Lighting Guide

There are several aspects of lighting:




The lighting designer should meet with the director early on to get his ideas for the play and any special effects that he wants. He should then meet with the other designers to make sure that his design is practical, for example if you light someone in red and they are dressed in red and against a red background then they will disappear.

The designer needs to take a lot of things into consideration when designing the lighting, including:

  • Style of lighting (straight play, musical, dramatic effect etc.)
  • Time of day/year
  • Inside or outside
  • Imaginary sources of light (sun, bulb, moon etc)
  • Colour Mix
  • Angle (backlight, down light, up light etc)
  • Intensity
  • Special effects
  • Lighting props (lamps, fairy lights etc)
  • Duration of fade (snap, slow fade, 20min fade for a dawn scene)
  • Need for working lights between scenes and whether a curtain will be used

The precise timing of the ques will be left until later. The lighting designer may be put in charge of special effects, a number of which can be used are shown below:

  • Back projection screen
  • Gobos (a sheet of metal with shapes cut out and placed in front of the lens)
  • Slides or cine-film
  • Pyros
  • Smoke
  • Colour wheels
  • Mirror ball
  • Photo floods
  • Follow spots
  • Strobe
    A word of caution here there are legal issues with using a strobe, the ones that I am aware of where I live are. BEFORE YOU USE A STROBE DOUBLE CHECK THE LEGAL REQUIREMENTS WITH YOUR SUPPLIER OR HIRE COMPANY!:
          • Slower than 4Hz flash rate
          • A notice must be put in a prominent position front of house or an announcement warning of the use of strobes made at the beginning
          • Used sparingly


Jump to the actual designing

Some Theory

Now for some of the 'boring' theory about lighting, though this is vital and most of it becomes second nature after a time. I had reached the stage with school talent shows where each act would tell me what they wanted and I could add the lights to my rough plan, which only needed small editing.

An obvious one, light travels in straight lines and can not pass through solid objects, some of the less obvious implications are:

  • You can not backlight a scene close to flats
  • Suspended objects (mirror balls etc) cast shadows
  • To light a small acting area means lighting a larger stage area. You must let the actor's know where they can and can't go in such a situation. This point is probably best shown with a diagram:


In order to give the actors a 3D look it is necessary to light them from both the left and the right, I find an angle of about 30-45 degrees is great. They should also be lit not just with the 'white' light that the lanterns give but also via a hot and/or a cold gel (filter). By hot and cold I mean a hot colour like a light pink and a cold colour like a light blue.

Below is a table explaining some of the terms used:


This is in effect a permanently wired extension lead. It has a plug at one end which is plugged into the patching bay and a socket which is on the lighting bars.

The lighting board has a number of outputs, these are called channels and via the patching bay allow several lanterns to be controlled via one (or one set of) sliders.

Patching Bay
A piece of equipment which take the control signals from the control board and control the brightness of the lantern(s) attached to it.

A piece of coloured transparent plastic placed in front of the lantern to colour the light.

A piece of shaped metal placed in front of the lens to shape/texture the light.

A 'fancy' name for a one plug to two socket adapter used for lanterns.

Barn Doors
An assembly of four hinged pieces of metal placed on the end of the lantern used to shape the light.


The Vertical Angle

As viewed from the side the ideal lighting angle is 45 degrees (but no more than 60 and no less than 30), this gives normal shadows on the actors' faces and human length shadows on the stage. This applies to spots as well as general cover except, of course, if a specific effect is required. A steeper angle may be used:

  • To keep unwanted shadows off of scenery
  • For mid-day sunshine (shorter shadows)
  • To keep light off of the audience when performing in the round

Note that the lights must overlap a lot more at floor level in order to give even cover at head height. A wider focus will increase the overlap and hence the area lit. It is always a good idea to get someone to walk around in the light so you can check for flat spots. Steeper angles cause the minimum lit height to fall so use a wider focus to compensate. Remember to allow extra height for rostra.


Be careful not to spill light onto the borders (those hanging cloths that hide the lanterns from the audience) as this will cause unsightly shadows. This may be a consequence of an angle which is too shallow or a focus which is too wide. Otherwise it must be corrected using the shutters in the lantern or by using barn doors. A vertical angle can be used as a down-wash for colouring the floor Note that this method will also colour people's heads (especially bald ones) and shoulders.. A good effect for a forest floor is to use green and brown gels (in a composite) and a leaf shaped gobo.

Backlighting (a great effect with smoke) should be used with care to avoid large shadows which are unsightly. Also watch out when using foot lights for huge shadows on the back of the set.

The Horizontal Angle

For general cover lanterns are usually paired to light the actors from both sides (called cross-training) (see picture below) the ideal is to set each to an angle of 45 degrees to the centre line, so they meet at 90 degrees. It is usual to use a different gel in the SL (stage left) and SR (stage right), this gives more shape to the actors as in the real world the light source is rarely identical from all directions. When performing in the round, thrust or traverse lanterns are cross-trained in fours to light the actors from all sides. Note that considerable overlap is needed between each pair to prevent flat spots at head height. Walk around the stage with one hand in the air and check that there are always (at least) two strong shadows of your hand (one in each direction).


The use of colour is pretty much up to you however there are a few things to bear in mind. Did you know that natural light has more blue and artificial light generally has more yellow? Well that's the case, so why do colours look the same inside and outside? Your brain automatically compensates for this. So if you are doing an outside scene try adding some blue to the light.

One effect I like to use when I light a prize giving is to have three lights focused on the table of prizes from different angles; one green, one blue and one red (the primary colours of light). This gives a beautiful effect as the cups reflect all three colours.

Mixing Colours


Addition of the third primary colour to a mix of the other two will result in a paler shade as it pulls the mix towards white, eg by adding blue to yellow makes a whiter yellow and eventually white.

Note that mixing coloured gels in the same frame gives a different effect, often the results are similar to mixing paints for example blue and yellow will make green. The mix is always darker than the individual gels. The only wavelengths which will be transmitted by the combination are those which will be transmitted by both gels. Thus a pure red and a pure blue used together would make black as supposed to purple (there you are black light is possible?). For purple the combination needs to transmit both red and blue but not green. Experiment by holding up sample sheets to the light and viewing objects of different colours through them.

Another method of mixing colours is to use a composite gel, the construction of this is simple cut the colours of gel you want into equal sized triangles (note they must join in the middle), see diagram below:

The effect is that the colour is a blend of those in the composite, again it is best to experiment.


Below is a diagram of a basic lighting board together with an explanation of what does what.


A preset contains one slider per circuit. They allow the active que to be set on one while the next is set up on the other and they are then cross faded when the que needs to change.

The masters control the overall brightness of each preset. There is an extra master (the grand master) which controls the total overall brightness. For example as each slider is marked into ten divisions a simple way to work out the brightness of each lantern is to multiply it's brightness in the preset by the presets master. For example if the slider is on 8 and the master on 9 then the lantern will be at a brightness of 72%. If more than one preset are being used then these values must be averaged.

A circuit is a slider which controls a single output channel. If you have two presets then each circuit will have two sliders (one in each preset).

The Actual Designing

Go back to some of the theory
Go to some of the maths that might be needed


The designer should make up a cue sheet as he goes. The method I find helpful is to do a plan and ques for each scene and then work on combining them, maybe by taking an effect out or by changing how it is achieved. It helps to obtain both a scale plan of a blank rig for the theatre (lighting bars, sockets etc) and a scale plan of each scene (to the same scale is great), you should also try to visit the theatre at this time if at all possible.

Their are two main types of lighting, the main light which simply covers an area of the stage/set with light (often used in pairs) and the special which is put up for one (sometimes more) different effect through the play (eg a spot on Jack's face in Scene 1).

When it comes to putting your design down on paper, make sure that you have made a copy of the blank lighting rig (better to be safe!) incase you make mistakes. The method then involves placing different symbols (one per different type of equipment) onto the bars/where ever else. Some of the common types of symbols are shown below. Though there are standards covering what symbol is what piece of equipment, yes you can get stencils. The symbols should be drawn to scale, if the lantern is 30cm wide, the symbol should be a scale 30cm wide.

Each lantern should have some numerical codes by it, these can be done in different colours if desired but should appear in the same order, these are:

  • Channel number
  • Additional things (Gobos, Barndoors etc)
  • Gel number (eg 123) (gels are ordered by number)
    A tip is when gels have been cut to mark on them their number.

It is essential to plan as much as possible before you rig. This does not just mean what lanterns will be what colour, light where and be on what channel (explained later) but any that need to be hired must be booked as soon as possible. If you are lucky enough to have a computerised/programmable lighting board try to program this before hand so that when you are finalising your ques you only need to edit levels.



You must meet with the stage manager in advance as there are several issues affecting the rigging of lights during the get in:

  • There is now access to lighting above wet floors
  • Some lanterns will be inaccessible after the set is up (especially those above rostra)
  • Flats can only be lit when erected
  • Each scene will need to be set in order to make final adjustments to the lighting
  • Make sure the position of rostra etc are marked so the scene does not stray outside the lit area

After the lanterns have been focused preliminary lighting levels will be set, this should be done in the dark (no workers). It should then become apparent if any lanterns need refocusing.


In most places it is a legal requirement, but it is good practise anyway, to put a safety chain on every lantern. This is so that if the assembly holding the lantern to the bar fails the chain will support the lantern.

The Technical / Dress Rehearsals


The stage manager runs the technical rehearsal and makes sure that every technical que is rehearsed. The main points to check during the rehearsal are:

  • The precise moment of each que is known by the operator (eg wait until "HALT!" then count to three) and has been done properly at least once.
  • Lighting levels and colours are as desired
  • Acting areas and spots are accurately lit
  • There are no flat spots (the floor may be evenly lit whilst heads go in and out of the light
  • There are no unsightly shadows (yes they are evil things!)

Any changes should be done at or after the technical rehearsal.


The dress rehearsal is run as a performance (house lights and everything), the only thing which should be remarked upon is accuracy in picking up ques. The only reason to stop a dress rehearsal is pure disaster!



From the point of ques you are lucky if you have a programmable lighting desk (it is simply a case of pressing GO on que). You will be qued by the stage manage (or deputy stage manager), the procedure is as follows:

  • SM: Standby LX12
  • LX: LX12 Standing by
  • SM: LX12 GO
  • LX: LX12 Running (only if the que is invisible, such as a long fade)


The operator should also know what to do in the event of an emergency, that is generally house lights on and work lights on.

It is an idea after each production to conduct a post-mortem of the lighting - what was bad?, why?, what was good?, where could it have been better?