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How Do I..? How To..? Stage Lighting FAQ

Readers of On Stage Lighting regularly get in touch, via the comments or  Twitter, to ask their stage lighting related questions. Many of these questions start with “How Do I…?” or “How To..?” so here’s some of the more common ones, together with some quick answers and other stage lighting resources that could help you.

If you have any “How do I…?” questions, put them in the comments box below. We are planning on adding to this article as more stage lighting FAQ come up – you might even have some better answers for other readers. Also, if you find any other good online resources we haven’t mentioned, let us know.

How do I light a Stage?

 

The real answer, of course, is “How ever you like!” – there isn’t a mystical scroll containing “The Rules of Lighting Designe”. But that’s not what were talking about. When asking “How to light a Stage?” people are trying to find accepted principles and practices that are a good starting point to lighting a stage successfully.

Lighting a stage for visibility (surely the lighting designer’s primary purpose), there is a method that can be adapted upon to fit your own situation. The basic principle is to divide your stage into areas and light each area using a number of lighting fixtures. The edges of these areas are blended together to try to achieve a seamless, controllable light across the stage. Each area can have lighting from different angles – front light, side light, backlight etc. – for good visibility from the audiences view and to add clarity to the form of actors and other stage elements such as scenery.

Rules of thumb about these lighting angles is sometimes known as the McCandless method (after Stanley McCandless, author of a book outlining it). Two front lights (per area) from an angle of 45 degrees from horizontal, 45 degrees either side of centre from in front of the stage. These are traditionally coloured in a warm gel from one side, cool from the other, to allow mixing of either a warm or cool “keylight” with the opposite angle filling in. These front lights, together with a steeper back light from behind, do give a pleasing light on stage. Each area being individually controlled, we can highlight certain areas of the stage depending on the action.

Most stage lighting design books have a section explaining the use of these methods. Rules of thumb, rather than laws of physics, they provide a good starting point on “How to light a Stage?”.

How to do lighting ….? / How to design lighting?

 

This kind of question ranges from “how do I do lighting for a band?” to “How to design lighting in a…?”. Like lighting a stage, there are no rules to how you go about “doing the lighting”. Starting points are:

  • A lighting system you have or budget to hire one.
  • Places we can put lighting equipment. Rigging options.
  • How much power is available. (I’ve only done few lighting designs that didn’t need mains power)
  • Things that we need to light on stage so the audience can see.
  • Fluffy design stuff like mood, atmosphere, time of day etc.

There are plenty of resources online which have the answer to specific “How to do lighting…?” questions. These include:

.

How much lighting do I need for…?

 

Working out how much lighting you need for a particular task gets easier with experience. Starting out, you need to work out:

  • How big an area needs to be lit.
  • How far from the stage your lights will be.
  • How much control do you need over different lighting elements.

Once this has been worked out, you can calculate how much lighting you need. A large area, lit from a long distance needs high powered, narrow angle fixtures (2000W is a standard high powered fixtures used in large venues). Conversely, an area lit from a short distance such as 3 metres might require a good number of wide angle, low powered lights (300w – 500w) to give a good coverage.

Of course, once you have worked out what you need, you still have the thorny issue of how much you can afford and how much electrical power is available. See:

How do I work out how much power do I need for stage lighting?

 

This ones easy. The physics is Electrical Theory – Power Law and is based on a simple equations to help you work out how much power is required. Knowing your available power source in Ampheres / Amps (A or I in the equation) plus the known voltage in your venue (volts / V), you can work out the maximum power (P) available in Watts – I (amps) x V (volts) = P (watts). You can also reverse the equation, knowing two of the paramaters.

How do I connect up a lighting system?

 

Any lighting control system, inlcuding DMX512, has different elements that work together to process the signal. Using the correctly rated cables to connect up a DMX lighting system is a matter of understanding DMX and how it talks to lighting equipment:

How do I control lighting using my laptop or PC?

 

This question has been very popular in the last few years. Using a laptop or PC, a DMX USB dongle and some lighting control software you can put your computing power to good use and control a lighting system. Although not the same as a dedicated console, PC lighting control software can be FREE and the hardware used to output DMX is inexpensive. If you are willing to trust your show to a laptop, we have some useful links for you:

How do I persuade my School Drama Teacher to buy some moving lights?

 

This is question is far too common. The question should be “Does my school need to buy some moving lights?”. The subject has been covered many times, here is some good reading on the question of moving lights and their uses in small venues:

How to I get a job in Stage Lighting?

 

There are many people in the business who would question whether you really want a job in lighting at the moment (See Boom and Bust in the Lighting Business) but no matter. The entertainment industry always seems to have plenty of hopeful talent trying to make their way in. Today there a number of options to getting a job in the stage lighting business – formal education, work experience, working your way up from the bottom. The subject of which was the best education to get a real job was covered in our serious of interviews with major stage lighting employers:

Some other related links on jobs in stage lighting:

That’s about it for the moment. Don’t forget, we are going to be adding more stage lighting FAQ to this page. Put your “How Do I…? or “How To…? in the comments box below. Or you could get in touch via Twitter.

14 Responses to How Do I..? How To..? Stage Lighting FAQ

  1. Alex Riviere November 24, 2008 at 4:55 pm #

    Thank you! this is really friggen useful and is totally going in my bookmarks!

  2. Matt January 12, 2009 at 4:16 pm #

    Can anyone recommend the best way of cleaning the lenses in my stage lights? I have a couple of lighting units with big lenses in them but I don’t think they have ever been cleaned. Is it best to just use a lens cleaning cloth (like for glasses or binoculars) or should I be using something else? Some cleaning substance?

    Matt

  3. Rob Sayer January 12, 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Hi Matt – There is quite a few threads on the subject @ the Blue Room including this one. In the old days we used to use neat Meths but lense technology has got more complicated and you need to be careful not to clean off any special coating the manufacturers put on. ETC Source Fours manual makes it clear that you SHOULD NOT use glass cleaner. A weak water/detergent solution is a safe bet if you are not sure.

  4. Rashna April 5, 2009 at 5:13 pm #

    hey..
    this is really helpful.. in the midst of writing a play and my course work is far from helpful when it comes to lighting!

  5. Doug February 3, 2010 at 5:38 pm #

    I am still pretty new to stage lighting, one of my problems so far is that I have par 38s that I put colored gels in. White light shows from the sides of the pars and shines on my back drop pretty badly. How do I fix that?

  6. Matt February 3, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    Hi Doug,

    Is the white light shining out from the ventilation holes in the body of the fixture or between the end of the lamp and the gel? Have you thought about repositioning your lights or maybe using different fixtures? All depends on what you have in the way of kit and what you want to do with it.

    Matt

  7. Doug February 3, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    Yes its shining between end of the lamp and the gel.

  8. Rob Sayer February 13, 2010 at 11:26 am #

    Hi Doug. Not quite sure which housing your PAR38s are in, but the usual lighting solution to light leaks is a matt black aluminium foil, often called Black Wrap.

  9. Doug February 14, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    I just had a Doh moment. I was thinking about how I would attache the black foil to the housing and thought Gaffers tape might work then “Doh” Cant I just use the Gaffers tape to cover the gap between the gel frame and the can body?

  10. Rob Sayer February 14, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    Doug, the trouble with Gaffer tape directly on lanterns is that it melts and then hardens again, making a nasty mess an leaving sticky cloth mesh residue behind.

    Blackwrap (just like any tin foil) is usually crumpled /folded over any available anchor points such as colour frame runners etc. stays in place by virtue of the fact that it is flexible and mouldable.

  11. Lee June 4, 2010 at 8:15 pm #

    Is there anyone who is a lighting designer but also an acrophobic?
    I want to become a lighting designer and i’ve been in a internship for a year but still cant conquer it…

    any advise?

  12. Mark November 22, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

    I have a lighting rack with 4 cans using par 64 500 watt lamps. What device do I need to buy to make the lights alternate?

    Thanks for your help

  13. Zino Okpolokpo January 1, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

    Hi, I am new here and I want to set up an entertainment coy which include events planning. I am base in Nigeria and I want to find out how much it will cost to get a full package of lightings for concerts and how I can learn stage design and lightings.. I will much appreciate it if I get a good response. Thanks.
    Zino.

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