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The Anatomy of a Lighting System

The Anatomy of a Lighting System

Theatrical lighting systems achieve such great control over the light they project through the various types of fixtures and accessories they provide. Their jobs are important, so proper planning and installation are required.

For fixtures, there are three common types that you’d encounter in a theatrical system. “For worship applications people use a combination of PARs, Fresnels and ellipsoidal fixtures,” states Tobin Neis, marketing manager for Barbizon Lighting Co., New York.

Generally a PAR fixture is the least expensive fixture, but offers the lowest level of control of the beam of light. It’s useful for spaces where it’s acceptable for the light to gradually fade out toward the edges over a short distance.

A Fresnel offers more control over the pool of soft light, as it enables the size of the beam to be adjusted.

An ellipsoidal costs the most, but enables significant control over how sharp the edges are and the shape of the beam. It also accepts a variety of accessories for special effects, such as patterns to be projected from the fixture. Just as many churches often place plants or other decorative items on the platform to present a more pleasing appearance, lighting can also be used to enhance the look of the room.

“Churches have been using a lot of patterns (more commonly referred to as ‘gobos’) in their ellipsoidal fixtures because it is an easy way to get a great effect cheaply,” describes Neis. Gobos can be used to project the pattern of fall leaves across the stage in autumn, for example, snowflakes in winter, or a cross onto the walls of the sanctuary.

“Gel is also heavily used to change the color of the light to highlight an object for an artistic effect,” Neis adds. Gels are thin sheets of polycarbonate or pigment-dyed polyester able to withstand the high temperatures of theatrical fixtures, and they can add beautiful color to the walls, fabrics and floors of the platform. Combined with gobos, you can project green leaves or clouds tinted from a sunset, even fireworks—almost anything you can imagine.

For more advanced lighting capabilities, numerous manufacturers make automated fixtures, also referred to as moving lights. These are the lights that make concerts so visually stimulating, with beams of light moving through hazy air and producing numerous motion effects. However, moving lights aren’t merely useful for concert effects. Just because these lights can move doesn’t mean you have to see them move, or turn your worship service into a rock concert.

Because moving lights are controlled through a lighting console, these fixtures can be re-aimed by the lighting operator throughout the service, enabling fewer fixtures to be able to light numerous stage positions. This can save significantly on limited volunteer time and reduce the total number of fixtures needed. However, moving lights do require regular maintenance, and they cost significantly more than a standard theatrical fixture. Many churches prefer to have the electrical and control infrastructure in place to support moving lights, and simply rent them the few times a year when they would add to a service or event.

One other fixture type to be aware of that is making significant headway in the marketplace is LED lighting. As Mike Tucker, vice president of sales and marketing for Altman lighting in Yonkers, N.Y., says, “There are three advantages to LED lighting. One of the real big advantages is the multi-color effects you can get without having to change gels. There is significant energy savings with LED lighting, and because LED lighting does not generate much heat, the HVAC savings is also important. We see churches primarily using LED lighting for color effects on their back walls, and for washing the stage in color.”

Proper Installation
Theatrical systems can be installed during new construction, but also during renovation of existing spaces. Either way, it’s important that it be done right. Many parts of a theatrical lighting system are suspended from the ceiling structure over people’s heads. In these trying financial times, churches are looking to save money anywhere they can—but self-installation of the basic structure of a lighting (or audio) system is a high-risk place to save a few dollars.

Craig B. Austin, an ETCP Certified Rigger-Theatre, performs rigging (the process of hanging equipment) for Stage Services Co., based in Portland, Ore. “Anytime you’re dealing with loads suspended above people, you must leave no room for assumption,” he states. There is specialized equipment rated for hanging equipment (not available at your local hardware store), and that equipment, as well as the physical structure of your building and roof, is designed to only handle so much weight.

Austin continues, “Truss and beam manufacturers make various sizes and shapes of trusses with predetermined loading capacities that are specific to each building. Always get this important information in writing and be sure not to exceed the truss, ceiling, beam or rigging point capacity. A mistake such as hanging a load improperly can buckle a truss and result in major expenses to repair or replace a structural beam. The cost of a rigging failure can be extraordinarily high in both dollars and life-safety. A common observation is that well-intending church volunteers or staff often assume too much, know too little, and place many unsuspecting people underneath a load at unnecessary risk.”

When investing in a new facility, it’s important that the lighting, audio and video aspects of the building are brought to the table very early in the process, according to Steve Arnold, director of systems design and development for church lighting at Candela Controls in Winter Garden, Fla. “We’re hanging the most weight on the ceiling, and it’s critical that the building is designed for your needs from the beginning,” he says.

Making certain to design access to your lights is also important. As Arnold explains, “I’ll look at the ceiling and see moving lights hung over pews on a slanted floor. I’ll ask how they like their lights, and they’ll answer that most no longer work because they can’t get to them to maintain them. Access to your lights needs to be planned from the very beginning of the building design.”

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