Stage Lighting Focus Guide – Updated

Friday, November 16th, 2012 - Learn Stage Lighting - by:

*Update* Have you ever worked with a Lighting Designer, whether amateur or professional, and wondered what they are doing wandering around on stage waving their arms about? Have you noticed an LD, directing the lighting focus standing on the stage with their backs to the rig, and wondered what they were looking at on the floor? This newly updated article sheds some light (sorry!) on how to focus stage lighting, with an assistant, from the stage. We examine the process from the viewpoint of both the Lighting Designer and the Electricians and get to grips with some common lighting focus terminology.


 Stage Spotlight - stage lighting focus
It was Bertie Bassett’s turn up the ‘scope..
Image by PhotoGraham

When you work in small venues with limited resources you may find yourself doing the actual lantern pointin’ yourself. The main reason to not to go up that ladder is:

  • You, the LD, can see how the light will interact with the performers on stage.

Other reasons are:

  • You can clearly see the lighting plan.
  • It is easy to communicate with others in your team.
  • It’s hot in the roof. Get someone else to do the hot knob twiddling!

The Shadows

When the lighting designer is standing facing away from you and squinting at the floor, they are actually looking at their shadow cast on the stage, set and whatever else gets in the way. If their silhouette is in the middle of the beam circle, they know that the lantern is centered on them. If their “shadow head” disappears into the top of the beam circle, the light is too low and needs to be lifted and if they can’t see the outline of their ankles in the beam, then they are not lit all the way to the floor.

Seeing your shadow in a pool of light gives you all the information you need about how you are being lit. Using your hands and arms, you can test where the lit area ends, at the side of stage for example. Using your hand above your head can simulate someone taller or show you how much headroom there is in the focus of a spotlight.


Using shadows to get an even general cover.

The secret to getting an even general cover is to get the pools of light from your spotlights to join seamlessly when they are all faded up. You can use your shadow to test this out by walking sideways across the stage and studying the way the shadows appear and disappear as you move between .

If your shadow quickly dips and then reappears as you move across stage you know that there is a “black spot” between the two lights. If, on the other hand, you can see two shadows almost on top of each other then two spotlight beams are overlapping by far too much and should be eased apart.

Watching the opposing shadow angles of your front light change as you move across stage can give you an indication of a large change in throw angles that may well look odd from the audience’s point of view.

The final check for any “black spots” is to hold your hand out just above shoulder level, still facing away from the rig, and to study how the reflected brightness changes on your hand. This is actually easier said than done with a load of profile spots all pointing at you so keep facing away from them.


You can use the same techniques to focus backlight and sidelight. When focussing backlight, your shadow should ideally cut off at the top of the seats in the front row. If it extends much higher, the backlight is shining directly into the eyes of the front row of the audience.

Don’t forget…

Using the above techniques you can get most of the lighting focus done without ever having to look directly at the spotlights but there a few focus checks to do before you move onto the next lantern.

Have a peek over the front of your stage to check for spill on the front of the forestage. Also check for spill on the proscenium, tabs, borders or other stage elements that are not meant to be lit. In the trade, the focussing assistant should shutter these off automatically but you still need to check them.


Guide To Focusing Stage Lighting

The following is a guide on the nuts and bolts of planning and taking part in a successful focus session from the viewpoint of both the Lighting Designer and the focusing Electrician.  A glossary of some common focus terms and lingo is at the end.

<—————- The rest of this Guide and more information is at ————->

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Rob is a Lighting Designer and Moving Light Programmer and currently Senior Lecturer in Technical Theatre Production at Bath Spa University in the UK. He is also the Editor of On Stage Lighting and runs workshops in stage lighting practice.

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  1. Jake Sliv:

    Great article, Rob! I’d like to share a couple of tricks I use, that are handy especially when touring and having to focus with electricians that don’t speak a common language with you. When shuttering profiles I get a stick (even a broom can be used) and place it on the floor in the position and the angle I want the shutter to be. I always keep a laser pointer at hand, since combined with the local word for “there” it saves a lot of time and hand gestures.
    It’s also useful to check if your practiced hand signals aren’t actually rude or offencive in the country, you are visiting (that actually happened to me in France and almost let to a fight with one of the stagehands).

  2. Ross:

    Jake – I have to ask – *what* hand signal was that ?

  3. Justin Durnford:

    Great article. I think you pretty much have it all covered. Focusing lights is easy as soon as you get all of the terminology and understand what the stage should look like.

    You should also always try to backlight if the presentation is being recorded or imag. This helps highlight the presenter and cancel out shadows.

  4. Jake Sliv:

    Well apparently the Israeli gesture for “wait a second” – pinching together all fingers on one hand in shaking the result slightly, is interpreted in southern France as “stop what you are doing, you bloody idiot!”, or something of the sort. We learned that the hard way, when one of our crew, directing the load in of the set, came close to being run over by a forklift operator for gesturing to him: “wait, you are about to run me over”.

  5. Rob Sayer:

    Ah, I think we may have found the French / Israeli translation problem. Perhaps I’ll explain via Facebook LOL

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