How To Guide to Lighting Design and Fixture Selection


Lighting design is a complex art form. It encompasses a unique combination of art and technology. The lighting designer creates imaginative atmospheres that express the feeling and meaning of the moment. These atmospheres originate in the lighting designer’s imagination and art. In order to create this art, the lighting designer must also know the technology, as well as what tools are available.

For most people, it takes seven years of university study to be properly trained for entrance into the lighting design profession. But that does not mean that it is impossible for you to create effective lighting atmospheres by choosing appropriate fixtures. Understanding the basic approach to lighting design and choosing fixtures basically comes down to indentifying your church’s needs, and applying the right tools to meet them.

Creating the Design

The first step in creating your lighting design is to identify what needs your particular worship space requires. Whether for worship, theatre, opera, dance, or video broadcast, I always consider this as the beginning of the creative process.

The functions of lighting are clear to most professional worship designers and consultants. The lighting must create visibility and focus, reveal the space, create modeling, support the composition of the worship service, and finally, support the message.

Creating visibility is the most obvious function of the lighting. Although one may think of visibility only as adding light to reveal a subject or object, it is crucial to understand that lighting designers create shadows as well. The lighting designer reveals what the audience sees and what they don’t see through shaping the space and directing focus for the audience. By revealing the space, the lighting designer generates interest and assists in the emotional engagement of the congregation.

When creating visibility and focus, it is also important to assess whether or not image magnification (IMAG) is being used. If so, lighting the space becomes even more challenging. Due to the limitations of video, the lighting designer must be very careful with intensity and contrast. I will refer you to the excellent article written by Jim Kumorek entitled: “How to Guide: IMAG (Image Magnification)” in Church Production Magazine ( In this article, he explains the best techniques to consider when considering lighting for video.

In addition to lighting for the camera, the lighting designer must be careful to keep light off the video screens. Choosing the appropriate angles of light-along with choosing lighting fixtures that are able to shutter the light off these screens-is necessary to achieve this.

Speaking of video, modeling is another crucial function of light. As the congregation is often sitting at a long distance from the stage area, the lighting designer must use angles of light to create highlights and shadows on people and objects that emphasize their three-dimensional properties. This is called modeling. The most useful angles to achieve modeling are sidelight and backlight. These angles separate the objects from the background, adding depth to the stage area. This is especially important when IMAG is being used.

Most worship services include sections of prayer, community worship, sermons, and worship songs. This is what we call the composition of the service. Although we are familiar with the concepts behind these sections of the service, it is important to consider the needs of each, as well as how they interact.

Understanding the composition will help you create lighting atmospheres and transitions that guide the congregation from one section of the service to another. This is partially accomplished by generating focus for the congregation.

For example, you will probably light the pastor’s podium completely differently than a worship song. The podium should be lit with a clear, warm light. This atmosphere conveys an intimate bond between the minister and the congregation.

Worship songs give you the opportunity to be more creative through color, intensity, and angle. Music naturally evokes a “suspension of reality.” The power of good music will transform the congregation into a strong connection with the message of the song. Lighting designers support this power though the qualities of light, and how they are composed through movement.

A common technique is to use deep blues and soft qualities for “quiet” music, and bright colors and higher intensities for up-tempo, energetic songs. This use of color and intensity is not absolute, but it is important to appreciate the psychological and emotional effects of these qualities of light.

Developing these distinctive lighting atmospheres creates conventions that communicate to the congregation what part of the service is next. The lighting qualities of intensity, focus, color, texture, shape, distribution, and movement can all be used to accomplish this.

Finally, the lighting design must support the message of the service. Lighting artists interpret the message of the moment, and express their own personal points of view through light. There is no step-by-step way of doing this-as in all art, creating art with light is a personal expression of creativity. Successful expression of creativity usually comes from talent, experience, and a knowledge of the available tools.

Choosing the Right Fixtures

Lighting may be the most powerful and spectacular element in a stage design. This is more apparent today with all the amazing new lighting technology available to us. With new fixtures being developed every day, lighting designers must continually find ways to keep up to date with the technology. Every year I attend Lighting Dimensions International (LDI) to attend seminars, stay in contact with my colleagues in the industry, and to see the latest lighting fixtures and controllers. This event allows me to see, up close, what new tools are available for my art. The upcoming WFX event in Dallas also features a great many lighting manufacturers and dealers.

I am also fortunate to work in some of the most state-of-the-art theaters in the world. I am presently designing a show at the Oslo Opera House. Built only a few years ago, the technology in this theatre complex is truly amazing. The hundreds of high-tech lighting fixtures lying backstage would make my graduate students salivate. Many of these lights were foreign to me when I started working here three years ago, but I learned their capabilities by doing research and actually using them on my shows.

For the local church designer who is not in a large city, keeping up to date can be especially challenging. The best way to learn about lighting fixtures is to see them in action. Go to a local stage lighting dealer and see what they have in stock, or visit a nearby church with a larger or more diverse inventory. If your church is considering investing tens of thousands of dollars in new lighting equipment, most dealers and manufacturers are more than willing to set up demonstrations in your church. You can also do research on the Internet to see what the fixtures’ capabilities are, or attend LDI or WFX and see for yourself.

The first consideration in choosing a fixture is what type of effects you wish to achieve. For a basic stage wash you could use a great number of different models of conventional stage lighting fixtures. In fact, just about any fixture that emits light will work. The ultimate difference is in control.

Although Fresnels can be used to create a soft stage wash, it is somewhat difficult to control the light. You can make the light from a Fresnel small or large, but due to its optical design, you really can’t shape the light effectively. Barn doors can be used to cut the light, but achieving a sharp cut is difficult.

Lekos (ellipsoidal reflector spotlights) are the most common lighting fixtures incorporated for stage washes. The reason for this is that Lekos have shutters, which enable you to control the light by shaping the beam. Lekos can also be used as projection devices. Unlike Fresnels, you can make a Leko’s beam sharp or soft. By using frost color media, you can make a Leko look almost like a Fresnel with a beautifully blended soft edge.

The lighting designer calculates how many lighting fixtures are needed for a stage wash through the use of the fixture’s photometric data. To accomplish this, the designer chooses the desired lighting angle and distance, the hanging position of the light, and then calculates the beam spread. Photometric data is available on the manufacturer’s website.

Lekos come in a variety of fixed beam spreads including 90-, 50-, 36-, 26-, 19-, 10-, and 5-degree models. They also come in variable beam spreads, also known as “Zooms.” These zoom Lekos are quite versatile, allowing you to change the size of the beam through simple optical adjustments.

Lekos can also do a great deal more than simply suppling a wash of light. By shaping its beam you can use a Leko for a tightly controlled lighting area. If you just want to light the pastor’s podium, you can use the shutters to cut a shape of light that isolates this area.

You can also insert a gobo inside a Leko and project a static image onto a surface. There are hundreds of different gobo patterns made by several companies that enable you to project anything from a colorful stained glass window to a leaf pattern. You can even generate your own artwork, and the gobo manufacturer will make a custom gobo for you.

Another useful stage lighting fixture is the PAR. These fixtures are relatively inexpensive (compared to Lekos) and are quite common. Due to the nature of its optics, PARs are very intense lights and are normally used for powerful stage washes. Like Fresnels, PARs cannot be shaped via internal shutters.

A recent development is the LED PAR. Along with its inherent energy savings, most LED PARs are designed with various colors of LEDs. This allows you to change the color of the light without changing the gel. When all the colored LEDs are on, the fixture emits a white light.

Striplights come in many models and sizes. The concept behind a striplight is to create an even wash of light over an extended area. This is the type of fixture you use to light a drop or cyclorama. You can also use smaller striplights as footlights. Striplights have multiple circuits (usually three or four) enabling you to mix colors. This is very useful when you wish to change the color of a wide surface.

But don’t limit yourself to conventional stage lighting fixtures. Many architectural lighting fixtures can also be used in a stage lighting plan. On several occasions I’ve used household fixtures purchased at hardware stores for stage lighting applications. You may be surprised with the effects you can achieve with the simplest of lighting fixtures.

Another consideration is the type of lamp these fixtures use. Most of these models come in incandescent, LED, or HID (arc) sources, though there are other lamp types available.

The most common lamp type is incandescent. These lamps are easily dimmed by conventional stage dimmers and emit a warm, white light (usually around 3,200 Kelvin). They are relatively inexpensive, but have a limited lamp life compared to LEDs.

As mentioned above, LEDs offer advantages in energy savings, lamp life, and color flexibility. The initial purchase cost of LED fixtures is usually much higher than comparable incandescent models. In my opinion, the advantages of LEDs certainly outweigh the disadvantages. Lately I have been specifying LEDs for most of the wash fixtures in church lighting systems.

HID sources are also more expensive than incandescent, but offer a greater intensity of light. For instance, a 700-watt HID lamp is several times brighter than a 750-watt incandescent lamp. One of the main disadvantages of HID lamps is that you cannot electronically dim them. These fixtures require a mechanical device (called a “douser” or “shutter”) to block the light and dim the intensity. Due to the great lighting intensity of these fixtures, I specify HID fixtures on most of the major opera productions I design.

But HID fixtures may not be the best choice for houses of worship. They usually require much more maintenance, and most require fans to keep the fixture cool. In addition, they use a lot of energy and emit a great deal of heat.

Moving Lights

Automated lighting has radically changed the art of lighting design. Moving lights enable the designer much more flexibility in changing focus, color, texture, and movement. They have been readily accepted in the church market for obvious reasons, and the prices keep coming down.

Choosing the appropriate moving light can be as challenging as choosing a color. Each model has different capabilities (and different costs). If you only need soft washes of light with color changes, then a “wash” fixture would be appropriate. If you need to project images from the light, or shutter it, then you need a “spot” fixture. Similar to the difference between a Leko and a Fresnel, you can make most spot fixtures look like wash fixtures (with the internal frost filter or by softening the focus), but you cannot make a wash fixture look like a spot fixture.

Let’s say that you wish to create a moving fire or water effect. You can do this with a spot fixture that has two rotating gobos, or a rotating gobo and an animation wheel. But you can also create this effect with one Leko and a dual gobo rotator (savings thousands of dollars). So sometimes a moving light is not the most practical answer for an effect.

You can also use external automated accessories for your conventional fixtures. These include automated yokes and mirrors that can pan and tilt the light, color scrollers and dichroic filters that can remotely change the color, and gobo rotators for special effects. These accessories basically transform a static conventional lighting fixture into a moving light.

One of the latest developments in lighting design is the use of video projectors on movable yokes. With these projectors you can paint the stage with light from a video source, and remotely focus the video onto different objects. These amazing fixtures are used in some of the more complicated productions in the industry.

Even with all these sophisticated lighting fixtures, it is important not to allow technology to overwhelm the art. Lighting designers must balance their analytical and artistic instincts. Achieving this delicate balance is the key to creating the most effective lighting atmospheres for your worship service.

This article was written by David Martin Jacques for church production magazine. David is a professional lighting designer and professor of lighting design. You can find his book, Introduction to the Musical Art of Stage Lighting Design on iTunes and

Here is the articles full link to Church Production Magazine.