtures, even LED fixtures, can draw significant power and usually require several dedicated electrical circuit breakers. We can’t over-emphasize the need to get professional help with your structural and electrical systems.

Key Lighting

Selecting your fixtures should be prioritized by function. The first you want to focus on is your front (or key) lighting. This is the lighting placed to illuminate the people and objects on stage with white lighting for the primary purpose of making them visible.

Aria Profile RGBW 180-watt COB LED is ETL listed__Blizzard Lighting.jpg

The main consideration of front lighting is the ability to shape and control the light. This enables you to keep the light from hitting areas that would be detrimental, such as your projector screens, or the heads of the people sitting in the front row of your room. Profile-style fixtures provide shutters that allow you to crop out part of the beam and keep it off objects you don’t want to illuminate.

The second consideration is color temperature. This refers to what color “white” actually is—white light is rarely actually true white. Do you want a cool look, such as what you have in daylight, or a warm look, like an incandescent light? If you have a room where you are in complete control of the lighting, the selection is all about the mood you want to create. A warmer color white gives more flattering skin tones and is more relaxing; cooler light can feel more energetic but can look stark. However, if you have a room where light is “bleeding in” from another space (such as daylight from windows), then you may want to match your white light color to the color of that light you can’t control. Mixing color temperatures in your lighting can look odd, especially on video cameras. And some fixtures have the ability to change their color temperature, so you can go with a cool white for daytime events and a warm white for nighttime events.

Color Rendering Capability

Beyond color temperature, the ability to accurately render the color of objects the light hits is also important. This is referred to as the fixture’s Color Rendering Index, or CRI.

A fixture that adds an amber LED color to the standard red, green, and blue LEDs will provide more natural skin tones. Adding a white LED helps you create pastel colors. Some fixtures add purple and lime LEDs to further extend the fixture’s CRI.

The Edge

The third key lighting consideration is about the light’s edge—being able to control whether the light has a hard edge to it, or if it “feathers out” and blends into the other fields of light on the stage. Again, a profile-style fixture provides the ability to adjust the softness of the beam’s edge to achieve the look you desire.

Oberon Fresnel and Oberon Profile Zoom tungsten color lighting fixtures by Blizzard.jpg

Stage Wash

Once you’ve achieved sufficient key lighting, you can think about adding lighting that creates more interesting stage looks and helps you set a “mood.” In this case, shaping the beam is generally not a high priority. A softer look with beams that fade out gradually at the edges allows you to blend the light sources smoothly across the stage. Fresnel (pronounced fruh-nel) and Parabolic Aluminized Reflector (PAR) style fixtures are excellent choices for this. PARs are typically less expensive since they have fewer options. A Fresnel, on the other hand, generally has a more consistent beam of light and often has the ability to zoom the light to provide a range of beam widths.

Color is important with your stage wash fixtures. Evaluate your potential wash fixtures for both range of color and color saturation, as well as beam width and brightness. Your wash fixtures are generally going to have to cover a lot more area than your key lighting, so investing in brighter, wider-throw fixtures that may cost more can actually save you money due to a lower overall quantity of fixtures.

Colorise-EXA__architectural wash light__12x15-watt high output 6-in-1 RGBAW+UV LEDs with 25° beam angle__Blizzard Lighting_in ACTION-1.jpg

Amber color LEDs provide more natural skin tones.

Consistency of the lighting from the fixture is also important. Some fixtures don’t blend the color of the various LEDs internally, so you see each individual LED color when you look at a fixture. This can lead to odd multi-color shadows on objects. Another approach for lighting consistency is to use fixtures that actually blend (or homogenize) the individual LED colors before the light leaves the fixture, providing a more uniform look without color artifacts.


After your stage wash, adding backlighting which hits your on-stage service participants from high and behind, outlining their hair and shoulders, would be the next focus. This helps separate them from the background and makes them more three-dimensional. The same fixture types used for the stage wash can work well for backlighting. In addition, profile fixtures can be used if you need to control the beam shape to help keep the backlight from hitting the attendees. While backlighting can be colored, a white light is the typical choice for this purpose.

Special Effects and Moving Lights

The last category of light would be your “special.” The special is usually a profile fixture that’s reserved for aiming at whatever location needs some light for a given event. These are often profile fixtures, but intelligent fixtures are great for this purpose as well. Intelligent fixtures can be aimed from the lighting console, saving a significant amount of time because the lighting director doesn’t need to physically get to the fixture to change where it points.

Lighting for Video

IRiS InSite 3.8mm pixel pitch ETL listed indoor LED video wall true HD quality 16 to 9 aspect ratio by Blizzard_Grace City Church-2019-1.jpg

LED video displays are fantastic upgrades for a facility and their community.

How broadcasting your services on television or the Internet affects your lighting is easily an entire article by itself, but two big things to consider here are: first, make sure the fixtures you buy don’t flicker on video. Less expensive fixtures are more likely to have this issue. And secondly, make sure that your lighting programmer has a video monitor next to them so they can see what their lighting design looks like on camera. Oftentimes a lighting design that looks good when viewed in the room doesn’t translate well to video.

Seek Guidance

Lastly, unless you’re confident you can select appropriate fixtures, install the infrastructure, and rig the lighting in a safe manner to ensure they remain securely attached to the supporting structures, it’s best to engage a professional lighting contractor. Making errors in your selection or installation can be far more costly than hiring a contractor to make sure it’s done correctly, safely, and fulfills your goals in adding or upgrading a lighting system in the first place. Remember to send me your questions.

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