How to Begin With Lasers

How to Begin With Lasers

Lasers are cool.

I mean, who doesn’t want a pencil-thin beam of light scanning across the room to add to their show?  I know I do!

Lasers are cool, but lasers also can be dangerous…to the tune of blinding people and breaking cameras, so this is a really serious matter!

The good news is this – today, it’s more simple than ever to get started with lasers and to be able to create some really great effects.  

While you probably won’t be using the same lasers as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra show in your DJ rig, you can get some similar looks thanks to technology.

What is a LASER?

Back in the year 1960, the first laser was built by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Laboratories in the US.  The word actually began as an acronym meaning “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”.  (Reference)

A laser is a very thin, focused beam of light that is generally a single color.  Often, when we think of lasers we see green because it’s the color that stands out best to the human eye from laser projectors.

Laser Projector = Laser that shoots out a beam…the kind we use!

More expensive lasers will have multiple colors, that often can be mixed together at full or off. Really nice lasers offer full dimming, but that’s really gonna cost ya!

Lasers look really cool because the beam is super-narrow. Not only that, but the beam doesn’t grow as it travels through air space – and this is the key to why they travel so far and look so great.

(It’s also key to why they are dangerous when used improperly)

When you upgrade your laser from just a single-point “laser-pointer” or a cheap DJ laser, you can get some really amazing effects!

How Do Lasers Work?

Lasers work by shooting a really tight beam of light through some fancy mirrors and out the front.

Lasers for stage lighting generally have mirrors that allow you to move the beam of the laser around to make shapes in the air and on surfaces that you aim the laser at.

Want the full details?  My friends at X-Laser have this really detailed video that goes into great detail about how lasers actually work:

What Regulations Do I Have to Follow?

I remember the first time I saw lasers on a show.

They were big boxes, with a little tiny mirror on one side, that let out a single-color of light.

Back in those days, every laser required a “laserist” or the person who is in charge of safely operating the laser.

In our world on entry-level stage lighting lasers, we primarily see (2) classes of laser projectors: class 3B and 3R.

Lasers of Class 3R are lower power, having less than 5mW of power in the “visible region”, as measured by the manufacturer. This exact wording is crucial – “scattered” laser effects can have greater than 5mW power, but over a wide space so that they measure under that at a given point.

Class 3B, on the other hand, can be over 5mW (or .5w, for those playing along at home), and require a variance to use.

Don’t let this scare you away, getting a variance and using lasers safely is easier today than ever before. A variance is simply a “driver’s license” or permit to use lasers in the United States.

3R lasers are generally lower-power and generally don’t travel as far or look quite as vivid.

When you buy a laser from a “DJ Lighting brand”, this is usually what you’re getting. Sometimes these lasers are just as powerful as a 3B laser, but they scatter the beam around or use other means to get a lower readout for classification. Generally, this also leads to them being less vibrant.

Even if a laser is variance-free does not mean it’s safe all the time! Variance-free Class 3R lasers can still damage the eyes and cameras if used improperly.

X-Laser Caliente Aurora in my studio with some LED pars on at full.

You may say “but David, I saw “band or DJ “X”” and they had a “DJ Brand” laser pointed into the audience and it was fine.

It may have been. But also, someone’s camera may have been damaged, or someone’s eyes may have been hurt. It didn’t blind them, so you didn’t hear about it – but that also doesn’t make it okay.

In fact, if you read the manuals of 3R lasers, you will find that they give the exact same safety usage requirements as the 3B lasers – you MUST keep their beams 3 meters above any surface that an audience member can stand upon at all times!

How Do I Get a Variance?

Anyone can apply for a variance on their own through the FDA, though it is admittingly a confusing process for people using lasers in entertainment.

This is where the US-based laser company X-Laser comes in to play. X-Laser sells some great lasers, and they have an easy variance kit that makes applying for and keeping your variance active very simple.

Once you get your Laser, they make it simple to study up on the safety precautions and give you all of the info you need to stay compliant.

How Do I Use Lasers with a Variance?

When you use high-powered lasers that require a variance, you are required to follow some very simple safety precautions and keep track of the shows you do and report those back to the FDA on my birthday (September 1).

As I mentioned above, X-Laser really goes above and beyond in providing resources for people that work with lasers. Once you have one of their lasers and a variance, they provide all of the templates, signs and basic instructions on how to use lasers safely.

Some of the things you’ll need to do to use lasers safely are:

  • Keep lasers 3 meters above any surface that an audience member may stand on and away from any mirrors or windows.
  • Terminate (make an endpoint for) ANY lasers used outdoors.
  • Post warning signage if required.
  • Provide (2) methods of disabling the lasers.
  • Have an operator or safety watch with eyes on the laser display at all times, ready to disable the lasers if needed.

This isn’t the complete list of what you need to do, but it should give you an idea of what we’re talking about. Using lasers safely isn’t rocket science, but you do need to be diligent and use good sense.

How Much Do Lasers Cost?

Lasers can range in price, anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars for a “DJ-grade” laser up to many thousands of dollars for the professional stuff!

But, you can get started as I did with a nice, entry-level laser from X-Laser for around $1000.

How Do I Make My Lasers Look Good?

Step 1: You NEED to get some haze or fog in the air.

This is a must – without it, your laser is just a bunch of awkward-looking dots on the wall!

With it, you get an amazing beam of light pulsing through the air.

Step 2: You need to place it in the right place.  You need to make sure that your laser doesn’t aim anywhere that it could get in someone’s eyes.

Get it up in the air, at least 9’+, and then point it upwards.  This will give you the cool overhead effect that we all desire!  

I’d also suggest placing your laser behind the stage as it will keep you visually in the focus of the room! Plus, laser-light (and all light in haze) looks the most distinct when it is coming from the opposite direction of the viewer.

Lastly, if you have less expensive lasers, you want to make the room as dark as possible. The good news is that this isn’t as stiff of a requirement as it once was – even the Caliente Aurora that I have from X-Laser does stand out among a decent amount of stage light!

The darker you can make it, the better your lasers will look!

What Are My Alternatives?

Lasers aren’t for everyone.  When you consider all of the safety needs and aiming requirements, you may decide that lasers aren’t for you.

At the end of the day, there really isn’t anything that’s not a laser that provides the same effect.

Whatever you decide, it’s important to always put safety first, and make sure you are following ALL warnings and instructions when using lasers.

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