When figuring out how to approach front lighting your stage you need to first decide what you are trying to accomplish, and what physical limitations and obstructions there are. These will be the deciding factors on what gear is needed. Are LED’s the solution to everything? This guide will help you gain a better understanding of what goes into designing front lighting…there’s pictures…
The most cost effective way to do basic front lighting is with the timeless Par can. It gives you a bright diffuse oval shaped pool of light which can be rotated by spinning the entire lamp inside the fixture which offers some control and is easily blended with other pars for a nice even wash. There are 4 lamp choices Wide Flood (WFL), Medium Flood (MFL), Narrow Spot (NSP), and Very Narrow Spot (VNSP).
These all like their names give you choices on what size pool of light you need to cover an area depending on how far the lights are from the area. However if you have a let’s say a projection screen on stage or very near to an area that needs to be lit then a par can may not be the best choice as it will probably have to spill onto the projection surface in order to still properly light the subject. So that is where a light with a more defined edge and with framing shutters will be a big help. That is what is known by a few names: Ellipsoidal, Reflector Spot, or Leko. They are also known by their brand name like Source 4, Altman 360Q and many more. There are a bunch of different lens options, denoted in degrees. (ie. 10°, 19°, 36°, etc.) These lenses allow you to get the right sized pool of light depending on how far away the light is from the subject. You can refer to this table taken from ETC’s website to get an idea of what you may need. I normally use and suggest the ETC Source 4. Not only is it the industry standard; it is a high quality, readily available light.
It gives you the ability to change from a diffuse soft edge to a crisp edge to minimize unwanted spill. It also has 4 framing shutters that square off an edge and allow very precise control to make whatever shape is needed and keep light off unwanted areas like a screen. With careful setup a very even wash can also be achieved with multiple Source 4s as well as being able to individually light a person or set piece or wall or anything and create separation. If there is room in your budget, several source4s will be the most versatile front light option. It is very common to have a mix of both fixtures. For example, if you are not worried about lights spilling over the area your pastor preaches from, par cans may be your best option. They are natural wash lights and have a forgiving edge that makes it subtler when people inevitably start to wonder out of the lit area. While a par can wash works for the speaking portion it may not be able to provide the look desired for the music portion. That’s where Source 4’s can help you create a more intimate look, allowing you to highlight just the musicians.
Now that we understand the main options, it is time to consider other aspects. Two questions that need to be answered are: How much power is available, and what brightness is required to achieve the desired effect. As far as lamp intensity, there are a few factors that go into choosing a bulb wattage. In many cases 500W bulbs are sufficient; if you are competing with the sun, have a longer throw distance, much bigger venue, or very bright lighting on the stage you may want to consider 1000w bulbs. One thing to be aware of is power limitations. To give a little perspective you can use 3 500w fixtures on one 15amp circuit. (110v * 15a = 1650w available). If pars draw too much power, there is another option that will cut the power requirements without sacrificing brightness. It is a Source 4 par. Essentially; it is a redesigned, modernized par that has light qualities similar to a par can. It has interchangeable lenses along with being smaller and more rugged than its traditional counterpart. It is also convenient if you are also using Source 4’s because they both use the same bulb. It’s designed with improved optics that allows a 575w bulb to have equal light output to a 1000w standard par-can. This is great when you have a limited amount of power. Since they use less power, they also give off less heat.
As far as Source 4’s go there are 3 different bulbs available 375w, 575w, and 750w. All of these work in both source4s and Source 4 pars. This is convenient if you have both types of fixtures. It means you only have to stock one type of bulb etc. Not to mention, they are also about half the price of regular par can bulbs. Since there are so many factors that go into determining what works best, I strongly suggest demoing gear before making a purchase. It will help you determine your actual equipment needs and prevent any undesired surprises.
Now to address the inevitable question these days: “Isn’t LED lighting the answer to all my lighting needs?” In my opinion that’s not quite accurate yet. Most low quality and even more expensive LED fixtures do not yet offer the smooth pleasing pool of white light like the par can and Source 4. LEDs are often a blotchy circle with ghosted edges that are quite unflattering for front lights. There are a few LED options available that are starting to offer very similar traits to pars and Source 4s. The Source 4 LED line is one of them but they come with a hefty price tag that is hard to swallow. I’ll admit I have limited exposure to what the actually are capable of but I’ve read they still lack in brightness. Regardless, the price is rarely justifiable at this point. Prices fall as time goes on so don’t write them off completely. LED front lights might be a very real possibility sooner than later. But knowing the basics about the good old-fashioned incandescent light will be good for comparison purposes. They are always available and affordable.
Remember this is not an end all of lighting it my opinion and suggestion there are many ways to accomplish stage lighting specifically front lighting in this post. It’s a discipline that encompasses a multitude of things that are not always easy to articulate. I can’t stress enough how important it is to test equipment before making a purchase. I’m just shooting off some basics and will do my best to to answer questions.