LED lighting for stage and theatrical use has never been so cheap to buy. It seem like every major stage lighting manufacturer has dived into the LED lighting fixture market while cheap imported lights mean that even a small band or DJ can get a slice of the RGB colour mixing action. On Stage Lighting has a guide for anyone thinking of buying and hoping to learn more about LED stage lighting fixtures.
Why Buy LED Stage Lights?
High Powered LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology means that we can now use those funny little glowing things that used to live on the front of your television, in theatre shows, live music gigs and corporate shows. LED fixtures have many advantages over “old fashioned” lanterns that make them attractive in stage lighting.
- Low Power Consumption – Because the LED uses a fraction of the power of an normal lightbulb (lamp), the power consumption of LED lighting fixtures is very small, meaning you can use a lot of fixtures on small power supply such as a 13A domestic socket. This is great for small band lighting rigs and the disco/party DJ.
- Low Heat Radiation – Although LED stage lighting does produce heat, the fixtures produce light without getting extremely hot. Modern stage lighting lamps produce more heat (and light) than they ever have and this has been coupled with improved lantern casings to minimise the risk of burning the operator. There are, however, some environments where the low heat properties of LED stage lighting are desirable.
- Lightweight and Portable – The hardware that LED fixtures are packaged in does not need to be heavy and, although the various power supplies and elements all add weight, LED units are usually fairly light.
- Colour Effects – The most common way for LED lights to be used for stage lighting purposes is using a combination of different coloured LEDs. A fixture with all three three lighting primary colours, Red, Green and Blue (RGB) LEDs blended together in different combinations gives the lighting designer loads of colour choices. This is using a principle called Additive Colour Mixing, where the coloured LEDs mix on any surface that reflects the light.
- Small and Compact – LED lighting fixtures can be made in small, discreet packages which suit applications where size and brightness are important such as exhibitions stands.
- High Brightness – This really comes down to the ratio of light brightness to power consumption. The new high powered LEDs are very bright considering small amount of electrical power they use.
So, What Types of LED Lighting Fixture Might I Choose?
For the purposes of stage lighting, the RGB colour mixing (see above) capabilities of the LED fixtue is it’s selling point. The main forms are in a lighting batten, a long strip with an array of red, green and blue LEDs or in a compact array that produces a beam of light, similar to a conventional PAR can or a Floodlight. The batten are useful for lighting up flat areas, such as a wall or backcloth, while the PAR / Flood fixtures will give you a beam of light, similar to their conventional stage lighting relatives.
Moving Light technology has also joined the LED bandwagon, with LED arrays being packaged in all shapes and sizes of “waggly” LED Moving Head fixtures. Another stage and theatrical use for the LED is in a large, screen-like array which can be used to show colours, patterns and moving images like a low resolution television screen.
How Do I Control My LED Stage Lighting?
Stage lighting is usually controlled using the standard DMX512 protocol, and LED fixtures are no exception. Different DMX channels control the Red, Green, Blue while other channels may deal with overall instensity or special chases and effects. The LED lights are linked to the DMX signal chain in the same way as other intelligent stage lighting fixtures and do not require extra dimmers to control them.
If you don’t have a DMX lighting controller, many LED stage lighting units can be used in “standalone” mode or can have control locally, using a simple controller/power supply that enable you to change the colour and run simple effects.
What’s the catch about LED stage lights , then?
LED stage lighting is cheaper than ever, uses less power, is smaller and doesn’t get hot. It also offers you a range of light colours, without using lighting gels. What more do you want?
Well, there is a few things you might want to know about LED stage lighting, before you go out and buy a van full.
- LED arrays can’t “focus up” like a conventional lantern. Because there are many sources of light in the fixture, you can’t get a sharp spotlight or project a gobo using an LED fixture.
- The “endless” colour choices have limits. Different LED stage lights have various colours that they just “don’t do”. A good quality white light is one of them. Because of the way that all three colours (RGB) are mixed, a good even white light is near impossible to achieve with most fixtures.
- LED lighting fixtures are bright – but not that bright. Although power for instensity-wise LED stage lighting fixtures are really efficient, they do lack the punch of their conventional lantern relatives (for the moment). A PAR can with LEDs in it is nowhere near as punchy as a PAR64 CP62 (or even a PAR56, for that matter).
- Intensity drops off quicker over distance. Or at least , it appears to. Because most LED lighting units have neither a lens nor a reflector, the light they produce scatters and struggles to maintain intensity when thrown much of a distance.
- Colour mixes better over distance(?). Because the three coloured LEDs need to mix on a surface to create an even light, this mix improves further away from the light source. This produces the dichotomy of a fixture that colours mixes well when it is too far way to mantain a good intensity.
- You get what you pay for. All LED stage lighting fixtures are not the same. Even though you can buy them cheap doesn’t mean that you should and all of the above points are more apparent in cheap LED lighting fixtures. A good quality lighting manufacturer will always be more expensive but, in general, the quality of the light and fixture will be far superior.
While having their faults and limitations, DMX controlled LED lighting fixtures are an important development in the techonology of stage and theatre lighting. They expand the armoury of the lighting designer and will help save the planet – a bit. If you have any thoughts on LED stage lighting or have a question to put to On Stage Lighting, please use our comments box below.
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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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