The Lighter Side of Church Stage Lighting

by | Lighting

It’s so easy to get caught up in the gear and the cool factor of working in production that the actual worship lighting experience–and the meaning behind it–can take a back seat. Here’s how to keep your church’s lighting focused on what really matters.

Pastor In Stage Lights

When it comes to lighting services and events in the church world, many times our focus naturally shifts just to the equipment side of the equation: what fixtures we want, consoles we prefer, and how much money we want to spend.

However the perspective of the audience must always be considered.

As more and more churches introduce automated fixtures to try to create “contemporary” or “modern” services, it’s critical to understand the purpose of different areas of lighting instead of just wanting to look “cool” or “hip” like the church down the street.

Here are three critical ideas to keep in mind, in order of suggested importance, as you look to improve the lighting experience in your church:

Point 1-Lighting the talent

The people on stage have to be well lit. Period.

There’s no universal level of brightness that every worship leader or pastor should be lit with (we tend to keep our front wash around 60 footcandles), and there’s no rule that churches should only use either LED or conventional (lamp-based) fixtures.

However, the congregants in the room must still be able to clearly see the people who are communicating from the stage.

It’s hard to be led in worship by someone so poorly lit that you can’t share in (and be inspired by) the expressions and emotions they carry on their face.

It’s hard to be led in worship by someone so poorly lit that you can’t share in (and be inspired by) the expressions and emotions they carry on their face. Does that mean that you can’t be artistic and try doing some songs where the worship leader is only a backlit silhouette? No, but again, the perspective of the audience must always be considered. Does that intimate moment make it easier or more difficult for them to connect with the worship leader and engage?

Likewise, it is very frustrating to watch a pastor during the message when he keeps stepping in and out of the front wash, or he consistently bounces between hot spots and dead zones due to the wash being uneven. Having an even, consistently lit wash is critical because it can remove distractions from the mind of the audience and make it easier for them to focus and engage.

Having well-lit talent is of even greater importance if a church is doing any sort of online streaming or multi-campus broadcasting. The end product of the video will never be better than the quality of the lighting coming through the camera. And for churches on a tight budget, many entry- to mid-level camera options simply can’t overcome lighting challenges without the image still looking dark or grainy.

Having an even, consistently lit wash is critical because it can remove distractions from the mind of the audience and make it easier for them to focus and engage.

Similarly, trying to smoothly navigate a camera’s iris or gain settings is nearly impossible on a stage with large hot or dead spots from an inconsistent front wash.

Front-lighting talent from dead-on can create hot spots on their face and lead to harsh shadows. So if budget and rigging space allow for it, the goal should be to front light each talent position from at least two positions.

But how to determine the angles and placement for that? Imagine a small child wanting to be picked up by an adult: arms extended, spread just wider than the shoulders, and lifted just above head height. By following a line out from your arms, this allows you to find two different front lighting positions that are off-axis between 30-45 degrees and can light the talent from either side of their body.

Doing this prevents hot spots from dead-on, and also allows the lighting from opposing sides to offset any shadowing that could occur when talent moves or changes positions.

Also, effective light meters (so you can measure brightness to ensure consistency across the stage between fixtures) can be bought for only a couple hundred dollars and are a must-have for any church TD’s toolbox when establishing a consistent front wash. Great examples are products from Sekonic or even LuMu, which has an app-based interface that works with most smartphones.

Point 2-Lighting the set

Adding some backlight to the talent (either white light or with some color mixed in) will give them an extra set of dimension and outline so they appear to pop out from any darker stage background, and this will make a dramatic difference on camera.

But having a well-lit set or backdrop creates another dimension of depth on the stage and is especially critical when you’re capturing on camera.

The lighting level of the set should always be considered in conjunction with what type of clothing the talent could be wearing. Is it a special event where the talent will be in mostly black, or maybe even during cold-weather season where they are tending to wear darker colors while on stage? Think about how additional lighting to the set could help brighten up the feel and atmosphere of the stage and add some extra energy.

Simple PARs can throw color on a bland wall or curtain behind the stage, and lighting strip or bar-style fixtures (such as the Chroma-Q ColorForce line, or the Chauvet COLORado battens) can also be great options to add color to any set pieces.

LED tape is a tried-and-true method of adding color to a set, and it’s a great low-cost option for churches with smaller budgets.

Even when using minimalistic set designs that may be predominantly black, having some measure of color or lighting is an important and necessary part of adding life and energy to the stage.

Point 3-Lighting for atmosphere

Even though this is the part that should typically come last, this is often the area where churches are tempted to jump straight in, simply because of perceived necessity.

Moving lights that sweep the stage, profile fixtures that project fixed or rotating patterns on the floor/ceiling/walls, and haze machines are popular ways to add additional energy to a room. However, if the talent and set aren’t properly lit first, this all becomes the church equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.

First off, moving lights (which tend to be more expensive than fixed lights) are usually only valuable in an environment where hazers can be used. By adding haze to the room, that allows the audience to visibly see the beam of light sweeping back and forth, or flashing on and off. These techniques can be used to bring extra energy to the room during faster-paced songs.

However, if the venue won’t allow haze (or there are concerns about it triggering a fire alarm), the benefit for having moving fixtures is greatly reduced. Your money could then be reinvested into fixtures that could project designs or patterns (or “gobos”) onto the walls of the room or the ceiling.

Again, this is another way to add to the atmosphere of the room and, in many cases, it’s fine to just see the projected design on a surface and not necessarily see the entire beam of light. Here, the win is that the design adds some texture and personality to what otherwise might be a plain surface.

Effectively lighting a worship space can definitely add more energy to a room, and it pays tremendous dividends in any environment where cameras are being used.

But first understanding the purpose behind lighting is critical to ultimately lighting a church venue well.

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