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Stage Lighting Terms and Fixture Types

Whether you’re lighting for a staged performance or concert, a gallery setting, or an architectural installation, there are some standard fixtures and terms it’s helpful to know.Below is a list of  common terms and fixture types to get you started.

Overview

Very briefly, lighting for stage, gallery, or installation is about using light to direct the visitor’s attention. To do this, you generally use a collection of different lighting fixtures controlled by a central system. To design lights for stage, gallery, or architecture, there are a few broad areas that you need to know about:

  • the architecture of the space,
  • the optical, mechanical, and electrical capabilities of the fixtures available to you,
  • the amount electrical power available, and how the circuits to supply it are arranged
  • the control system available, and how it’s programmed and operated
  • the nature of the event, and its narrative structure; in other words, what happens, and in what order

There are a number of good textbooks on lighting that cover this in more detail, some of which are listed in the bibliography for this class.

ML Geiger has some excellent ANGLE class notes.

Here’s a slide deck introducing basic DMX control.

Glossaries

  • Theatre Crafts stage lighting glossary covers a wide range of terms used in the practice of stage lighting. Besides the fixtures, they also cover common terms used in communication during a lighting hang or focus session, technical rehearsal, and performance. Arranged in alphabetical order, which can make it difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
  • Vincent Lighting Systems Lighting Crash Course 101 introduces in a series of short web pages the terms and context of lighting design practice. Stepping through the pages of this course takes about ten minutes and gives you a good overview. Their Lighting 102 course isn’t bad either. Their glossary of stage lighting terms is also quite thorough.

Organizational Terms

Aaron Parsekian has an excellent blog post on stage lighting paperwork.

Light Plot – a plan diagram showing the placement of fixtures above, beside, and on the area to be lit, drawn to scale. Minimal information on each fixture includes the fixture type and control channel numbers.

Instrument Schedule or Fixture schedule – a list of the fixtures including their types, control channels, locations, and purposes.Notes on accessories are also included.  If the fixture is a single-color fixture, color information is included as well.

Elevation – a side view of the area to be lit indicating all positions on which fixtures are mounted, drawn to scale.

Magic Sheet – an arrangement of the various functional groupings of the light plot, organized by control channel. Often organized spatially around the area to be lit, this gives the designer a quick reference of what lighting channels produce what effect.

Fixture Types

VLS’ The difference between fixtures describes the most common fixtures used on stage. Below is a slightly different version of theirs, with examples.

Fixed Spot lights

Spot lights are usually used to light performers or objects to which you want to draw attention, like art works.

Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight (aka ellipsoidal, ERS, or LeKo) – a light with a reflector behind the lamp and lenses in front of it which outputs a sharp-edged beam of light. Shutters and a slot for pattern templates are placed at the focus of the lens system to allow you to shape or pattern the light output. Sometimes an iris is used in the template slot as well. Moving the lenses allows you to soften the edge of the beam. Ellipsoidal spots are commonly used for front light or any application where a precise area needs to be lit.

Fresnel – these spotlights have a spherical reflector behind the lamp and a stepped, Fresnel-type lens. These spotlights output a soft-edge beam of light. Fresnels do not have shutters or a template slot, so control of the beam is generally managed using barn doors on the front of the light.

PAR can – Parabolic Aluminized Reflector (PAR) lamps used to be common in automobile headlights. They are very common onstage and in touring inventories because they are inxepensive, durable, soft-edged fixtures with few mechanical parts to break. They typically have a bright oblong center to their light beam, which can be angled by turning the lamp. They are commonly used as back light down light or sometimes side light. LED PARs are not mounted in cans like their predecessors, and are sometimes used in place of fresnels as well.

Wash lights

Wash lights are generally used for lighting scenery rather than performers.

Floodlight a broad, lens-less fixture that has a hood behind the lens to provide basic aiming of the light.  They’re about as directional as the clip-lights used for house painting. These are usually round or rectangular.

Cyclorama Light – typically rectangular and lens-less, these have a reflector behind the lamp to shape the beam somewhat. They provide a broad, even light for lighting walls or backdrops.

Strip Light – Lots of smaller cyc-style lights arranged in a strip, these are are also used for walls and backdrops, but their smaller size allows you to fit them in close to the scenery. They often have multiple channels of control in the same strip, so that you can mix colors.

Moving Lights

Moving lights are used to follow performers as they move, or to allow reconfiguration of the focus and color on the fly.

Followspot – a spotlight mounted on a moving tripod, used to follow a particular performer, usually mounted in the back of the auditorium

Automated spot lights – a spotlight mounted on a robotic yoke. The pan and tilt of these units are given their own control channels so that they can be controlled from the lighting console.

Automated LED PAR lights – Similar to automated spot lights, but in a PAR or floodlight format.

Accent lights

Birdies – Small PAR cans or fresnels designed to be mounted on the edge of a stage or within a set to provide accent lights.

Practicals – Lights on stage that are part of the set. For example, lamps in a living room set. Practicals, though they are often just consumer lamps, are seldom if ever controlled by the performers. They are given a control channel so that the lighting designer and operator can control them during the performance.