Do I Need Need Moving Lights? + Moving Lights Buyers Guide

Moving lights are a load of fun!

Whether you’re a band, church, DJ or in the theatre world, the dream for most people is to own or have access to moving lights.

How awesome would it be to have the ability to move a light wherever you need, change colors and project patterns, all automatically?

I personally know that is a bit of a loaded question!

I remember myself 6 or 7 years ago thinking the same thing for the church I went to.  “Why of course, we need moving lights!…because they are cool!”  

Moving lights are great, and are a tool that I use often in my shows.  But not all moving lights are created equal, and sometimes, it just makes more sense NOT to use moving lights.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen many churches, bands and theaters just go out and buy some really nice moving lights without thinking deep into what they’re going to use them for.  And then they end up using them like an par can that costs 1/10 of the price!

In this article, I want to help you figure out whether or not you need moving lights.  Then, we’ll dive in and talk about the maintenance concerns over the life of moving lights, and let you know what kinds of features you want to look for to make your show really amazing!

A Story…The Hidden Costs of Moving Lights

I once walked into a church as the lighting director for a Christian artist- our crew had gotten there before the church’s tech guy, so I had a little walk around to stake out the lighting system and control.

I saw 2 moving lights up in the sky, and got hopeful.  My artist always likes when I can spice things up a bit.

Upon closer look, however, I started to question if they would work for me.

They were a cheap, LED spot moving light, and they were up against a quite sizable rig of bright conventional lights.

Even before seeing the light output, I was skeptical.  I then went back to the lighting desk and saw the conventional console they had to control it all – an ETC Express- a fabulous console for conventional lights, but not at all built for moving lights!

Once I saw the lights turn on, I was quick to pass on the opportunity to use them….


Simply put, this church bought moving lights because they were cool, but had zero know-how as to set up the lights.  Sure, they got them hung safely, and ran data to them, and had a computer based controller, but they were not using them in the most effective way.

I don’t use this story to shame this church, but to show you that it is important to make informed decisions about your lighting and call in experts when needed.

Besides just the poor choice in fixture, this church also hung the lights in a not-so-prime position – right in front of the center of the stage.

In this position, the movers were competing with a bright stage wash – and they just didn’t have the power to punch through that!

There are a lot of great uses for moving lights.

You can use them to provide a textured or colored backdrop, for cool aerial effects with haze, to move around and chase during fast songs, or to light the audience in blue for a intimate song.

There are so many great options, but keep in mind that you can’t just go out and buy moving lights without carefully contemplating your needs and the needs/features of the lights.

You see, a typical conventional lighting console is not going to be the best at controlling moving lights, and you may find yourself frustrated with the results the the effort required just to program some simple scenes.

However, a basic software light console may be just what you need- each type of console has its advantages and disadvantages, but a console designed to program moving lights will be much easier and more versatile in the long run.

You also need to figure in the cost of data cabling and to the fixtures, and powering the fixtures off of non-dimmed power, possibly 208v if it is a bigger moving light (though this is less common with the popularity of the LED).

Other Options & The Hidden Costs of Moving Lights

The other option you have is to rent moving lights, if you’re only going to use them for theatrical productions once or twice a year, or for special events.

More expensive moving lights that you can rent inexpensively for a short term will give you really nice results and have features that cheaper fixtures don’t have.

In addition, you don’t have to worry about fixing the lights when they do break, which will happen.  Anything with moving parts will break eventually, lighting included!

The lamps inside non-LED moving lights also require replacing periodically, and typically cost over $100 each, depending on the fixture.  The lamp on a moving light is always on once you start the light up for the day, even if the light has its shutters closed.

I’m updating this post now in 2017, and I would recommend only buying LED moving lights if you’re just starting out – not only do you get to miss out on costly lamp replacement, but LED’s put out a whole lot less heat – which is a lot nicer to the components inside of the moving head!

Cheap vs. Expensive Moving Lights

The biggest question that I get from people when it comes to moving lights is this – “Why would I buy an expensive moving light, when the cheap moving lights have the same features?”

If you’ve shopped around, you’ve probably noticed that you can purchase moving lights that cost anywhere from under $100 to over $30,000.  And while the $100 light and the $30,000 light don’t have much in common, you can find pro-grade lights that cost $5000 that seem to have the same feature set as a $2000 DJ-grade light.

  • I generally don’t recommend buying directly from China, because the quality control tends to be lacking, and if you’re not a skilled repair person, you’ll be in trouble soon!  When you buy from one of the major names in the market, you get incredible customer support when things go wrong or you have trouble getting your lights to work.
  • Lower end fixtures will tend to have louder fan noise, and are generally louder when they are moving.  Nicer units tend to be very quiet compared to cheaper units.
  • Over the long haul, higher end fixtures will be easier to maintain, fix and keep consistent.

If you’ve a bar band or DJ, you should probably buy the moving lights that are aimed at your market – units by Chauvet, ADJ, Elation, Blizzard and Martin are great examples.

If you’re a professional production company, and you’re going to use the fixtures often and setup/tear them down a lot, you’ll benefit from the easier repair-ability of pro-grade fixtures.

But whoever you are, please do stay away from the directly-imported fixtures – the lack of customer support and inconsistent quality control make them lose my recommendation!

Moving Lights Buyers Guide 

If you’ve decided to make the plunge and buy your first moving lights, what should you look for?

In this particular post, I’m going to talk about features that you’ll want to look out for.  Check out “What Lights Should I Buy?” for specific product recommendations.

You’ll want to first define what you want the light to do.  For example, I light a lot of corporate events, and many times, I just need some moving lights dedicated to “flash and trash” – just some basic movement.  As long the mover is bright enough to match the rest of my rig and can change color, I’m good!

For other shows, however, I need a swiss-army knife of a light that can light sets, do gobos and flash and move!

Here are the most common features that moving lights have, and what you can expect from them:

Vertical Moving LightsIntensity: 

Any moving head should have dimmable intensity, either via a mechanical dimmer or a electrical dimmer.  Arc-lamp moving heads will have mechanical dimmers, whereas most LED moving heads should have a electrical dimmer.

Pan and Tilt: Moving heads can move, and they do so via Pan (spin) and Tilt.  Most moving lights will specify in degrees how far they can pan and tilt.

Focus: Manual or motorized focus will allow you to focus or unfocus the beam coming out of your light in spot and beam fixtures.  This means you can make your gobos nice and soft, or hard-edged and easy to see in haze!  Less expensive moving head models only have manual focus, which means you can’t control it via the console, but you can set it manually on the front of the moving head.

Zoom: Some moving lights can zoom.  This can be motorized or non-motorized, and wash lights typically have a wider zoom range than spot or beam lights.

Color Wheel: This allows you to select from a number of colors or white.  Some lights allow you to sit between 2 colors, which looks really cool when you use it with gobos and/or prism!

Color Mixing: Subtractive CMY mixing or additive RGB mixing allows you to create many colors manually from your console.  With color mixing, you’re not limited to 8 or so color swatches like the color wheel, and you can get smooth transitions.  Often, moving lights that have both CMY mixing and a color wheel will have colors that are not mixable on the fixed color wheel.

Gobo Wheels: Fixed or rotatable gobos can be placed in the beam of the light to make a cool pattern on the stage.  If your light has motorized focus AND multiple gobo/FX wheels, you can often morph, or switch between gobos on 2 wheels seamlessly using focus.  This works better on some lights more than others!

Animation Wheels: Similar to a gobo wheel, an animation wheel places a pattern in the light.  Animation wheels, however, are capable of more complex effects than simple rotation.

Prism: Place a prism in your light to multiply the beam by 3, 5 or however many facets your prism has.  This can also work as a “cheap zoom”.  Some lights have linear prisms that split the light in a line, and that looks really cool in haze.

Shutter/Strobe: This allows you to rapidly kill the light and run a strobe effect.  In arc-lamp moving lights, this is a mechanical “flag” that moves in and out of the light.

Iris: Just like a followspot, iris allows you to make the size of the light’s beam smaller without using zoom.

Frost: Want to soften the output of the light?  Frost gives you a “wash-like” effect, though it’s not as smooth as a true wash moving light.

CTO: Color Temperature Orange.  This filter, whether fixed or variable, allows you moving light to simulate a lower color temperature.

I hope this article helps you to figure out what you need, if you’re looking to make the plunge into moving lights.

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