The Ultimate Guide to Stage Lighting


Most people look at stage lighting through the lens of production.  They are only concerned with getting the lights to shine on the performers on the stage.  This is a surface approach to the craft.

There is a deeper way to look at it.  Stage lighting is also a character in every show.  It can be a guide that helps the audience focus their attention on what is important.  It can be a storyteller that sets the emotional frame by creating a certain mood.

In other words, stage lighting is a combination of both art and science.  

In this guide, we will explore the foundations of the craft.  We will look at the different types of lights you can use and how they work.  This guide will also explore how lights complement other  elements such as backdrops and props.

Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

The Importance of Lighting in Entertainment

Stage lighting makes performances more dramatic, comedic, or realistic.  The amount of light a director has at their disposal can have a huge unseen impact on any production.  

Did you ever wonder why most Shakespearan plays have very little color in the scenery? It is because theaters in the Elizabethan era did not have access to colorful lights. Modern directors still stick to drab sets to this day.  Tradition is a powerful force.  

Stage lighting has a life all its own.  It can:

  • Create ambiance and mood in a room.
  • Help actors and actresses deliver effective dialogue (How you may ask?  If you have ever met an actor you know that appearances are an obsession. Skillful  lighting makes actors look better which translates to a comfortable performance.  “Look good, feel good” is a real phenomenon). 
  • Be used for special effects like rain or snow to add depth to a performance.


These are just a few examples of the countless ways that lighting can impact a production.  Unlike the Elizabethan era we have access to all the technology we need.  That said, all the tech in the world won’t help you if you don’t know how to use it.

The craft of stage lighting involves many different elements. The position requires that you have an in-depth knowledge of light physics, equipment, and techniques.

To help you get started as a first-time stage lighting designer let’s explore the basics.

The Basics of Stage Lighting

Stage lights illuminate performers on the stage, who may be actors or musicians. The two primary goals when using stage lights are to make the performers look as attractive as possible and illuminate their surroundings.  

When planning, a core principle to remember is that the audience must be able to see what is happening on stage.  It won’t help you if the actors look great in soft lighting but people have no clue what else is going on.  Balance is the key.  Pick your lights accordingly.   

 Different light sources provide different effects. For example:

  • High-Intensity Discharge Lamps (HMI) are bright white bulbs that emit a lot of heat. They’re used for special effects such as car headlights and spotlights. Because HMI lights are cheap and easy to find, they are very popular.
  • Tungsten Lights give off warm colors like candlelight and are bright enough for productions.  Invented more than 100 years ago by Thomas Edison, Tungsten lights are in wide use.  They are still considered to be ‘modern tech’. 
  • Light Emitting Diodes (LED) are more efficient lights than either HMI or tungsten.  Some directors resist their use, preferring to stick with the old stand-bys of Tungsten or HMI.  Don’t be a slave to tradition.  Use these lights if they give the effect you want.


Now that we have a basic idea of our goals and lights at our disposal, let’s get a little more granular.  It is time to examine some of the tools in the toolbox.

The art of lighting the stage consist of putting light where you want it and taking it away from where you don't want it.

Types of Stage Lights

Now that you have some familiarity with light sources let us explore how they are used.  There are lots of different options, so it’s important to know their differences and how they work.


These are the most common type of lighting for stages, as they can reach anywhere throughout the venue. They’re great for highlighting specific areas on stage, like actors’ faces or props.  When lay people think about stage lighting this is the first (and usually only) thing they think of.  A great all purpose light.


Floodlights are very bright lights that cover a wide area and act as an ambient source of light onstage. They impact a broader area and directors use them instead of spotlights when they need a big effect. If there are a lot of props and scenery on stage flood lights can be very effective.  They can also be used offstage for effect.  If you want sunlight streaming through windows or from behind doors to showcase a sunny day this is the way to go.

Fresnel Lamps

Fresnel Lamps concentrate light into a single focal point.  They do this by using lenses with concentric rings.  This allows the beam to spread across long distances, including the length of the stage.  Performance venues use them to direct the audience’s attention to a specific spot.  Think of these lights as spotlights on steroids.

LED Panels

LED panels are the newest addition to the stage lighting arsenal.  They are popular due to their low energy usage, high brightness, and long life span. The panels consist of thousands of tiny LED lights.  You can program these lights to turn on and off in any pattern you want.  This allows them to act both as a source of light or as an effect.

LED panels can be used for:

  • Backdrops
  • Side Lights
  • Front-of-house illumination, and
  • High-intensity lighting effects 


Given their versatility it is easy to see why they have become so popular.  Always remember that lights add to the show, not overshadow it.  Don’t go crazy with LED panels.  Use them carefully.

Now that we are aware of how light is sourced and its possible uses let’s tackle some actual tactics.

I've often called the lighting for the stage the "music for the eye", because it has the same way of making an atmosphere, making a landscape, changing fluidly from one place to another without seeming effort.

Stage Lighting Techniques

Tactic One – Mood

Ever notice how music and sound effects can make a scene in a movie particularly scary?  That is the power of adding another element to the presentation. 

Stage lighting works exactly the same way.  It can help to create atmosphere and mood or enhance the action on stage. Skillful lighting can be a security blanket for the actors as well.  It gives them a sense of their environment while providing cues for dialogue and action.

Different lighting effects can also establish a milieu for the piece.  For example, if a play were set in the 1960s, you could use lights with a yellow-orange hue.  This would evoke that time period’s laid-back attitude.  If your show takes place underwater, blue hues would give an added sense of location for the audience.

Tactic Two – Focus

Stage lighting should highlight what is happening onstage at any given moment.   Lighting provides visual direction for audiences.  This sweeps them into the story which can transport them to an entirely different place.   

If an actor is standing in front of an audience member and gives them a flower, ensure the actor’s face is well lit.  You want everyone to be able to see every expression on their face.  With proper lighting you can have the entire house focused on that one point.

Proper lighting can also provide directional cues for the audience’s attention. If you point out where characters are going offstage or coming back on again.  This keeps them in the flow of the story and results in an engaged house.

Tactic Three – Production

The audience are not the only people who benefit from a well planned strategy.  Stage lighting can help actors get into character because it provides them with visual cues when they’re speaking lines.  It can also assist them to hit their marks if they forget the blocking of a scene.  When in doubt, find the spotlight.

How to Start Creating Stage Lighting Design

The first thing you will need to do is measure the light levels (or luminance) in your venue. You can use a light meter for this measure as it calculates how much light is coming from the stage. The meter will tell you how bright or dim each area of your venue is, and that’s what you’ll use to create your design. 

With this in hand, you can choose what kind of lighting effect you want for each element of your production.

It is critical to create a small-scale drawing or “light plot”. This diagram outlines where each light is relative to actors on stage.  This way everyone knows what needs to happen when they’re performing in front of them. 

A standard light plot uses simple symbols like circles and lines.  These symbols show the location of each fixture in the house. See our example below:

Conclusion - Stage lighting design is the art of using light to make the actors, props, and decor on stage look their best.

We’ve learned that stage lighting is an essential part of any production.  Various design methods can set the mood, time of day, or even place of action for any performance.

You now know that professionals use different types of lights for different effects.  They can highlight certain areas of a stage with spotlights and backlighting.

Finally, you have learned how to set up a light plot for any future production.

Congratulations! Now you know everything you need to start designing your own sets. 

Keep in mind that this guide is by no means comprehensive.  There are countless other ways to light a stage.  There are also many other types of lights that we didn’t cover here (lasers are one example).  Don’t let that stop you.

The point of this guide is to start you on your journey and take some of the mystery out of stage lighting.  Grab your light meter, pen, paper, and go create something great!