The Way We Light

After a few weeks away, let’s get back to the world of lighting. This week I take a look at the way the stage is lit. This is not about fixture types or what is normally placed on what truss. This week is about the different areas on stage you can place lights and how it can affect your show.

It is important to remember that shows will incorporate most of the styles discussed here. Not only that, but many the styles can, and normally are, combined together (front and back light, as an example). When you have the time, I suggest you play around with the different style and see what you like best. I’ll let you know my favorite style when we get there. Off we go…

Front-Light: Just as the name implies, this is light hitting your performer from the front. Most often this is achieved with follow spots and a downstage truss. This is the most common of all stage lighting. If you are in any bar with a stage, they will at least have eight or so par cans on the downstage so you can see the performers. Front-light is one-half of the nuts and bolts of a lighting rig.

Sammy Hagar - Lighting Designer Jim Greenawalt
Sammy Hagar – Lighting Designer Jim Greenawalt

Back-Light: The other half of the nuts and bolts of the lighting rig. This is most commonly an upstage truss. Generally you get more dramatic looks with back-light. This is where you get nice silhouettes of your artists and when you have haze (please have haze), you start seeing the beams of light from the fixtures.

Warren Haynes Xmas Jam - Lighting Designer Preston Hoffman
Warren Haynes Xmas Jam – Lighting Designer Preston Hoffman

Side-Light: Side-light can be placed anywhere on stage but most often it is in the downstage to midstage area. This is my favorite kind of light. You can achieve some amazing shadowy looks using side-light, especially low side-light (also called shin-kickers). I once had a tour with a very limited budget (that tour’s budget is much bigger now) and to really change it up I used a section of PRT with color scrollers on the downstage of each corner as my only non-back light. It gave the show a grungy, rock and roll look. If you have the ability to do it, throwing a song only lit by side-light is a great way to change the feel of the show.

Top-Light: As with everything else so far, top-light is self-explanatory, it’s light from overhead. Wait a sec, then isn’t every light in the air a top-light? In this case I am using the term to be a fixture directly over the artist’s head. Using just top-light leads to interesting shadows on the face of your artist. This happens a lot in venues where the downstage truss is actually over the stage. This also leads to cranky LDs because the truss went from being front-light to top-light. You may be able to tell that I am not a huge fan of this type of light by itself.

Selena Gomez - Lighting Designer Nathan W. Scheuer
Selena Gomez – Lighting Designer Nathan W. Scheuer

Floor-Light: Floor lights could almost be a post on their own. Floor lights can be used for aerial effects (we’ll get there), low side-light, and lighting backdrops and set pieces. Floor lights can be some of the most versatile fixtures in your rig. Some of you might be thinking, what about…yup, I’m going there right now.

Up-Light: These are also floor lights, but when talking about up-light, it is generally referring to a fixture on the floor right in front of the artist to light him up. This can be done with individual fixtures (such as par cans) or across the front of the stage (such as mini-strips). These are used on a lot on shows shot for TV.

Aerials: This is using the beams from the lights to make a pattern in the air. These looks are normally used to light the space around the artist and not the artist themselves. These are often done in symmetrical patterns and most LDs have a handful of go to looks they use.


Misc: A few of these are Truss Toners: lights that are used to light the truss. Set Lights: another from the self-explanatory category. Backdrop lights: often times these are cyc lights.

Like I said above, take time to try different styles and see how they work together. Find what you like best and what works best with the shows you light.

Until next time: “Lighting is an essential way to change the mood of a room, especially if you can use dimmers.” Of course! Dimmers are old school fun.


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