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Which Light Is Which?


Using the Right Light for the Right Application

So you know how to power up your lighting system and get some light on your stage, but you can't achieve the look you desire; you want to add more focus and interest but aren't quite sure how. Or maybe you were given some instructions on what to do, but you don't know the reasons behind it. In the world of lighting, half of the game is learning the vocabulary and knowing which type of light does what. We're going to cover some of those basics so you can be more confident using your existing lighting system and so you have a better understanding about what it takes to build one from scratch.

Light is good, but less light can create a stronger impact. On a brightly lit stage, adding more light to make an area stand out can result in chaos with no definition of what is important. For instance, when there are too many light beams of different colors converging on a stage at once, it will create a white-pinkish mush. So, instead of continuing to add light, create contrast. Look at the stage and start turning lights off one group at a time. The more you turn off, the more focused the stage looks. There is no rule that says all lights must be on all the time.

Using the correct light helps you to define areas of focus without overwhelming your stage with lights. There are two main categories of lighting: floodlights and spotlights. Floodlights wash your stage with a "flood" of light and should be used to cover larger areas of your stage, like lighting a choir or creating a color wash with gels to enhance the mood. Spotlights are used to focus on specific smaller "spot" areas, like lighting your pastor at the pulpit or the pianist and the piano. Choose the light that best fits your application so you don't create chaos on your stage.

Spot Lights
Ellipsoidal lights are spot lights that are typically used as front light. Their beam can be accurately shaped using the four masking shutters so you can control where your light is focused to get a nice tight spot. Ellipsoidals are also ideal for pattern (gobo) projection. (Gobos are like stencils that block, color or diffuse light as an easy way to add texture, designs or mood.) As you explore the world of ellipsoidal lights, you'll run across the terms field angles and beam angles. Modern manufacturers use these measurements to indicate the spread of a fixture, or how wide of an area the beam covers. Beam angle is the more meaningful measurement because it indicates the angle of the beam between the peak brightness at the center down to half of the peak brightness at the edge, while field angle measures the angle from the center of the beam all the way out to just 10% of the brightness. For whichever angle you use, the rule is that as the angle narrows the fixture can be used further from the stage.

Flood Lights
PAR (Parabolic Aluminized Reflector) lights are a type of flood light. While they are considerably less expensive than Ellipsoidals, they lack the same control of the Ellipsoidals and they do not have the ability to project a pattern or produce a beam with sharp edges. They are used for a substantial amount of flat light, and are typically used to generate colors with gels. The PAR produces a soft-edged, somewhat oblong cone of light that can be shaped by attaching shutters called barndoors to minimize the "spill" into other areas. Some PAR lights are available in fixed beam widths from somewhat narrow to wide. Using color allows you to control the mood, add texture and increase the interest, which deepens the overall experience. They can also be used for side or top lighting to produce a more three dimensional look for the people and objects on your stage, which allows you to use depth to create focus. But remember, we don't want to overwhelm the stage with light, so be sure to use the barndoors to create a smaller area of focus or to prevent it from spilling into the eyes of your congregation. PAR lights are the workhorse light; they are low-cost, lightweight with easy maintenance and high durability that make them accessible even for churches with smaller budgets.

Adjustable Beam Lights
Fresnels have a beam that is wide and soft-edged, which can be adjusted from a spot to a medium flood. They are not as expensive as the Ellipsoidals but they lack the ability to project a pattern. They are best used at a medium distance from the stage, and are not good for tight focus on small areas. Fresnels create soft shadows and are commonly used for side light or top light.

PC (Plano Convex) lights are similar to Fresnels, but they use a plano-convex lens with a pebbled effect on the flat side which results in less "spill" outside the beam. They are available in North America, but they are more widely used in Europe and Asia. Its pricing falls between the Ellipsoidal and the Fresnel and it generally provides a wide range of adjustable beam angles and can be used as side light or front light. Its narrow spot is ideal for dramatic highlights, and the flood can cover a large stage area from a short throw distance.

So to recap the basics: Ellipsoidals produce narrow spots for front light, PARs produce wide floods for side or top light and for special effect lighting, specifically color washes. Fresnels and PC both have adjustable beam spread as their advantage and are used mainly for side or top light. PAR lights are the least expensive light and largest selling fixture in the US so they will probably make up the majority of your system. There is plenty more to learn about the vocabulary and design aspects of lighting, but hopefully you now feel a bit more confident about which light you use for an application.