Stage Lighting Design

Backlight – Why You Should Be Using Backlighting

Backlight is an important element in 3-point stage lighting that can be neglected on small shows in schools and drama clubs. So what is it, why should you use backlighting and what effect does it have in different stage lighting situations?

What is Backlight?

Backlight is a term used in visual arts such as photography, film and stage lighting that simply means “light that comes from behind”. A light source placed on the opposite side of the “subject” (model, actor) from a viewer’s (camera, audience) point of view. On a conventional theatre stage this means lights that are hung upstage (towards the rear of the stage) that shine back towards the acting area.

The angle of backlighting can vary from low down, right up to nearly over the “subjects” head. Light directly overhead is referred to as “toplight” or “downlight” and shares similar lighting qualities to backlight.

Backlighting study
Great backlight study by jeffery95112 on Flickr

Why is Backlight important?

Stage lighting that shines from the front (audience), lights the subjects on stage so that they can be seen by the paying public. Simple and important. Backlighting doesn’t reflect back to the viewer, it creates a false “halo effect” around surfaces, particularly on curved ones such as the human body. This has the effect of showing the depth and 3 dimensional quality of the actor and making the “stage picture” less 2D. Backlighting also gives the eye some references on stage depth and distances and these visual clues help the audience see the performers as real.

Backlight can also produce some interesting effects for dramatic lighting, show performer’s forms while hiding their faces and cast menacing shadows on the stage floor. Toplight can produce interesting colour casts (fancy lighting word for coloured light reflection) on performers hair, shoulders. It can also be used to wash the stage floor with intense colour without making your performers look like they have been painted all over.

Backlighting the Stage

So we know that backlight can make our live performers seem even more real. But how do you position your stage lights for good backlighting?

A good rule of thumb for theatre stages is to position your backlighting lanterns directly upstage of the area that they will light and at a fairly steep angle. A steeper backlight angle (60 degrees or so) means that you get a good “halo” and avoids blinding the audience in the front row. Try to barndoor your backlight off at about the top of the seats in the front row. If you only cut off your backlight at the front edge of the stage, you will not be lighting anyone stood right downstage. Apart from their feet.

If you don’t work in a traditional proscenium arch theatre but have audiences that surround the performance area, remember that front light for one group of audience can be backlight for others.

Fixtures used for backlighting generally need a brighter light output than front light because much of the light is not directly reflected back to the viewer.

Backlighting for Camera

Backlight is extremely important for film and television lighting as it provides depth to the actors on screen. Because the screen is only a flat moving picture, backlight is the way to stop your subjects looking like cardboard cut-outs. Next time you watch television, look out for signs of back or top lighting reflecting off hair and shoulders.

Cameramen are really keen on backlighting so if you are lighting a show that will also be filmed or broadcast, try to use some. Find out beforehand where the cameras will be. Backlight for the camera may not be in the same position as it would be for your live audience. The cameras won’t want your backlights shining right down their lenses. If your backlight is actually lighting up the camera on it’s tripod, you know that it’s also burning a hole in the cameraman’s retina (and making it impossible to set his exposure).

Other Backlighting

Backlight makes people on stage or screen look better but it can also “profile” bits of scenery and make ornate costumes stand out. Lights from behind can also used to make things glow, change colour and create special effects on your set.

One important use of backlight is when lighting orchestras, choirs and other performers that have read while performing. Backlighting or toplight is vital to classical musicians as all those little dots on their scores must be easy to read. Positioning these lights can be a compromise but the important points are:

Avoid the musicians casting a shadow on their score (put lights slightly to the side, lighting over their shoulder or go for steep downlighting if possible).
Avoid blinding the musicians on the opposite side of the ensemble.

When lighting an orchestra, don’t forget that the conductor will not thank you for shining the backlight in her eyes but try to throw a bit of light to the face and arms – for the benefit of the poor scratchers trying to follow them.

Don’t neglect your backlight. It does make up 33% of 3-point lighting and gives your stage lighting more punch, drama and simply looks better. If you have any interesting ideas for using backlight, put them in the comment section below.


    Regarding backlights has anyone ever tried to use 10 degree or even 26 degree profiles with no gels just white light as back lighting.I have this idea i want to try out when i get the chance. I want to use profiles as backlights and see what effects come out. I am confident the beams will be seen if focused properly. Well if anyone has already done this then let me know.
    By the way this site rocks.

  2. Saravanan

    I always use CP 60 pars or else known as aircraft bulb pars in local term (w/out gels). It gives a pencil thin beams and a good effect too. But should be used rarely in some special sequence to make it more interesting


    Hi Saravanan,
    Yes I too use Cp60 pars also known as Very Narrow pars. They are perfect for backlighting and even sometimes Foh and side provided you are using it from a distance.
    However I am planning to try profiles and im quite sure 10degrees will give me an awesome beam show as well.Lets see its just another idea that popped into my head at 2am in the morning.

  4. Saravanan

    But Sharukh, do you think the intensity of the profiles will be good enough lik pars. Specially wen you are using it from behind.


    If they are 1kilowatt profiles like the ones I use, then yes. Also 10’are very bright.So yes I believe it should work.Havent tried it yet so lets see.

  6. Mike Rodwell

    My grandaughter has just set herself up an 8X4m dance studio
    and I would like to contribute a theatre light to add to the
    ambiance. Please could you advise me what I should do ?.

  7. Rob Sayer

    @Mike – Hi. If you are just looking to provide a working prop for a small studio, you are best seeking out a second hand “old” theatre or TV fixture that looks the part. The downside to a lot of these is they are relavtively power hungry and HOT in small studio. 300W is pretty much the as high as I could stand in a confined space.

    You might be able to get some kind of faux theatre domestic light fittings from a furnishing place that looks better than the real thing. Let us know how you get on.

  8. Richard Boyd

    Hi Rob

    Superb website!!!!

    I came across it as we are researching into DMX & LED lighting for the company that I run Real Oasis. We currently use Par36’s but they are in the main too large to fit into smaller planters and have to be situated outside of the planter. Due to the nature of what we do we need cool running lights and finding small enough products to fit into the planters (that can also be DMX controlled) has become a problem. Birdies (RGB) would be ideal (it’s the effect that we want) we don’t need a great deal of light…any suggestions?

    Keep up the good work, I’ll be back!


  9. Rob Sayer

    Hi Richard

    I have seen a few LED packages fitted into a Birdie can or something comparable in size. Funny thing is that the biggest things with conventional DMX connections becomes 2 x XLR, usually on flying leads and some kind of PSU. Other systems (like Anolis, by Robe) use RJ45 connectors and separate power supplies to keep the bulk of the the hardware away from the fixture.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Seamus McNally

    Just googled onto your site. Involved in amateur drama and directing a play at the moment in which I want to have the actor behind a sheet so that his silouette is seen on the sheet before he appears.
    Going by your comments I think it would mean a low light from behind as near as possible to the subject?
    I must buy your book, it sounds intersting, and down to earth judging by your site.
    PS I’ll buy you a pint of Guinness when my son comes in and I get his paypal code

  11. Rob Sayer

    Hi Seamus, a light source close and low is good for making the subject’s shadow appear huge. The best thing to do is experiment with a portable light source to get exactly the “look” you want, and don’t forget the mark for the actor to hit the correct spot every night. Cheers

  12. DuncanM

    Hi. My theatre roof is very low (about 12 feet to the grid over the stage) so conventional back lighting is hard because they end up lighting the front few rows of the audience. Similarly, toplights make one spot lovely and bright (if you stand directly underneath) and have no effect everywhere else. So sometimes I’ve used cyc lights as toplights, because the broad and relatively even beam covers more stage more evenly than anything else I can think of. Anyone got any other ideas for toplights with low roofs?

    @ Seamus – try using a cyc light to backlight your sheet – might give an even outline, rather than the “spotty” effect of using a profile…

  13. DuncanM

    @Seamus – sorry – I re-read your question, and I’m talking nonsense! What I should have said was to agree with Rob about how to project a shadow onto an opaque screen (like a sheet). Sometimes the light source can still be visible to the audience, and sometimes it can work well to hide it behind the actor, if it gives you the angle you’re after.

    I was thinking about lighting scrims, which are opaque when lit from in front (and hopefully dark behind), but translucent when unlit from the front and the actor behind the scrim is lit. What I was trying to say is that a cyc light is good for front lighting the actor, if they’re close up behind the scrim… And a top light can be nice for outlining the actor without revealing much of their face, giving a “shadow-like” effect…

    Sorry for my confusion…


  14. Richard

    Can anyone help me with this difficulty? I need to light the person behind the “mirror” in Snow White. The “mirror” will be made of gauze or similar material ie. almost a one way effect. Would downlighting be the answer? This will give facial shadows I suspect. Advice would be appreciated from more experienced persons!

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