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Chauvet Pantano Church

Lighting 101: Putting a Church Stage Lighting System Together

This final installment of Lighting 101 brings all aspects of church lighting together.

Over the past couple of months we’ve discussed a lot of aspects of church stage lighting, including everything from power to stage lighting fixtures. For the final edition of our Lighting 101 series, we’re going to walk through creating a whole lighting system. We’ll also talk about some common elements of stage lighting systems we at CCI Solutions are putting together for the average church building size we work with, which is somewhere in the 500-750 seat range.

Stage Lighting Power

Regardless of what kind of stage lighting fixtures we use, we need power. It’s true that with conventional stage lighting fixtures you need dimmable power and with LED and most intelligent stage lighting fixtures you need power distributed throughout your main auditorium at strategic locations. If the budget allows, the most strategic thing we can do when locating power is to future proof the kind of power needed at any given outlet by making it convertible from dimmable to non-dimmable power. We most often do this by using ETC dimmer racks, for example, ETC D20 modules (20 amp dimmers), ETC CC20 modules (constant 20 amp power, not DMX controlled) or ETC R20 modules (20 amp relays, controlling on/off via DMX). You run the power once and have the flexibility of changing what type of power those outlets have at any point in the future by simply sliding in a new module.  That being said, it seems every year we use LED based fixtures more and more, so we're putting dimmer racks into fewer projects these days and going all LED.

Stage Lighting Positions

It will always be cheaper to put in more power and DMX access than you think you’ll need up front than it will be to add it later. This is one area in which it’s pretty important to be forward thinking and go for a little overkill on distribution. If you don’t do it now, you’ll have wished you did later. It’s nearly impossible to think of every use and scenario you’ll need lights for before getting into a building, so planning up front for some extra lighting positions and DMX access will save you a lot of headache, and possibly money down the road.  The long and the short of it is if you can hang a light somewhere, be sure to get it at least some power and a DMX feed.

Fixtures - Front Lighting

Ellipsoidal fixtures have long been my favorite fixture for front lighting. Ellipsoidal fixtures combine good, fairly even light across the beam with the control of a tight beam along with the ability to shutter off parts I don’t want. While sometimes I would prefer the softer beam a PAR fixture produces, in most auditoriums where projection, creative lighting and even set designs are used, I’m not willing to give up the beam control that ellipsoidal fixtures offer. The ability to shutter off any over lighting or spill proves to be extremely valuable in dynamic spaces. And while I've typically used conventional ellipsoidal fixtures as LED versions are still very new and quite a bit more expensive than conventional ones, we've really turned that corner over the last year or so and I'm moving to recommending LED fixtures only for new builds and significant retrofits. This gap has been closing quickly, and there isn't always room for LED Ellipsoidal fixtures in the budget, if new dimming is needed I'd rather go for the LED fixtures in most cases.

Fixtures - Top (or Back) Lighting

With top lighting, I’m much less concerned about tight beam control as these lights most often shoot down to the ground, so inherently there is less over lighting and spill. Up until 7-8 years ago, a conventional PAR fixture was my go to light for this application. In recent years though, I’ve changed over to LED PAR fixtures being my favorite for this application in most instances, the one exception may be the downstage area used for preaching. In those areas, I become a little more concerned about having a good, accurate color temperature when cameras are being used. For the rest of the stage, or when cameras are not involved, LED PAR fixtures offer a great deal of versatility and creativity and still carry out the task of defining a subject and making them stand out from the back drop. The bonus with an LED PAR fixture is that while I want white for speaking times, colored top lighting can be a fantastic (continued)tool for helping set the environment during worship. Using brighter colors as your top light during faster, more energetic songs still defines your subject while conveying an upbeat atmosphere and deep blues and purples highlighting the people on stage can really create a rich, deep, worshipful environment. LED fixtures in this instance are simple and very effective, as one fixture does it all, controlled simply by a lighting controller.

Fixtures - Background or Set Lighting

Hands-down, this is a great place to use LED stage lighting. Often specific color temperature is not as big of a deal, so a wide variety of LED fixtures can be used to light up your environment. The better the fixture, the better the color and white will look of course, but for background lighting most churches can afford to be a little less picky, especially since there are big budget implications depending on the fixtures you choose.  Just remember the cheaper the light, the less picky you should be.  Do conventional lights still have a part to play for background and set lighting? Sure, but if you’re using conventional lighting for this purpose it’s more often because you want a deep, rich color you can't quite get out of an LED fixture or you want the warm glow of the fixture itself facing the audience instead of simply having it light something. The light in turn becomes an element of the design.

Stage Lighting Controller

Even with the most basic of lighting systems, you need a controller. Most of us have seen the most basic controllers, a board filled with faders like the ETC Smartfade. While this works just fine when you only have conventional fixtures, adding LED and intelligent stage lighting fixtures tends to need something more flexible and robust. If your lighting system is smaller with 1-3 dozen conventional and LED fixtures with no likelihood of adding moving lights, the Jands Stage CL could be a great, cost effective upgrade to getting better, more flexible control over your stage lighting. If your have moving lights, or they may be in your future, you’ll want to look at more robust solutions from manufacturers like Jands, ETC, Martin, High End or others. Every console manufacturer has different strengths and weaknesses, the key is to finding a console that meets both your immediate needs, allows room for growth, and offers an interface that your lighting team can effectively learn to operate.

Wrapping It Up

We’ve covered a wide range of the basics of church stage lighting, and if you were a person who felt intimidated by lighting before this series, I very much hope that you feel more comfortable with what you have and what you can do. The goal of the Lighting 101 series has been to introduce you to the key parts and concepts of how lighting works. But if you have questions on the topics covered so far or need help with a lighting project you’re working on, I'd love to hear from you and possibly serve you and your church.

Happy Lighting!

Check out the rest of the Lighting 101 Series:
Lighting 101: Demystifying DMX
Lighting 101: Controllers
Lighting 101: Dimmers
Lighting 101: Conventional Fixtures
Lighting 101: LED
Lighting 101: Moving Lights
Lighting 101: Design Basics


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