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The Pastor’s Guide to Lighting Systems

The Pastor’s Guide to Lighting Systems

Ultimately, the quality of your lighting systems will play a substantial role in the quality of your communication.

Lighting is one of those things that you tend to not pay much attention to unless it is stunningly good or stunningly bad, yet it affects you at a subconscious level. When the lighting is poor, say, in the instance of being too dim, people tend to squint and strain to read or see their surroundings. In the case of lighting that’s too bright and harsh, one tends to try to find relief by shielding the eyes. However, when the lighting is just right—the view is comfortable. People don’t really notice the lighting, but instead enjoy the surroundings.

In church, the No. 1 goal is to be a good communicator of the Gospel message. As such, leadership and staff want the audience to be comfortable. For that, the lighting—both in the audience and on the platform—needs to be correct.

First things first

So how do you make sure that the lighting system you want to build is correct? For starters, don’t build it yourself. Seek out a qualified designer to design the system and have it installed.

Designing a good lighting system requires a substantial knowledge of electrical, structural, and data systems, as well as a good understanding of the art of lighting. In addition, lighting equipment is generally hung over people and this needs to be done safely. If the system fails, there is a high probability that someone will be injured or killed.

The designer will take into account room size, platform size, ceiling height, and proper illumination levels when determining the design of the lighting system, and will design architectural and theatrical systems to meet the design criteria.

Ultimately, it will be the size of your room and the amount of area that you are trying to light that will dictate how much equipment is needed and what the system will cost.

A good designer will first spend time doing the math and will know, based on the “science” of lighting, what equipment it will take to do the job, while keeping in mind the “art” of lighting that will make the project look great. (continued)

However, many times when dealing with churches there is someone that “knows” lighting and questions the number of fixtures and the other equipment that is required for the job. Usually they want to cut the amount of equipment to cut the cost of the project because they “know” that you don’t really need that many fixtures.

In the end, they usually have no basis for their desired changes other than wanting to spend less, because they don’t see the lighting as being important. Many times this is in churches that have invested in the latest greatest PA system but have barely enough lights to light a lectern center stage.

Yes, a good lighting system probably costs more than you think, but you have to remember—you are making a long-term ministry investment instead of spending money on some short-term financial liability.

Very rarely do you find a church with a facility that they are only going to use for a couple of years. Typically, a church building is used for 20+ years, yet its leaders purchase budget line lighting equipment with a short life expectancy while long life expectancy equipment is not that much more expensive. Over the long run, the higher quality equipment that costs more initially is actually a better, lower cost investment than cheap gear that has to be continuously replaced.

Lighting, in stages

If a church can’t build the needed system all at once, many times it can be done in stages. First you want to make sure that you have your infrastructure, power, dimming, control, and your hang positions, and then from there you can always easily add lighting fixtures. In addition, moving lights, color changers, and LED fixtures are technologies that can add great impact to the visual look of worship, but also have a higher cost associated with them. These are items that are easy to add in the future if you have the infrastructure in place to support them.

With the current push to go green, there is a perception that LED fixtures are a “magic bullet” for lighting the stage, able to light a stage faster, better, easier, and more economically than anything else. While LEDs can be a great tool that might be very effective in your space, they are still just a tool and not the right tool for every application.

When purchasing an LED fixture the adage “you get what you pay for” holds very true. Inexpensive LED fixtures have their place, but they tend to be poorly made, don’t dim well, mix only about seven colors well, may cause flicker on video cameras, and the fixtures tend to not color match from fixture to fixture very well.

Generally, a mid-line LED fixture is made much better, dims fairly well, mixes over a dozen nice colors, doesn’t flicker on camera, and is going to last a while. In addition, the color tends to match better from fixture to fixture.

A high end LED fixture has a much higher quality, has theatrical-grade dimming, meaning it dims like an incandescent fixture, generally has several modes to eliminate the flicker from most any video camera, has excellent color matching from fixture to fixture, and will mix most any color you can dream up, but they come at a much higher cost.

A common question is this: is all-LED the way to go instead of incandescent fixtures and dimming? (continued) While this is the way the industry is trending, it all depends on how picky you are about how your stage looks. Incandescent fixtures still reproduce skin tones better then LEDs and probably will for a bit longer. LEDs tend to be more efficient than incandescent fixtures, but they don’t look as good on people in open white. However, they do a great job of lighting backdrops and set pieces or doing color washes. Another area where LED is making great strides is in architectural lighting.

Theatrical & architectural lighting considerations

In the typical church auditorium or sanctuary we can place the lighting in two distinct categories: architectural lighting and theatrical lighting. Typically theatrical lighting is used to light the platform and architectural lighting is used to light the audience and other architectural features. While each type of lighting is similar, they tend to use very different lighting fixtures that are purpose-built for the application.

Theatrical lighting tends to use lighting fixtures that were developed for theatrical or musical performances, while architectural fixtures are more general-purpose lighting fixtures. Architectural lighting fixtures also tend to be much more artistically diverse with many styles and looks to choose from to augment the visual look of the space, while theatrical lighting fixtures are much more utilitarian—being more of a lighting tool than an artistic statement.

While LED fixtures are used for theatrical lighting, LEDs are quickly being adopted for architectural lighting, as well. Most of the architectural fixtures are either warm white or cool white only, unlike the full color mixing of their theatrical cousins, and are very desirable because of their low energy usage, low maintenance, and the long life of the lamps. At the same time this comes with a higher initial cost, but there are many benefits over the life of the fixture and—just like the theatrical LED—“you get what you pay for” with better dimming and brighter fixtures costing more. Of course, as with all newer technologies, as the technology matures the prices will begin to drop and the capabilities will rise.

Ultimately, the quality of your lighting systems will play a substantial role in the quality of your communication. Just as new technologies will emerge with new capabilities, a new investment in lighting will bring with it new communication potential.

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