Stage Lighting Basics: Stage Lighting Layouts6 min read

orange and white stage lights filling an empty stage
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A critical part of stage lighting design involves the placement of your fixtures. How you layout your lighting matters, as it serves as the foundation for illuminating the stage during the production.

Generally speaking, all stage lighting layouts involve a few fundamental placements. By using the right approach, you’ll be able to cover the vast majority of your needs quickly and efficiently.

If you are designing one of your first stage lighting layouts, here’s what you need to know.

The Basics of Stage Lighting Layouts

Front Lighting

yellow front lighting on stage with band

Front lighting is just what it sounds like; it’s lights positioned to illuminate performers, set pieces, and props from the front. It ensures that everything is visible to the audience when the scene calls for it.

Usually, front lighting is positioned slightly above the performer, so the light ends up pointed a bit downward instead of head-on. That way, the fixtures can be placed somewhat out of view of the audience, and the performers aren’t blinded by a light pointed straight at them.

However, there are times when the lights may be placed lower. For example, lights situated at the front edge of the stage can be used to illuminate performers as well, with the light coming from the floor and pointed up.

There are technically several options for front lighting. Every fixture can serve a unique purpose, though they typically work together to ensure that everything that you want the audience to see at any given moment is appropriately illuminated.

The Key Light

If there is one thing that you’ll find in almost every lighting design, it’s the key light. In most cases, the key light is the brightest light in a classic three-part setup and is the primary front light for the production.

Typically, it’s the key light that mainly illuminates a scene’s main focus. This can be a performer, prop, or set-piece, depending on the scene’s goals.

A key light isn’t necessarily pointing directly at the main focus, however. It can be set at an angle, both laterally and vertically. That way, it can create strategic shadows or maintain a position that’s more versatile for that scene or scenes that occur later in the production.

In many ways, the key light also sets the tone for the scene. The effects you apply to the fixture, the lighting temperature, and the amount of illumination all lead to a vibe, one that other lights will typically support.

Fill Lights

Fill lights support the key light. Usually, their purpose is to eliminate or reduce undesirable shadows, adding light where light is missing or limited.

In many cases, the fill light is placed at a 45-degree angle from the key light. It complements the key light, ensuring that any undesired dramatic shadows aren’t cast on the main subject.

Some productions may only need a single fill light. However, others may use several or may go with a wash light setup to gently bathe a set in light. It all depends on the size of the stage, how performers will move during the scene, and other dynamic changes that can occur during a production.

Backlighting

person sitting on road cases wearing a mask with red backlights shining

Backlighting is positioned behind the performers, set pieces, and props, adding light from a completely different angle. Not only can this help prevent the subjects from casting shadows on areas behind them on the stage, but it can also create a sense of visual separation, ensuring nothing blends into the background.

Like fill lights, a production may have several backlights or may use wash fixtures. Since performers and props usually aren’t stagnant on a stage, having more than one can give you some extra versatility.

However, there are instances where backlighting can be fairly directional or harsh. It all depends on the mood you want to set.

Enhancing Your Stage Lighting Layout

In most cases, your front and backlighting are the foundation of any stage lighting layout. However, there are other lighting options that can enhance or round out your lighting design. Here are a few that may help bring your show to life.

Spotlights

Spotlights – also called spot fixtures – allow you to add dramatic lighting to a very specific area of the stage. It can be used to create strong shadows, visually separate a subject from the rest of the scene, and apply certain lighting effects.

In many cases, Leko lights are a favorite for this purpose. Not only are they versatile, but they can support gobos, gels, and other special effect additions.

On-Stage Lights

In some cases, having a light fixture within the production space is beneficial. For example, classic table lamps like you’d find in people’s homes place on a set’s tables can be great additions.

The important thing to remember if you have on-stage lights is that they impact your overall lighting design. Any source of illumination incidentally alters the look of an entire scene, so you need to explore that thoroughly. If you add something like a lamp on a whim, you may be surprised about the shadows or highlights it can create, so it’s always wise to closely look at how it impacts a scene before including one.

Effect Lighting

If your core stage lighting layout doesn’t allow you to achieve a specific effect, then you may need to use separate fixtures to achieve the perfect look. Precisely what you’ll require depends on the overall vision, so almost anything can be worth exploring.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you want your core stage lighting layout in place first. That way, you can test it to see if it can meet your needs and, if it can’t, see how any additional fixtures impact the primary look as you go. That way, your end design is ideal for the production.

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