Stage Lighting Design Explained: Step by Step

Stage Lighting Design Explained: Step by Step

Stage lighting design enhances performances in concerts, theaters, and even smaller venues. Lighting professionals use stage lighting to illuminate the performer and evoke certain emotions.

They’re also used to create an ambiance that complements the theme or subject of the performance. Similar to a stage performance, lighting is also a form of art.

Mastering this art form can significantly elevate the quality of a performance. This article will discuss the essentials you need to learn regarding lighting for a stage production. I will talk about:

This knowledge is crucial because stage lighting designers can be skilled. But they still may not be able to comprehend your vision for the show in your mind.

By learning the basics, you can communicate effectively with lighting designers. And even create your lighting plan.

Why is Stage Lighting Important?

The main goal of stage lighting is to illuminate a subject on stage. It also plays a significant role in establishing the mood or tone of a performance.

A lighting designer complements the lighting with the performer’s actions or scene onstage. This helps in amplifying critical moments in the show that need emphasis.

Through it, lighting designers can make you focus on a character or an essential spot on the stage. Stage lighting ensures the audience’s attention is directed to where and when it matters most.

Lighting can also evoke the audience’s emotions, creating a better connection to the story. This is more apparent in theatre plays. A theatre lighting designer can connect the audience to the story through lighting.

And the better your connection with the audience, the more impactful every scene becomes. Happiness, sadness, aggression—through manipulating lighting levels, theatrical lighting can make emotions visible in the form of lights.

Not only that, but a well-planned stage design will impact the overall aesthetic of a performance. This adds to the feeling of being transported or immersed into the environment where the performance is supposedly occurring.

What Are the Fundamentals of Stage Lighting?

Stage Lighting Guide 101 – The Main Terms You Need to Know

To better understand how a lighting designer does stage lighting, you must first know some basic terms. This will also help you communicate effectively with the lighting designer during a show.

  • Fixtures: This is the general term for stage lights. Others may call them “lanterns.” These light fixtures have different types and serve different lighting purposes.

  • Lamps: A lamp refers to the bulbs inside each lighting fixture.

  • Throw Distance: A fixture’s throw distance, or “throw,” refers to how far its light can reach.

  • Gel: It is another word for a color filter. Lighting technicians insert gels into light fixtures to create colored lights.

  • Gobo: This term refers to a stencil placed on the lens of light fixtures. This allows the light fixture to project an image or light effects. This accessory benefits theatre lighting as it helps create mood and an onstage environment.

  • Barndoors: The barndoors are the metal flaps around the front of the stage lighting fixtures (mostly on spotlights). They are used to create shapes and hard edges. Most lighting units will have either two barndoors or four. The more there are, the more control you have over the hard edges.

  • Snoot: This term refers to a little hat-like object that you put over the lighting instruments to reduce stray light.

  • Diffusion: This is the act of dispersing light. This action will create a soft-edged light.

  • Wash: Also known as “fill,” this term means shining the light with constant coverage over the entire stage. A stage lighting designer will use this light to fill the stage with light.

  • Cyclorama: This term refers to the large fabric backdrop on the stage. You can use this cloth as a wall to project light or images. Its primary use is to hide the stage equipment, but you should use it as part of your show.

Light Fixtures and What They Are Used For

Lighting fixtures have different forms. Each one functions differently depending on their particular role.

  • Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight (ERS): Most commonly known as a “spotlight.” Ellipsoidal stage lighting is a fixture designed to create an intense light beam. 

  • This lighting equipment, usually made of fluorescent lights, is mainly used for front lighting. They will also hold gels and gobos to project colors and patterns. For example, a city skyline or window shutters.

  • Cyc Light: As I mentioned, the cyclorama is the fabric backdrop of a stage. A cyc light is designed to project images on cycloramas or any vertical surface. The light can be washed or faded as appropriate.

  • Floodlight: Floodlights are designed to create intense light over a large area. They are often used as outdoor stage lighting, but you’ll find them in indoor areas, too.

  • Followspot: Followspot lights are light fixtures usually operated by a lighting tech. They allow for movement, which lets the tech follow the performer. This is very important for singers, bands, and theatre lighting, where a performer needs more emphasis to stand out.

  • If a performer loves to jump around or survey the whole stage, a follow-spot will ensure they’ll be illuminated wherever they go. These lights can also change their level of intensity to match the performance.

  • Fresnel: Fresnel lights are perfect for settings that require much light on a focus point. These lights have lenses with multiple rings. The light shines brightest in the center ring but fades and becomes softer in the outer rings. This lighting fixture is excellent for naturally dark locations such as nighttime shows or an old theater.

  • Parabolic Aluminized Reflector: These lights are similar to the headlights you’d find on a car, also known as PAR cans. They aren’t precise, but you can move them easily.

  • Specials: These are lights with a specific role in the performance. They usually only have one function or a scene in the show. Gobos are typically incorporated with them to help accent a particular moment in the performance.

The Stage Lighting Design Process

Step 1: Coordinate with members of the Production and Study the Script

  1. Coordinate: Communicate and collaborate with people in charge of the performance. Directors, set designers, and other members of the production team will have their own ideas and vision of the stage presentation.

    What you need to do is make sure that your vision aligns with theirs. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page and that will make your output more cohesive.

  2. Study the Script: Every performance will have a script. Analyze that script to identify the nuances of emotion or theme throughout the show.

    When you know and understand when key moments will come, you’ll be able to anticipate and prepare for your next action. Once done properly, you’ll be able to create a smooth lighting transition or create moments of impact.

Step 2: Create a Lighting Plot and Emphasize Key Moments

  1. Lighting Plan: This will be the blueprint for your lighting design. You have to plan where to place all your fixtures on stage. 

    Map out the positions of each one and make sure that you achieve maximum coverage. This includes the position of strip lights, floor lights, and any use of LED lights.

  2. Balanced and Specific Accent: Different stage light fixtures will contribute to the visual narrative differently. Take this into consideration to ensure that the lighting design is harmonious and impactful.

    On top of providing even coverage across the stage, you must also make sure to properly accentuate crucial scenes. Lighting design can enhance a specific scene when timed correctly.

Step 3: Execution and Programming

  1. Color Selection: Use gels and filters to add color to your fixtures. Then, choose the color that relates to the performance.

    For example, if the performance setting occurs on a beach, you need bright colors. You can use a light blue backdrop to simulate the sky. While a yellow spotlight will serve as the sun. LED stage lighting are great if you want more precise control over the colors.

    Colors help the overall storytelling. Creating a visual image of the scene makes the performance resonate more with the audience. 

  2. Cue Programming: Once you get familiar with the show’s flow, it’s time to program the lighting fixtures. For DMX-ready fixtures, you can use a DMX to control your lighting. DMX is an algorithm that works with fixtures. They are the standard for digitally operated fixtures.

    A channel (usually 0-255) enables a controller to communicate with the fixtures. Advanced fixtures will have more channels for multiple tasks. For example, you can set each channel to various colors.

    The moving head has even more channels; it has a pan and tilt you can use to point the lights at specific locations. A more advanced moving light will feature a prism, gobo, fine pan, and tilt.

    Familiarizing yourself with the performance will aid you in creating a lighting plot. With a cue list, you can set your lighting fixtures to react whenever with just a press of a button.

    This will trigger changes in movement, color, or intensity during specific areas of the performance. It will also create a sense of rhythm in the performance and make the overall operation easier.

  3. Collaborative Rehearsals: Lastly, rehearse with the performers (who can be one or more) and the production team. This will give you a better idea of how the performance will go.

    Notice the performer’s movements. Ensure the lighting fixtures align with their movement, the scene, and other production parts.

    You can also get feedback from everyone, which helps you fine-tune your fixtures. This way, you can modify your cues and produce a seamless lighting design.

Understanding The Elements of Stage Lighting

Professionals often call these the qualities of lighting design. Either way, these aspects are key to creating the perfect light show.

  • Intensity

    The intensity of your light refers to the brightness or strength of the light. This main factor influences the stage’s visibility, mood, or focus. You can use intense light in the center of your stage to create a region of illumination without hiding the rest of the stage.

    You can point at certain performers or objects on stage with varied intensity. This helps direct the audience’s focus into important areas and move them away from those that are not.

    Do you want it to be soft, thin, fat, or edgy? Changing the lens of your lighting instruments can help you set the mood. Soft light is when you don’t cast harsh or well-defined shadows; it’s typically used to create a friendly atmosphere.

    A thin light, or a thick or fat light, refers to the beam’s intensity. Is the beam easy to see through, or does it dominate? Edged light is the opposite of soft. It creates harsh edges or lines through strong shadows. They are typically used to portray danger, anger, or wickedness.

    And by controlling the light’s intensity, you can visibly signal a transition change. This can be a change of scene or song. Giving the audience an idea that something has been finished. And prepare themselves for what’s to come.

  • Color

    Colors will help enhance the themes of the overall production. By manipulating the hue and saturation of colors, your lighting can affect the audience’s mood.

    For example, a blue light or blue-toned light will feel cold and sad. Meanwhile, an orange or orange-toned light will make you feel warm and happy.

    Aside from mood, color is also a great way of telling the setting of a scene. Cool lighting, for example, will suggest that the scene is at night. Meanwhile, warm lighting will make you feel under the sun’s heat.

    You don’t need to be subtle too. You could produce strong light changes instead of gentle tone shifts, creating an abrupt feeling. But whatever you decide, colors will surely add to the feel of a performance without stealing the limelight.

  • Movement

    Movement is the positioning, changing of lighting spots, or characteristics of the lights. Intensity, color, and focus changes create more dynamics in a show.

    Stage performers will be moving around for most of the show. So, you must be able to illuminate them wherever they go onstage.

    Also, lighting movement will add dynamics to a scene. For an action scene, you can have lights that are moving fast. In contrast, they have slow-moving lights for the more solemn scenes.

    In a musical context, a light movement synchronizing with the beat emphasizes the song’s rhythm. This will create a visual beat that the audience can follow and enhance the performance.

  • Direction

    This element refers to the focus and angle of the stage lighting. It determines the area where the light will fall and what it will illuminate.

    Its main purpose is to provide defined shapes to the objects or performers. A front light can shine the stage, for sure.

    But, by lighting from different angles or directions, you’re giving the performers a more 3D look and feel. This makes them pop up and be more visible to the audience.

    If the performers are acting, directional lights will also help make their facial expressions more visible. This allows the audience to better relate to the performance.

    You’ll also want the lights to change angles, maintaining visual dynamics and preventing a flat appearance. This helps keep your audience from getting bored and keeps them engaged.

    And while on directional lights, here are the different positions you apply to your lighting. In practice, there are many of them, but in this article, I’ll focus on the front, back, side, and footlight or set light.

The 4 Different Lighting Positions

Front Lights

Front lighting illuminates performers on stage, providing effective visibility. This approach is known for its 2D, or flat, appearance. You can enhance it using two opposing front lights to sculpt the performers’ bodies.

Add warm and cool colors, like red and blue, to achieve a sculpted effect. Implement the McCandless method which combines warm and cool colors to better highlight the actor’s faces, by balancing out the shadows.

The warmer light will act as the primary light source, and the cooler light will serve as the shadow.

To complete this lighting setup, you need a steep backlight. This will help outline the performer and make them appear like a 3D object.

While front lights are essential for visibility, an excess can result in a flat stage lacking dimension. Achieving balance is crucial; shadows are necessary to impart depth.

The front lights have two types: low-angle and steep-angle. Low-angle front light focuses on performers’ heads. Making their faces more visible while creating a light behind them and casting a large shadow.

On the other hand, steep-angle lighting introduces heavier shadows on faces and bodies. They also overshoot with a tighter light and cast a smaller shadow.

Backlights and Top Lights

As mentioned, backlighting casts the performer’s silhouette, creating a distinct separation from the backdrop. This backlighting technique outlines the performers, enhancing their depth and visibility and making them stand out.

Top lighting, directed downward to the performers, imparts a sense of importance and focal emphasis. The shadows are more intense and compact when the light is positioned from this angle. While the performer’s physical features become more defined.

Side Lighting

Sidelighting, similar to backlighting, contributes to sculpting the features of a performer’s body. This provides depth and, in some instances, enhances visible coloring. However, an excess of side lighting can also lead to visibility issues.

Nevertheless, caution is advised, as positioning the light too low can inadvertently create a scary or haunting effect. While some venues discourage low-side lighting, it may be suitable if that specific aesthetic is desired.

Set Lights

Set lights are typically directed at the stage’s backdrop, adding dimension to the performance. This effect becomes more pronounced with the inclusion of gobos or prisms on the fixtures. This allows for the projection of patterns that can complement the theme of the performance.

For instance, using a nature-themed gobo with set lights in a performance centered around nature. It enhances the audience’s immersion into that specific environment. This elevates both the performance and the overall experience.

On the other hand, footlights are an optimal choice for creating a scary atmosphere by casting shadows in an unnatural direction. It’s essential, however, to ensure that the footlights are of a light color. This prevents the performers from having a hard time seeing in the darkness.

Final Thoughts

Stage lighting design is truly an art form in itself, requiring understanding of visual arts and the tools to create your style.

A good lighting design will illuminate the stage, especially the performer. The right angle adds more depth to the performers and makes them stand out more.

It will also set the mood and the overall feel of the performance, together with the sound emanating from the PA system. Using the right colors will help the audience distinguish a scene that is happy from one that is sad. Day and night, or if it’s raining or not.

And just like most productions, working with the entire team will help you get additional input. This will help you see your design from another person’s perspective.

With these inputs, you can fine-tune your lighting design even more. This will improve your output and enable you to create a more refined design.

Different types of stages will also require a separate lighting plot. So, it’s important that you’re given ample time to prepare and plan your lighting out.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Basic Rule for Stage Lighting?

Put the lights at a 45-degree angle. This helps you create shadows and allows the audience to see the performers without creating a flat scene.

What Are Some Safety Measures I Must Take?

Implement safety measures by checking the power requirements for your fixtures. Make sure that it adheres to electrical standards.

Check the rigging of the fixtures as well. Most of these fixtures will be on top of the performers’ heads. So, ensuring they’re secured in their places is a great way of keeping the artists safe.

Where Are Fixtures Attached To?

In most venues, you can attach the lights to a t-bar, truss, or steel pipe. Fixtures are attached and secured using lighting clamps or a safety cable that wraps around the truss or yoke.

Moving lights are usually not attached to anything. An operator moves this fixture around to follow the performer’s movements.

What Makes Good Lighting?

Keeping it simple is the best way to create good stage lighting. Use simple color concepts, allow a smooth, easy moment, and switch from one top light to the next as the performers change leads.


Alexander Briones – Editor / Co-writer
Jerry Borillo – Illustrator

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