Lighting Designers (LDs) are highly creative people that are tasked with using technology to assist and enhance performances with light. The job can involve simply lighting a person or object, or be as complex as creating stunning visuals synchronized with music. Over the years, lighting designers have filled their tool bags with many elements, but here are some key skills that most LD’s use in nearly every production.

1) Sculpting with Light

By adjusting the angle and the intensity of lighting sources, objects and people can look very different. Lighting designers often use a combination of key, fill, back, and top light to highlight or de-emphasis certain areas. Dancers will commonly be side-lit to enhance the shape of their bodies and movements; while performers and speakers will have a strong backlight to visually separate them from the background. Lighting designers must always look at the stage and performance to determine the best angles and intensities for the specific show.

2) Seeing the Beams

Lighting designers know that the beam of light in the air is equally (and often more) important as the illumination of an object or person. Designers will use haze machines (like these from Martin by Harman) to fill the air within a venue with a small and healthy water- or oil-based particulate. This provides a surface in the air for the beam of light to illuminate, and thus the entire output from a light can be seen. When combined with multiple fixtures, particularly moving lights, the lighting designer can now create 3D visuals in the airspace above and around the stage and audience.

The use of very narrow lenses on lighting fixtures helps to create extremely sharp beams that can almost look like lasers to the untrained eye. Beams can be further shaped through the use of patterns in the lights called “gobos”. These will change the straitght beams into multi-beams, circles, lines and more. As the beams shine and move through the haze, they create dynamic and interesting looks that enhance any performance.

3) Limiting the Colors

Modern automated lighting fixtures are capable of creating millions of different colors of light. With such a wide palette, the lighting designer has unlimited creativity available. However, the visual look on stage can often become over-complicated with too many color combinations. For this reason, most LD’s will limit his or her color combinations to only two or three colors within each song or scene.

By only utilizing a few colors at a time, the look on stage is much more pleasing to the eye and allows for further variation throughout the duration of the performance. There are times when a plethora of colors is a strong look, but most designers tend to shy away from over-use of multiple colors.

4) Less is More

Like most jobs, lighting designers must work within a specific budget and timeframe. This means that they don’t always get what they want in terms of equipment or preparation time. For these reasons, they will often use less lighting fixtures or create fewer looks for a production. This does not mean that the product will suffer though. Quite often using less lights or producing fewer looks provides the most creative workspace.

In addition, some LD’s follow the “less is more” rule when creating memorable looks on a stage. For instance, during a concert one song may simply light the singer in a single down light while the rest of the songs she has a full stage of lighting gear supporting her. This moment of much less will be as beautiful (if not more so) than the other songs that use hundreds of lights.

LDs can maximize their budget potential by using hybrid fixtures like the Martin Axiom Hybrid. All-in-one fixtures like the Axiom Hybrid combine a beam, spot and wash into a single device, providing LDs with ultimate flexibility.

5) The Darkness is Free

You would think that lighting designers want to always make use of light as much as possible. This is frequently the case, but they must also consider the use of darkness. Many find that once they create a look on stage that it improves if they start turning off some of the lights. In addition, by not illuminating certain areas of a stage it will draw the audience into the areas that the show wants them to look. A few moments of darkness is often more important to a show than the best lit stage. LD’s always consider when and how to make use of darkness in the same manner that they work with light.

Lighting designers are amazingly talented and creative people that have fun illuminating performances and spaces. The skills mentioned here are just a few of the tools that they use on a daily basis to create useful and stunning visuals.

Know of some other skills that LD’s commonly use? Tell us about them in the comments.


  1. Pingback: Music on the Brain: The Emotional Effects of Sound and Lighting | HARMAN Professional Solutions Insights

  2. Ambra

    Heyy so what actually makes a good lightning director?

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