A Guide to LED Stage Lighting

The market in LED based lighting fixtures has seen huge growth in the stage lighting industry in recent years. All of the major stage lighting manufacturers have dived into the LED market while cheap imported lights mean that every church, small band or DJ can get a slice of the action too.

Rental companies are now expected to stock a wide range of LED units alongside their tungsten conventionals and the technology is developing rapidly. If you are new to using LED lighting, we present a guide to LED stage lighting.

What’s so exciting about LEDs?

LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology has now developed to become a viable source of light in live performance and recorded media. LED fixtures have some advantages over ‘old’ tungsten based lighting fixtures and are particularly attractive to the event and concert markets right now. Manufacturers specializing in theatre and television equipment are also developing more sophisticated LED based fixtures to answer the needs of those markets as well.

So what is there to like about LED lighting fixtures? Lets take a look.

● Low Power Consumption – Because LEDs draw a comparatively small amount of power, you can use a lot more fixtures on a smaller amount of power. This is great for small band lighting rigs and the disco/party DJ. Bearing in mind that 20 years ago we were still working with large rigs of PAR cans, there are also benefits of low(er) power requirements for the large show too.

● Low Heat – Although LED stage lighting does produce heat, fixtures produce light without getting extremely hot as with their tungsten or discharge counterparts. In some environments, the lower heat properties of LED stage lighting are very desirable.

● Lightweight and Portable – The hardware that LED fixtures are packaged in does not need to be heavy and even with the various power supplies and other elements, LED units are usually fairly lightweight. To make them even more portable, LED units can be more readily powered by battery and several products boast battery power and wireless control via DMX over WiFi. This creates a lighting product that you can place and control quickly with no messy wires and minimum fuss.

● Color Effects – A common use of LED for stage lighting purposes is additively mixing a combination of different colored LEDs. A fixture with all three lighting primary colors, Red, Green and Blue (RGB) LEDs blended together in different combinations gives the lighting designer easy access to many color choices in one fixture. More complex LED color mixing fixtures use additional sources such as RGBA (Amber), RGBW (White). The color functionality of all these fixtures does away with creating color subtractively using gel filters completely.

● Small and Compact – LED lighting fixtures can be made in small, discreet packages which suit applications where size and appearance are important such as exhibitions stands and smaller events.

● High Brightness – Looking at Low Power from the other end, this is the ratio of light brightness to power consumption. Often advertised as Lumens Per Watt, high-powered LEDs are very bright considering the amount of electrical power they use.  The “additive” color mixing mentioned above means that light produced is not wasted being filtered out.

● Longevity- LED lighting manufacturers often quote the number of hours an LED light source will last in comparison to sources such as traditional tungsten halogen lamps.  And we are talking tens of thousands of hours for an LED vs conventional counterparts.

● Built-In Dimmer. Most LED units offer dimming built inside the fixture, so there is no need to have a separate dimmer rack. In addition, many have onboard controls that allow setting the unit to a color, dimming the fixture, or even cycling or scrolling through different looks, all without the need for a separate controller or bulky dimmer rack.

So, LEDs are the answer to everything now?

Not yet. There are a few things you might want to know about LED stage lighting, before you go out and buy a truck full.

● Many LED arrays can’t provide a point source like a conventional. Because there are many sources of light in the LED array, it is harder to create a LED fixture that will focus like sharp spotlight or project a gobo. Manufacturers have worked their magic on this, creating a point source with optical systems or by using a single, bright LED source. Recent developments have been in the introduction of hard edged spots such as the ETC LED Source Four but still, many LED units are designed to be wash lights. This is getting much better with every day that passes. Plus there are some really cool fixtures being created that couldn’t be made with a conventional light source.

● 16 Million Colors. Just not the one you want. Because of the way colored LEDs are made, different LED fixtures have colors that they just can’t create. A good quality white light that looks great on human skin is often cited as being one of them. Because of the way that all LED source colors are mixed together and the way LEDs are made, a nice white light is extremely difficult to achieve with many fixtures. One major complaint of many Lighting designers out there. LED lights that are designed to be white light sources often lack the range of spectral colors of daylight or an incandescent.

● LED lighting fixtures are bright but …  Although when considering power consumed for brightness LED stage lighting fixtures are really efficient, many units lack the punch of their conventional lantern relatives. A cheap PAR can with LEDs in it is nowhere near as punchy as a 1000W PAR64 CP62. Cheaper LED lighting units have neither a lens nor a reflector, the light they produce scatters and struggles to maintain intensity when thrown much of a distance. However, great strides have been made regarding the optics in the last few years and the top LED fixtures really blast out some light.

● Color Mixing And Shadows. Colored LEDs mix on a surface to create an even light, this mix improves further away from the light source. If there is much distance between the colors, the end result is multi-colored shadows that don’t get with a single-colored conventional. The latest professional and more costly LED optical systems are better at reducing these issues.

● Dimming Issues. Because LEDs don’t use traditional AC powered dimming systems, LED based stage lights don’t behave the same as traditional lighting equipment when it comes to dimming. Cheaper units can have poor or step like dimming curves and there is the real possibility of high frequency flicker when used with cameras. At some point in the dimming curve, LEDs can snap to blackout unlike the cooling down of an incandescent filament. Although high end LED fixtures can attempt to replicate it, LEDs also don’t naturally shift in color like a tungsten source does over it’s dimming range.

● You get what you pay for. All LED stage lighting fixtures are not the same. Even though you can buy them cheap doesn’t mean that you should and all of the above points are more apparent in cheap LED lighting fixtures. A good quality lighting manufacturer will always be more expensive but you can expect the quality of the light to be superior. If you want good colors, beam quality and optics, you must be prepared to pay for them.

Before you throw your rig of conventional fixtures in the trash, be aware that there are serious and often complex reasons why LEDs are currently not a cure-all in stage lighting right now. These caveats encompass color rendition, fixture life, dimming, optics and even environmental questions. Lighting designers have their reasons for choosing LEDs, along with reasons why they continue to specify other light sources. Most lighting designers are pairing LED fixtures with conventionals to create even more effect.

If you are using or buying LED-based stage lighting fixtures, you should familiarize yourself with their limitations along with their benefits. Enjoy the possibilities of LED in stage lighting—and don’t junk all your incandescent or discharge source equipment just yet.