Lighting for the theatre: spot, flood and fresnel lighting

Lighting is used in the theatre and the stage lighting can really make a significant impact on not just the effectiveness of the scene, but in the production in general. There are many types of lighting and they vary according to the function within the scene.

Spot lighting is a way of focusing the audience’s attention on a character or object. We often see spot lighting used to bring out the characters in a scene, you will notice that they are bathed in brighter lights than the background, or perhaps in larger scenes, those who have parts will be spot lighted while the others work in general illuminance.

But you do not necessarily spot light the actors who have speaking parts in the scene. You spot light those who have impact on the scene. For example, if a group of characters are investigating a crime and are examining the evidence, while behind them the responsible criminal is slinking away, the latter will also be spot lit as he withdraws. If some people are hunting for an object hidden in the background, the object gets subtly spot-lit too.

Flood lighting is another kind of lighting seen in the theatre. As the name itself suggests, the lighting is used to illuminate a wide area strongly. If a scene requires characters to be simultaneously brought out, such as if they are in group conversation, flood lighting is used. But if one of these characters leaves the group and walks to a corner of the stage, then he is picked out by spot lighting which follows him around until he returns to the group.

How can lighting influence our views subtly? Imagine this scene on stage. A man is leaving the family home against the wishes of the elders. If we use a spotlight of lower intensity on him, and flood light the rest of his family, we influence the audience into thinking the decision is wrong. But if we spot light him in higher illumination, it makes him out to be heroic, brave and influences the audience to support him.

What happens if you want to illuminate a large area but without the brilliance? That is to say, you want to softly illuminate a large area. If that is the case, you use what is known as Fresnel lighting. Fresnel lighting covers a wide area, but in soft focus. For this reason Fresnel lighting is always used as a background lighting method, for general purposes.

In the previous example scene, the man would be spot lighted, the family flood lighted, while we could use Fresnel lighting for the background.

Lighting can communicate to the audience on a subtler level. It can move together with or against the stage. If a protagonist claims he will act for a just cause, but the lighting on him is lower than the general lighting, leaving him less illuminated, then any faith we have in his abilities is challenged.

Lighting can make a significant impact on screen. The next time you are at a theatre, analyse the scene, and how the lighting is used to convey meaning and intention subtly. It will help you become a better lighting engineer.