Light up the stage with 4 basic principles

 19 June 2014

Between rigs, fresnels and gobos, stage lighting can seem endlessly complex to those of us starting out. We’d be lying if we said it was simple, but that doesn’t mean you need ‘expert’ status in order to effectively light a dramatic scene or performance.

Stage lighting certainly isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ set-up and should be tailored to your performance genre.
Stage lighting certainly isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ set-up and should be tailored to your performance genre.

This guide, provided by stage and studio installation company PG Stage, introduces the terminology, basic positions and key points to consider before you set out in stage lighting.

Once you have an appreciation of the basics, understanding the dynamics of a space and performance should come more naturally – even if you do have to pass the more technical elements to become a lighting manager.

1. Tailor your lighting to your performance

Stage lighting certainly isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ set-up and should be tailored to your performance genre.

Dance lighting

Overview: Go for side lighting and black drapes.

Dance productions are solely about movement, meaning the lighting should be as simple as possible and highly adaptable in order to illuminate the whole performance area.

As a result sidelights are strongly recommended for their unique ability to highlight tone and movement. That isn’t to say colour filters can’t be utilised to impart a little atmosphere. Just ensure the stage set-up is simple with black drapes as your back-drop.

Play lighting

Understanding the intricacies of a script can help you make more intelligent lighting decisions.

Overview: Use front lighting for definition.

There’s no point having great actors if the audience can’t see expressions clearly, so for play lighting ensure light is directed from the audiences’ viewpoint. This is known as 'front lighting' and is the best way to showcase facial movements.

Live music

Overview: Think atmospheric with coloured lighting.

Stage lighting for live music performances will largely depend on the style of the musicians. For a singer/songwriter a single spot can be all that is needed to create a high impact performance, however an energetic band are more likely to require a bold colour wash that conveys their personality.

A selection of colour filters is ideal for venues that regularly host bands as these can be inserted into a colour frame which sits outside of the fixtures.

2. Understand the role of lanterns

Those imposing black lanterns certainly look high-duty, but they each have their own unique functions and roles.

  • Flood light: A fixed beam producing a strong flood of lighting with a soft wash.
  • Fresnel: A spotlight with a soft edge, fresnels cover a lot of area and allow some control over the beam angle.
  • Profile spot: The traditional spot light.These are ideal for highlighting single performers.
  • Par cans: Produce an intense oval pool of light with unfocused edges. Ideal for a range of different applications, par cans were originally developed for concerts.

3. Consider the script

The lighting designer has to be more than just technical. Understanding the intricacies of a script can help you make more intelligent lighting decisions.

Think about:

Done poorly, lighting can actually take away from a performance.

  • Selective visibility: What does the director want the audience to see? Lighting should take the role of the camera, highlighting what the viewer should be focusing on throughout.
  • Mood: Highlight scene transitions and mood with well-placed coloured filters. A very effective way to convey emotions.
  • Movement: Looking to convey a dramatic, fast-paced scene? Or perhaps a sombre scene? Experiment with your lighting until the desired mood is achieved.
  • Texture: Gobos (or ‘goes before optics’) are essentially stencils which sit outside of the fixture. This allows you to project shapes, such as trees or windows, effectively.
  • Naturalism: Demonstrate day or night with warm and cold colour filters.

4. Understand your basic lighting positions

Effectively planning your lighting areas largely depends on your space. However it is useful to follow some simple guidelines when lighting a small stage area.

The five basic lighting positions:

1. Front lighting

Front of house lighting provides a primary source of illumination.  Set the overhead angle at 45 degrees to ensure facial expressions are well lit and shadows are eliminated.

2. Side lighting

As mentioned this is especially effective for dance performances and highlights the arms, torso, legs and the side of the face. 

Lighting is a critical aspect of any stage production’s set design and mood. 

3. High side lighting

Highlights the top part of the body including the head, neck, shoulders and arm. Ideally placed at a 30-60 degree angle.

4. Back lighting

Separates a performer or prop from the background to achieve a 3D effect.

5. Down lighting

The ability to provide the whole performance space with an even wash of light is important. In order to achieve this, the lighting space can be divided into a grid, allowing lighting to blend together to effectively light the whole space.

The beams of the lanterns need to overlap. However the centre of the beam of light should be focused on the actor at shoulder height to avoid simply lighting the floor.

Lighting is a critical aspect of any stage production’s set design and mood. Done well it can visually and emotionally enhance a performance. Done poorly, it can actually take away from a performance.

PG Stage is a stage and studio installation company based in Manchester. Follow them on Twitter @pgstage.


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