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Proper Lighting Fixture Placement

As the lighting designer, you can define goals by choosing which qualities and functions of lighting you wish to accomplish in your design. How do you accomplish your goals? We will first describe a method for lighting fixture placement.


Stage Lighting Placement Top ViewStage Lighting Placement Side View

The most common method for lighting a stage is called the McCandless System. Stanley McCandless wrote about this method in his 1932 book, A Method of Lighting the Stage. His method was not meant to be the definitive method, but it is a useful system based on his experience.

The method can be described as a 3-point system. Two lighting fixtures are placed in the front of the subject and one fixture behind. The front lights are located at a 45-degree angle to the left and right of the subject and at a height equal to an angle of 45-degrees above the subject. These locations make the subject appear natural and have 3-dimensional form. The shadows caused by the angles of the light provide definition of form without causing deep, dark shadows under the eyebrows, nose, or chin. The location and angle also provide visibility as the subject turns his/her head from side to side.

Color and intensity added to the front lights will provide visibility and definition. McCandless recommended using a warm color in one front light, and a cool color in the other. The colors blend for a natural appearance and contrast with each other to provide definition.

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The third light is to be placed behind and high overhead the subject, without being directly over the subject or shining in the audience's eyes. The "backlight" causes the subject to stand out from the background and further defines his/her form by lighting the back of the head and top of the shoulders. The color of the backlight depends on your intentions. Usually you are "coloring the shadows" cast by the front lights. However, you may want to create a halo effect by using intense, warm backlight.

"Do I need more than three fixtures?" Yes, unless your subject is a speaker at a podium, never moves, or doesn't have a background to be lighted. Based on the typical lighting fixtures and auditorium heights, you should consider the area covered by a single three-point group of fixtures to be eight feet in diameter. Therefore, you will need several fixtures placed at eight-foot intervals to cover your entire stage or platform. If this area is 25 feet by 25 feet, you may have nine "acting areas" of eight-foot diameters. This represents an ideal scenario of equipment and space. The realities are not often ideal.
Stage Lighting Placement Acting Areas

This lighting design will provide basic illumination for your stage or platform. If you require more colors or more angles, you may have to double or triple the number of fixtures focused on one acting area. Examples would be needing in one event both day and night; different locations; or perhaps entirely different productions during the same event. Your blue back lighting may be great for Juliet's garden, but bad for a hot summer day in the streets of Verona (Juliet's home town).

Additional lighting will be required to light a background, drapery or scenery; and to provide "specials," which highlight a specific area or action not covered by the general "area" lighting.