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Stage Lighting Textbook

Welcome to Painting with Theatrical Light, a free educational resource provided by the Stage Lighting Store. The information included in this online textbook is based upon my own educational experience at SUNY Purchase and Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, as well as twenty-five years of theatrical design work.  In the following categories below, I hope to convey a design philosophy that is artistically and practically useful.  I also wish to provide information on theatrical lighting equipment that will help you choose the correct equipment necessary to achieve your visual ideas.  Stage Lighting can create almost any atmosphere or environment.  Light is the final glaze that unifies the productions visual picture.  Read on and find out many ways to manipulate the equipment to produce what you dream of. - Louie Lumen

Stage Lighting Textbook 


  • Design Philosophy

    Design Philosophy

    Grand Opening Statement

    It is my opinion that the basic function of stage lighting is to be the final glaze of the visual element of a theatrical production.  It should stylistically support the piece as a whole by creating the environment in which the action happens.  It must be consistent with the level of reality of the whole production. You must also be able to control what can and cannot be seen. Artistic choices are not set in stone but I find if I keep those three thoughts in mind while I make my choices they tend to work in a very satisfying, cohesive way.

    I think of the picture on the stage as a whole.  While other members of the artistic team are concentrating on their particular element that they are working on, I like to be the final glaze that pulls it all together.  This is why I like to use the analogy of Painting with Light.  There are so many technical and thoughtful similarities to the art of painting and lighting, I believe it is a natural progression.  Just as every painter has a different hand and a different method, so will every lighting designer.

    How do we "Paint" with Stage Lighting?

    We paint with stage lighting by using the same thought process as a painter but instead of using paint brushes and paint we use theatrical lighting equipment to create the picture.  A painter is concerned with light and shadow.  Guess what?  So are we!

    Just as a painter considers their color palette, so must the lighting designer.  Some palettes may be tight in nature and others widely varied.  Just as a painting may have a very naturalistic look or an abstract look, so can light.  To describe what a color palette is, think of it as a color family.  Just like the paint chips in a paint store will show a color with varying degrees of saturation, you can choose colored light as well.  A tight palette will have colors that very closely start from the same color (chroma).  A widely varied palette will have a group of colors derived from different chromas.  As you become more sophisticated in picking your palette, you will find that the “black sheep” of the family may be the one color that just cleans up the picture of makes something sparkle.  Instead of using pigment we use gel or glass lenses to color our light.

    Painters also have tools used to lay in color.  Your lighting units are some of your paint brushes.  With these brushes we deliver the shape, texture, amount and color of light.  Some units are tight detail brushes and others are broad stroke brushes that light the whole background.  Mix these tools to your advantage.  If you have to paint a whole sky, you would need a really big brush. If you wanted to add a cloud, then you would use a smaller brush. If you wanted to add highlights and shadow lines to that cloud, you would even use even a smaller brush. A painter has many tools; so do you.

    A few caveats:

    • Lighting is an art, and therefore, no perfect or singular way exists to do one thing.  Experimentation and following your instinct (with the eye to the visual) will go a lot further than adhering to a set formula.

    • Whether you are in a big theatre with 500 lights, or a small black box with ten clip lights, the principles are the same. The large theatre simply takes more equipment to accomplish the same idea.

  • Lighting Goals

    Lighting Goals

    First and foremost, it is important to understand the goals of stage lighting in a theatrical production, which are as follows:

    1. To control what can and cannot be seen.
    2. To create the environment in which the action happens.
    3. To participate in collaboration in the style of the production.
    4. To support the story of the theatrical piece according to the chosen style and goal of the production.

    We will now discuss these goals in detail, in relation to a lighting designer’s responsibilities. I believe these responsibilities are to create an environment that supports the production as a whole and to control where the audience focuses their attention.

    Lighting Goal #1 - Control What Can and Cannot Be Seen

    I begin with what might seem to be a simplistic statement: without light, we cannot see. The manipulation of this simple fact is one of the greatest tools a lighting designer has.  It is our job to direct the audience as to where they should be looking and away from where they should not be looking.

    For example:

    I designed a production of “Bat Boy” in which the director had asked me to help hide characters who had died while they got off the stage. The real trick was that the exiting performers were only about two feet away from the performers who were singing downstage of them. We chose to put the downstage performers in an extremely thin lane of light that was stark white. Lighting the side of the stage, rather than the front, assured that no light would travel upstage to hit the “dead” people. It worked great! You really could not see the dead people moving because there was no light on them.

    That moment on stage really reinforced the idea that contrast equals interest. Because I wanted the audience to concentrate on the singers downstage, I visually hid the “dead” people.  The desired effect not only drew attention away from the “dead” people, but also increased interest in the singers by lighting and accentuating their movement. Using an extreme contrast of bright light and dark void helped to make the singers visually pop. This manipulation of light was compositionally pleasing and also helped the action move.  So we began with the simple idea that we see that which is lit, but equally compelling is the notion that a lighting designer is in command of what cannot be seen.

    Here are a couple of thoughts that will be helpful.

    • Do not think, even for a second, that by simply not lighting something it will vanish.  There is always bleeding of light and something that is not purposely treated with light can still be seen.
    • There are dominant colors and submissive colors.  Dominant colors will never change or go away, no matter what color of light you lay on top of them.  Submissive colors will change what they look like if a dominant color is laid on top of them.  Experiment with this and it can help you direct the audiences eye.  Generally the redder the color the more submissive and the more green the color the more dominant.  Even if you are working in a blue palette you can choose blues that are more submissive or dominant.
    • If an object appears too dim and adding intensity is not helping, it usually means that there is too much light on other items.  Adding light is not always the answer, taking away light can be more effective.

    Lighting Goal #2 - Create the Environment in Which the Action Happens

    The next issue is the environment. Ask yourself the question: In what environment does the story take place? What does it look like? Is it a moonlit forest with a campfire? Is it a beach with a sunset? Is it a prison cell with the sun rising through the window? Is it a sewer where the only light comes from the grate above, and reflects in the pools of water below? It is our job to create and manipulate that environment.  I do not believe it our job to be the emotion or the conflict.  Emotion is the job of the performer.  We create the environment in which that happens within.

    Lighting Goal #3 - Control the Style

    This next goal is a little difficult to describe. It is an essence, a style. You can have the same environment done in many different styles. To show this, imagine a jail cell with the only light source being a single window at sunrise.

    A realistic style would attempt to create the scene as real as possible.  As far as scenery, in realism there must be real doors, real walls and certainly the real jail cell window.  Realism must have tangible, physical things appropriate to the reality. The lighting aspect would stylistically support the realism, using color choices and direction of the light.

    Assume you have selected the color for sunrise and have now placed it at an appropriate angle through the window to create the environment. Think ultra-simplistically. Sunrise ascends, or rises, moving from low to high. This movement is relative to the position of the light. If the scene has the time required for the sunrise to move, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the light created the movement?

    Some people use the term “Directorial Need,” where I use the term “Theatrical Need.” I prefer the term theatrical need because a scene is a whole, and the lighting should be part of this whole. While people may have different views, both the director’s vision and a good lighting designer’s vision for that scene are probably the same. The director is (most likely) going to want that shaft of light to fall upon the performer, and so should the lighting designer. How else is the audience going to see what the performer is doing? Adversely, there are times when the performer is hiding from the sunrise – in the olden times, sunrise may very well have meant it was time for the morning execution. Here you need to have what I call the “shadow light”, where the shaft of light is present, but there is just enough light to see the performer in the shadows. There are ways of adding reflected and bounce lighting into an environment. It uses a very tight color palette, but the shadow is a shade of the directional light. Once you master this skill, which it is not an easy one, you will be a very popular lighting designer.

    Now consider whether there should be one light moving very slowly, or a number of stationary lights that are cued in a sequence in order to simulate movement. Because the sun only creates one shadow, a single light (to keep from creating two shadows) would be most realistic when compared to multiple lights cross-fading because there will be a time when you have two shadows. Realism strives to re-create the most natural environment as possible.

    So, now it gets a little more confusing. How real do you really need to go? There are some theatrical needs that may have to be fulfilled, even if to do so means to go against strict realism.

    Therefore, within one style there are different degrees. Some people call strict realism “naturalism”, where if the lighting does not occur in reality, it is not created on the stage. I have seen many successful shows where the setting is a naturalistic living room, and the only light in the scene comes from realistic lighting sources such as table lamps, fireplaces and windows. In a small theatre, where the audience is close, these wonderfully designed shows worked perfectly. However, a 60-watt light bulb in an Ikea lamp is not going to cut it at the Metropolitan Opera.

    In a realistic jail cell, at sunrise, another thing to consider is the location of the performer. Most probably, the theatrical need is for the sunrise light to hit the performer wherever he or she is. Take the concept of a low angle of sunrise and follow it through to make sure that the shaft of light then falls upon the performer. If the performer moves, the movement of the sunrise may very well want to follow, almost as if the sunrise is conveniently following the exact path of the performer. Of course, it must be done in an artistic way so that it does not look like a follow spot is following the performer. The shaft of light should gently move to make sure the performer is lit. The shaft may also widen as the performer starts to become more active.

    Assume we are doing the jail cell in a stylistic way – venturing away from reality. There are no walls, doors or windows – only the actor, the costume and you, the lighting designer. Light can create the shape and shadows of jail bar windows. Light can create a box of light that makes the cage of the jail. Light can keep the scene very isolated. Here, I have described the same scene with the same script, but have it lit in two different styles. Both of them will work to tell the story. It is all a choice of the production team, from the director to all of the designers.

    Lighting Goal #4 - Support the Story

    Here is another issue that is always up for interpretation.  What is the piece about?  Is it a piece in which the author has hidden meanings that you are trying to get across?  Is it a rock concert that is simply about lighting that performer and making everything look cool?  Is it a child’s character show about a big purple dinosaur where your job is just to keep the scene clear and colorful?  You have to decide what your production as a whole is trying to tell an audience and then decide how you support that.  This is where your decisions and the collaborative teams’ artistic decisions really take hold.

    In achieving this goal as well as the style goal, I greatly consider what level of reality is the most appropriate.  How realistic or abstract should my lighting be?  Is it a very realistic box set?  Are there real doors and windows?  Are there places in which the light comes from?  Does the light have to look like it is coming from the fireplace?  Is this one of those productions that are simply based upon graphic shapes of light to shift location to location?  See how many questions I’m asking?  This simply shows how individualized every production is and how adaptive you must be in being able to support it.

  • The Process

    The Process

    Now that we know what it is we are supposed to be doing with respect to our lighting goals, let us discuss the process involved.

    Know the Material

    Boy, that may seem simple, but if you do not know the play, dance, piece of artwork, etc. that you are lighting, then you are doing it blindly. How can you effectively design something without knowing what it is about? Understanding whether the performer needs to be in the shaft of light, or hiding from it, is to understand what the scene is “about.” You have to “know” the piece to understand the intent of the scene, and what this theatrical moment is supposed to mean to the audience. If you cannot hold a conversation with the rest of the artistic team about all facets of the piece, you do not know it well enough.


    Get to know the piece even more. Find out its history. Look at images from other productions. There should be nothing about that piece that you do not know. Directors find it extremely frustrating to work with a Lighting Designer who does not have a clue about the project on which they are collaborating. I feel no shame in visiting YouTube to see postings of other productions. I don’t use it to steal ideas but to inspire my own ideas. Did you see something that had a good idea but could be done stronger? Did you see something done with some technology that has been improved and you can do so?

    Have a Production Meeting

    Here we start to get into the details of the show. Once everyone has a good idea of what the piece is about, and what style will be used to support the story, it is time to sit down, have a meeting, and really discuss how it will be done. Then, each department goes to their individual studio and begins to plan out their work. They will reconvene later to share what they have been working on, and what they will be doing.

    Write a Concept / Outline

    This is a step in which different designers start differently. Some write a formal, conceptual document aptly named a “Concept .” I believe it is a wonderful, educational, tool that takes the information from the above steps and puts them down on paper. This helps to organize the thoughts of the Lighting Designer.

    Here is an example of how a Concept would be set up:

    The first paragraph states concisely and simply what the piece is about. It is not a plot synopsis. Make sure you understand the intention of the author. What is the message that he/she is trying to get across. It’s not just the story – it’s what the story is trying to illustrate.

    The second paragraph describes the environment.

    The third paragraph describes the style in which the environment is being created.

    The fourth paragraph chooses an image to base the design on. For example, a classic image for A Street Car Named Desire is that of a butterfly turning into a moth, which visually symbolizes how Blanche changes from a colorful and delicate creature into a colorless, frail one. It shows movement in color, texture and story telling.

    The fifth paragraph then describes how the light is going to support all of the above.

    This is a tool to organize your ideas. Do not get caught up on technically how this document should be or how it should look. It is for you. It is a great way to not get lost.

    Write a Lighting Scene Synopsis

    Going act by act, scene by scene, write down every environment and time of day that is required to tell the story. Note any special lighting needs that are dictated by the script.

    Mark the script for Cue Placement: mark each place in the script that you know must have a lighting change with a “Q” for a cue. Do not number it yet. There will be plenty of additions. You are now looking for the “must have’s” that are inherent in the script.

    Create a “Need” List: make a list of every lighting need. For example, “I need daylight outside”, “I need sunset outside”, “I need a kitchen light in the kitchen”, “I need a light in the fridge”, “I need a campfire effect in the forest”, and so on, until each specific need is listed.

    Collaborate Again

    Check in with everyone and see what they are doing. Check out the direction of the color palette of the show, as far as costumes and set design is concerned. I hope that by this point you will receive preliminary scenic plans from the Set Designer. What does he or she envision the set looks like? What specific needs might he or she need fulfilled? Quite often, there are very specific lighting needs to bring a set to fruition. Discuss with the Scenic Designer if there are any special needs such as placing lights in hidden places, or maintaining access to a light that a set piece is blocking. Make compromises to best suit the end look of the production.


    If there is a rehearsal available to see, go often. Run-throughs of sections or acts are the most useful, but may not always be feasible. The rehearsal schedule is not going to be built around the needs of the Lighting Designer. View what you can, when you can.

    Create Paperwork for the Electrician

    Communicate your technical needs to the folks that are going to help create it. There are many fancy names for “who is who,” but we can keep it simple. You are the Lighting Designer and you will be supplying paperwork to the Production Electrician, who will then disseminate the information to others. Generally, these two positions are separate. Early in a person’s career, or in circumstances where the budget is very low, the two positions may combine. There are two good reasons to avoid this. The first is that different and separate talents make a good designer and a good technician. Even though he or she might not yet know how to accomplish it, the designer must come up with the greatest idea of what will make that scene the best it can possibly be. A great electrician probably will hear the idea and either achieve it then, or will mostly likely figure it out with a little thinking time. I loved when I had the most intelligent electricians working with me. I was not intimidated by their knowledge, or scared that they were after my job. We had distinct but equal talents, complimentary to each other.

    Draw Your Light Plot/Section

    A light plot is the ground plan schematic that places individual lights where you want them. In short, it illustrates where the lights need to be placed or mounted. The section is the side view that shows the heights of the units. You will draw and work with these drawings at the same time. Back in the day, light plots were all drawn by hand. Thankfully, computers have become the pencil, and we now have faster and more efficient tools.

    Data Input and Such

    It may sound silly to say “and such” because now that we input our information about each light into computer programs, the computer sorts the information and gives us all of the other reports we once did manually. The main piece of information to input is the Channel Hook-Up, which is a listing of each channel specifying the following information: what lights will be used, their color, their purpose, their wattage, their type, and any other special data.

    Pass on Your Paperwork to the Electrician or Producer

    Once you have completed the aforementioned steps, it is time to hand in your paperwork to the Lighting Electrician. Often, the Electrician and the Producer have to do a cost analysis on your design, which you (of course) created, keeping the budget and list of equipment in mind. In a Broadway situation, all of the equipment is going to be rented. A bid must be sent out, and negotiations must be made. Expect that you will be asked to make some budget cuts. Be smart – agree to cuts that are less significant, while refraining from cutting equipment that plays a key role in the production. You were hired to make sure that the lighting is used to its full potential. I know Designers that often put some extra equipment in their initial design for the simple act of cutting it, in order to ensure the essential equipment is provided.

    Watch Run-Throughs

    Watching run-throughs is the best thing you can do so that you can get a sense of timing, where the action is going to be, where the points of focus need to be, and where your lights and where your lighting cues need to be improved or revised. Make notes in your script as you go. I like to begin to number my cues at this point in the process, and I make a separate list of what the cues are for. Fundamentally, I have a script that a Stage Manager could use to call the show before the future cueing session even begins.

    Attend the Load-In

    If your show is a time-sensitive one that has to be loaded in (and set up) quickly, then it is best if you are in attendance. Problems arise, and you may have to make a design choice due to an unforeseen circumstance. If the load in process is long and you are unable to attend or are not needed right away, then you should be available by cell phone and be able to come in if need be.

    Focus the Show

    Now that the set is in place and the lights are working, turn off the work lights and focus the show. Stand on stage and direct where the lights go and how they are to be focused. Run as many focusers as you can and still do the job correctly. This is a costly time for the Producer. The more efficient you are, the more popular you will be to the person writing your check.

    Make a Magic Sheet

    This is a quick guide, personal to you, that helps you find the channel numbers to the specific purposes that the lights are creating. Some folks use a list, while I like to draw little ground plans. Everyone comes up with their own notations that let them find their ideas quickly. Keep in mind that nothing is worse than waiting for someone to find the light while cueing. I like to draw a ground plan of the stage and then make notes on that ground plan as to a color, or a texture of light that is coming from a direction with an arrow and then its channel number next to the arrow and description. This lets me look at the magic sheet and quickly see what channel I need to pull up for something like the “Fire Place” or “Moonlight thru Window”.

    Fix During Run-Through

    Adjust and massage the lighting until it is just right. During run-throughs, you must remember two things. First, be careful not to interrupt or speak over the stage manager at an inappropriate time. If you do need to stop to work on a complicated spot, make sure you pre-arrange this with whoever is running the rehearsal. “People skills”, “people skills”. . . we all need “people skills”! As you work with collaborators over and over again, people skills will become second nature. While I have worked with probably about 100 directors, there are five of them that I have worked with recurrently. I loved working on those shows! We knew each other, and understood the “good times” to speak up, and when not to. Cueing a show can be very stressful. Keep your cool, be respectful and in return, hopefully those around you will likewise respect the pressure you are under. Secondly, do not put anyone on stage in darkness unless they know about it. There will be times that it is essential for the stage to go to “black”. Be careful. Make sure everyone is aware and will not get hurt when you do this.

    Attend Opening Night

    It is great to see the audience’s reaction to your work, and to be able to help work through any glitches that might arise (either of the technical or the human kind). In addition, it is vitally important to your reputation that you cared enough to be there.

    My personal goal in doing shows is to make the best compositions I can, that support the story, with as little stress for me and those around me. Since this is not an easy business in which to earn a living, it is important to your career that people want to re-hire you. By following the above steps and putting them into practice, you have the opportunity to become a highly desired Lighting Designer

  • Contrast Equals Interest

    Contrast Equals Interest

    Contrast Equals Interest: Something that has the lightest light and the darkest dark right next to each other will draw the eye to it. I learned this from Sal Tagliarino while I was working on my masters at Tisch School of the Arts. Sal taught a drawing class that was based upon seeing the difference between having a “flash card image” of what something looks like in our mind and what something actually looks like in reality. Once one can see the difference between the two, one will be much more successful in creating it whether it is onstage or on a piece of sketch paper. I do believe Sal has retired now. While I wish him the best, it is a sad loss to education that he is not in a classroom on a daily basis.

    Let me share a story about this “contrast equals interest” that will bring it to a true theatrical reality.

    I was lighting “Fiddler on the Roof”, a scene where Tevye and Motel, the Tailor, were singing right next to each other. They were both in equal light, but we could not concentrate on Tevye, only Motel. No matter how much light we put on Tevye, Motel always appeared to draw the eye. The director came to me asking to put more light on Tevye and I showed her that no matter how much light I put on him, it just did not seem to matter. I then (very politely) mentioned that Tevye’s clothing was in subdued earth tones, and that Motel was wearing a very bright white shirt with very black pants. The high contrast of the costume made it nearly impossible to concentrate on anyone else onstage. The solution was to tone down Motel’s shirt. Once his contrast level was brought down, we were able to concentrate on both Tevye and Motel.

    Similarly, if you desire to make something brighter, but adding more light just does not help you, then you need to take light away from other things around it. Adjust the contrast ratio to work for you. I will always be grateful to Sal for the knowledge of contrast ratios. Ninety percent of what I do is control them. It is a simple concept, but maybe the most important.

    A good designer will know when it is a ratio that one can control, or when it is in another department’s responsibility. A rehired designer is the one who can communicate it in a non-confrontational way.

    A great way to train your eye to be able to judge contrast ratios is to doodle some gray scales with a pencil.

    Grey Scale

    Draw nine boxes are right next to each other. In the first three start with the dark tones. No. 1 is the darkest, No. 2 a little bit lighter and then No. 3 should be the lightest of the dark tones. Then skip a few steps, and then do the middle range. Skip a few steps and do the light range. Keep doing this until you get nice beautiful even steps that move gradually from dark to white. This exercise will serve you well.

    A practical note for everyone doing a show in a black box theatre with exposed lighting instruments:

    For the most part, the ceiling above the stage is black. If the bright, white light of the lens of a fixture is visible against the black of the ceiling, you are making it very difficult for the audience to concentrate on what is going on onstage. Their eye will be drawn to the highest contrast point, which is the whitest light against the blackest black. Use half hats and barndoors to fix this. Also spend some time using Cinefoil to cover up light leaks. Do everything you can to make sure that the audience is watching the show and not your lighting grid.

  • Shadow


    The Shadow can be more important then the Light!

    People don’t often think about the shadow.  The shadow is incredibly important.  Not only does it tell you which way the light is coming from, it also tells you if the light source is singular or multiple.  The shadow can tell you what time of day it is.  If the shadow is long, the time is either closer to sunrise and sunset. If the shadow is short, the time is closer to noon.  
    Here are a couple of more things to think about with the shadow.

    1 - If I am focusing lights and I do not want the light to hit a piece of scenery or a screen, consider where the shadow is going.  Move the light so that the shadow is not effecting that piece of scenery and voilà! You are not lighting the piece that you did not want to light.

    2 - If you want to make sure that you see a real directional light, then make sure you have a singular shadow.  Multiple light sources blend out shadows.  Go for that singular shadow and your light will look very directional.

    3 - If you need more light on the shadow side of a face, but you don’t want to lose the directionality of the light, choose a shadow color that is a shade of the source of light.  You can then fill in the shadow part of the face without effecting the composition of the directionality

  • What Can Be Controlled?

    What Can Be Controlled?

    In order to accomplish the bold statement of the purpose of lighting design, you must have the ability to control the light. How else can you manipulate it to your artistic vision? Having your vision controlled by the equipment is unacceptable. You must be able to control the equipment. Here are the essential elements you should be able to control.


    The actual amount of light coming out of the unit. In simpler terms, how bright or dim can you get it?

    In technical terms a conventional lamp is controlled via a combination of lighting controllers (desks) and dimmers. LED fixtures are controlled only with DMX Controllers (desks). You can also reduce the intensity of a fixture with neutral density gel and with screens often referred to as scrims.


    From heavy saturation to delicate tints, the difference really matters. Color is the strongest visual element to the light. John Gleason once said, “If I cannot bring the light to full, I have chosen the wrong color.” There are almost one thousand different colors of lighting gel that you can choose from. The right color is just waiting for you to pick it.

    Hint – you will be much more successful in choosing the color you want as opposed to trying to mix different colors to get there. If you are mixing you will limit your intensity control of that color. Always have a color swatch book with you so you can easily view your color options.


    It is important to consider where the light comes from. Sometimes, where the shadow goes is even more important. When doing a sunset, the light has to come from the direction that the sun is setting. If a light is coming from the table lamp, then the highlight should be on the side of the face nearest the table lamp. If the light is coming from the fireplace, it will not be believable unless the color and movement of the fireplace isn’t on the same side of the performer as the fireplace.


    What shape is the light – circle, square, broken line? What texture is the light? Is it a solid shaft or dappled broken shapes? Sometimes the shape helps keep light off things that you do not want lit. To control the shape of the light, the first thing to consider is the choice of the fixture itself. Some lights will produce a circle, an oval or a rectangle.

    A good way to achieve the shape you want is to start with the correct geometry of the light. For example, if you need a specific size circle, consider an ellipsoidal. Once you have the light, either use accessories that are built into the light or add an accessory to the light to accomplish your change. These accessories would include gobos, barndoors and irises. Going back to the ellipsoidal example, while ellipsoidals generally begin at a specific size circle to the light, they can change diameter of the circle with an iris, and change the shape to a square with shutters. Use these accessories to make the light the shape you need.


    Sharpness refers to both the light and the shadow. Is the light in a sharp focus or a soft focus? More importantly, is the shadow crisp or is it fuzzy? Some lights let you control your sharpness and others do not.

  • How Do We Control?

    How Do We Control?

    A Basic Theatrical Lighting System

    In order for artists in the theatre to begin to manipulate light, they have come up with different lighting systems. A lighting system can be as simple as a lamp being plugged into the wall or a light being switched on by a singular light switch. However, if you want to be able to control all of the properties above you will need something a little more sophisticated. Let us look at what comprises a basic theatrical lighting system. Remember, that since there has been a long evolution of equipment in the past few decades each theatre will be different. Theatres are usually under budgetary stress and cannot upgrade every time a better piece of technology comes out.

    Most lighting systems will include:

    The Hanging Location

    Where you locate the light, hanging or sitting. This establishes what direction the light beam is coming from. In established theatres these are generally permanent locations. In other venues you may very well setup your hanging location on the spot and where every you need and have access to. For more information, see Where to Put the Lights.

    The Lighting Unit

    The actual instrument that produces light. Here you can change the color, shape and sharpness. Most fixtures accommodate color filters to change the color. The reflector creates the shape of the light. The shape can be adjusted via shutters, irises and barn doors. The sharpness can be changed with different relationships between lenses and reflectors. For more information, see Lighting Units.

    Power Distribution

    The light needs power. This is how the electricity gets from the dimmer to the light. It can be as simple as a lighting cable (heavy-duty extension cord) from the dimmer to the light, or as complicated as a patch bay that assigns circuits to chosen dimmers. A power distribution system may also include raceways, which permanently place circuitry throughout the theatre. For more information, see Lighting Cable & Electrical Distribution.

    Intensity Control – Dimmers for Conventional lights and Built In Intensity Control for LED units.

    The dimmers are controlled by the control board (light board) and are the physical units that either let all of the electricity get to the light, causing it to go to full, or restrict the electricity to the light, causing it to dim. Dimmers are used for conventional lighting units, not LED units. For LED units the intensity control is built into the unit. You send a control cable with the control signal from the light board to the LED fixture. With more and more LED units being used, it is very common to split the control signal with data splitters. This way, the cabling doesn’t get too crazy. It is also very common to send a signal line to each hanging location, and then have the control signal daisy chain (hold hands) from unit to unit. For more information, see Dimmers.


    The control is the brains of the system. The light board, whether manual or memory, is controlled by the human. Once the control board knows what should happen it sends a signal through control wires, or wireless signals, to the dimmers and other controlled devices. The most common control signal today is DMX-512. It is a digital signal that connects all devices that receive control information. For more information, see Controllers.

    The Flow of a Lighting System

    For a conventional light with intensity controlled by a dimmer…

    Control board > Control signal transporter > Dimmer > Electrical cable > Lighting unit

    For a LED light…

    Control board > Control signal transporter> LED unit (with constant power provided)

    For a mixed system with conventional and LED units together…

    Control board > Control signal transporter > Control signal splitter sending a signal to dimmers and then also to the LED unit > then continue on to the lights as listed above.

  • Lighting Units

    I consider lighting units the paint brushes of stage lighting. It is with these brushes that we can deliver the shape, texture, amount and color of light. Sometimes we need big brushes (strip lights) and sometimes we need tiny brushes (“lekos” and pin spots). If you have to paint a whole sky, you would need a really big brush. If you wanted to add a cloud, then you would use a smaller brush. If you wanted to add highlights and shadow lines to that cloud, you would even use even a smaller detail brush. A painter has many tools; so do you.

    Theatrical manufacturers have gone to great lengths to give us lighting units and control systems that permit us to manipulate the elements of light. Every time a designer thinks, “Gee, I would love for it to do this,” there is an inventor out there to manufacture it. While it is not completely necessary for a lighting designer to understand all of the electrical and engineering components of how the systems work, it is vitally important that they understand what is available to them.