What is Lighting Design?

Stage Light – an Acclaim Fresnel lantern, made by Selecon

The function of stage lighting: 

  • Illumination – can the audience see the actors? 
  • Attention – where should the audience be looking? 
  • Mood – is this a happy or a sad scene? Does the lighting change to affect the audiences’ mood?
  • Time/Place – where / when does this scene take place? (season, time of day, interior / exterior)
  • Enhance the work of the set and costume designers by enabling the costumes and set to be seen as the designers intended, and to help with making the set appear realistic. 
  • Extend – with the set designer, work on additional effects to extend their work (e.g. window gobos, cyclorama) 

How are these functions achieved?

  • Equipment – selecting the correct piece of lighting equipment to put the light where it’s wanted, and looking the way that’s required. [More info about Types of Lantern]  
  • Position – putting the equipment where it needs to be to have the desired effect.  [More info about Direction of Light]
  • Intensity – controlling the brightness of each lantern to build up a stage picture which matches the designers’ intention at each moment of the show. 
  • Planning – knowing which equipment is in use for each moment of the performance, to make the maximum use of a fixed or limited lighting rig (e.g. if a moving light is in use downstage, it cannot be upstage in the next cue without moving visibly). 
  • Colour – choosing coloured gels for conventional lanterns and selecting colours on colour-changing lanterns such as LEDs and moving lights, to create the required mood, atmosphere or naturalistic effect. 
  • Texture – choosing gobos or projection effects to break-up the light to make the light more dimensional, naturalistic or interesting. 
  • Flow – using lighting control systems to ensure light moves around the stage consistent with the style and pace of the show.

See also 

Lighting Design Library

A Method of Lighting the Stage (1947)
By Stanley McCandless
[External Website]

The History of Stage and Theater Lighting (1929)
[External Website]

Stage Lighting On A Shoestring (1961)
[Archive Viewer]
From Strand Archive

Lighting for Television (1980s) 
[17Mb PDF]
From Strand Archive

Lighting the Amateur Stage 1 (1984)
By Francis Reid
[7.7Mb PDF]
From Strand Archive

Lighting the Amateur Stage 2 (1984)
By Francis Reid
[9Mb PDF]
From Strand Archive


The images below show the set for ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ at the Exeter Northcott Theatre in various lighting states, including with full working lights on (no stage lights). Light has a hugely transformative effect on a set. 
Exeter Northcott Theatre, August 1997.
Set design: Sarah Williamson; Lighting design: Jon Primrose

> More about Lighting Design on the Lighting Topics page

Shows that use light in interesting ways, with resources: