How to Choose The Right Lights for Your First Theatre Production

When you're first starting out with theatrical-style lighting, you may be in a variety of situations when it comes to gear.  

You may:

  1. Have access to some "in house" gear that you need to select from and place well.
  2. Have a budget (likely small) to rent or buy the best fixtures for the task with.
  3. Have some kind of access to gear you can borrow.
  4. Have no gear, and no budget!

Whatever the situation, in this guide I want to help you choose

the very best lights for your needs to help you prioritize what to get, and where to put it.

While I know that every production is different, there are a few guidelines that we can follow

 that will help you pick the very best lights for your first show:

Step 1: Frontlight

Seeing the actors is an important first step...

This may not come as a surprise - so, what light do you need?

Many theatrical productions use Ellipsoidals (also known as lekos).  These lights have the advantage of having a hard-edge and shutters to "crop" the light off of unwanted set elements.

If you don't have the budget or access to ellipsoidals, you can totally use Par Cans or Fresnels as your front light.   Just keep in mind that you'll experience more spill onto set pieces, curtains and other parts of the stage compared to ellipsoidals.

LED, or Conventional?

While LED lights are popular today,  I'm not sure the cost benefit is there for temporary productions - especially for front lighting.  If you're buying for permanent installation, and are going to put a lot of hours on the lights, then yes - the benefit is there.  

But, if this is for a one-off production that has a limited run, it's not often that going with LED will actually save you money - conventional fixtures (especially used or rented) are considerably cheaper than LED fixtures, and cheap LED fixtures do NOT look good!

Yes, color changing is a great benefit, but if you do it cheaply, it doesn't look good - especially for frontlight.  On the other hand, for our next type of lighting....

Step 2: Set Lighting

Add some emotion and drama to your design....

Set lighting, on the other hand, is a GREAT place to add in LED lighting.  Since color quality isn't quite as important, you can often get away uplighting or downlighting a simple set with some LED pars or striplights and get full color control.

On the conventional side (if you have access to lights), Cyc Lights or Strip-style "Border Lights" are often the best for washing sets.  But, in a pinch, you can make it work with just about any type of light!

Another great place to add magic to a set design is via Gobos.  Gobos are a pattern that goes inside of Ellipsoidals or moving spot lights.  
They allow you to project an texture or image on your set for great depth.

Step 3: Backlight and "Specials"

The "important" but "less important" lights.

Backlight and specials (1-off lighting positons for special scenes) are nice, but less essential than frontlight and set lighting.

If you've exhausted all of your resources on the frontlight and set lighting, then you'll still be able to make a great show from what you have.

But, when you have the resources to add backlight, it gives you better clarity and separation of the foreground elements from the background.

Specials allow you to create amazing, intimate moments during scenes that call for it.


When you have the resources to create these tight spots - great!  But when you don't, you can find other lights from your front light to re-purpose as specials as needed.

What's Next?

I hope this guide has helped you to begin thinking about and take action on finding the best lights for your production.  Not only that, but I hope it has helped you place them in the best position for your show.

Want more?  Over the next week or 2, I'll be sending you some of my best articles on Theatre lighting (or skip ahead and see them all by clicking here)

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