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Angles and Positions - page 3 of 3
Angles and Positions - page 3 of 3


Now that you have learned about lighting instruments (last segment) and just reviewed the standard lighting positions, let’s combine the two and look at light from numerous positions while comparing the distribution from various instruments – and include how the combination not only lights our performers but the floor as well.

For this series of demonstrations, I’m purposely employing two dancers – one wearing a tutu (which creates a very distinct shadow challenge) on a blank, black stage. With no nearby scenery for light to bounce off of, or be concerned with, we can focus on the performers, and the way the light affects them.

High Side and Shin
High side and shin

Compare this image to the one above.
  • Notice how the high side throws a shadow of one leg onto the other leg, whereas the shin-buster easily lights underneath the legs.
  • Does the soft focus of the high side (bottom) make them appear more relaxed?
  • These are very similar set-ups; except that the positions for each source are coming from opposite direction, and one high side is focused sharply.
High-side Stage Right (SR) leko, soft focus & Shin-buster Stage Left (SL) leko, sharp focus.
High side and shin
High Side and shin

Zoomed in photo of shin vs high side
 Right: Notice the awkward shadow on her face, cast by his face - and the fact that the high side isn't hitting that side of her.
Left: Here the shinbuster helps emphasize the line of her legs. 
 Right: The line of her right leg is interrupted by the shadow from her left leg.
When only using side lights, the face (and body) get a shadow line down the center. We'll look at the more closely in a few moments.

This may be easier to see with these larger images. This page is more mobile-friendly.

Zoomed in photo of shin vs high side


Downlights are somewhat unique in that their throw looks the same to everyone in the audience regardless of seating position or even venue arrangement. Aside from which way the performer is facing and the height / row of the audiences sightline, essentially everyone sees the same quality of light.

Downlight fresnel

ParNel downlight

Fresnels (previous image) and ParNels (right/below) have very similar throw patterns. Their soft edges blend together well, which makes them very well suited for creating downlight washes. Their ability to be size-adjusted (spot-flood) and relatively small profile make them popular choices among designers for this use.
Downlight fresnel

Leko (soft focus)

Although lekos can be “softened” (made to be out of focus), their beams are inherently more directional and harsher than Fresnels and ParNels. Perfectly suitable for downlight specials to make a wash of downlight, lekos are usually not the first choice for most designers. Of course, one may choose to insert a diffusion gel of some sort to soften the focus even more along the lines of a different instrument type.
Downlight lwko soft

Leko (sharp focus)

A sharply focused downlight leko helps accentuate the isolation these characters feel. The harsh edge also helps to increase the contrast between the performers and their surroundings.
Downlight leko sharp

Downlight comparison strip
ParNel downlightFresnel downlightLeko downlight
soft focus
Leko downlight
sharp focus
We hung and focused these instruments to be as equal as possible.

Mixed sources.

The distribution from these sources (which are all from lights at nearly the same distance, with very similarly sized lenses/sources) affects the edge of the beam; but not the illumination of our characters.
Pairs of side-lights create an unnatural shadow line down the center.

Mixed Sources - high sides
Mixed sources high side comparison


Leko "head-high" side lights. Head-highs and "mids" hit the floor as well as our characters. The positions are typically shuttered upstage and downstage to not bleed / light beyond the masking or scenery beyond their main range (therefore lekos are typically used here).
These lower sides lights, roughly 5’ above the stage, are fairly “inexpensive” because they can wash across the entire width of the stage.

Note, however, that our models are throwing shadows on each other.
Head-high closeup

Here we’ve staggered our models (she’s moved upstage only about 9”), a move which has helped eliminate most of the shadows caused by our head-high side lights.
During performances, dancers, and, to a lesser extent, theatrical characters, are usually moving a great deal so they move in and out of each others’ shadows caused by head-high side lights..

Note that we did not need to stagger their positions when the high sides (in this case approximately 20’ above the stage) were used.

In the staggared arrangement both sides of his face are lit, and her right (stage right) arm is lit; though her left arm is falling into shadow.
Compare Two Images
Click and slide the blue slider to compare two images:
Left: High sides, dancers in line. Right: Same lights, dancers staggered 9 inches.
View larger.
Head highs
Head highs with dancers staggered

High Sides plus Straight-on front
To help reduce the shadow line down the center of characters created by the use of side lights, front lights are often used. These front lights also fill in much of the shadows created from the multitude of characters on stage.
Here, we’ve added a straight-on front light at full. It helps a great deal with visibility but is also flattening out our dancers.
High sides plus front at full
High sides plus front at full
High sides plus front at full keye

High Sides plus Straight-on front at half intensity
Here we’ve taken the intensity of the front light to half which does a nice job of eliminating most of the harsh shadows created by the side lights but doesn’t make our dancers completely flat.
Reducing the intensity even further would allow us to find a more perfect balance for whatever the specific need calls for.
High sides plus front at half
High sides plus front at half
Placeholder imagHigh sides plus front at full keye

Beam BenderShin-busters are sharply focused lekos which are shuttered to cut just above the stage floor, so they don’t bleed on the floor – making characters appear to be “floating” in air.
There are accessories available, like this “beam bender” by City Theatrical which are mirrors that fit into a leko’s gel holder which allows the light to get ultimately closer to the floor.
Shin Busters
Shin Key

Shin vs Head-high

Naturally, sidelights do not have to be used in pairs.

Here we can see the difference between a single “head-high” above and “shin-buster” below from the same side of the stage.

One main difference: shin-busters are focused so they don't light the floor.

Single Shin vs Head High
Single Shin vs Head High keySingle Shin vs Head High key

Single High Side

To conclude this comparison: a high side from the same side of the stage.

Notice how the higher angle reduces the amount of shadow she throws on him, especially on his face.

But it does add a shadow onto her right leg which is absent when the designer uses the lower source light.
Single High Side
Single High Side key

Fresnel Backlight

Backlights help separate characters from their backgrounds by adding highlights around heads and their shoulders, but don’t appear to do much for their standing legs.

Fresnel Backlight
Fresnel Backlight key

Leko Backlight

Backlight lekos are very similar; perhaps giving a slightly sharper look to the shadows (even though the focus on this unit is “soft”). Fresnels (and ParNels) are frequent choices for backlight washes because of their ability to smoothly blend together when focused, unless, of course, shutters are required to avoid scenic elements.

Leko Backlight
Leko Backlight key

Straight-on (Leko) Frontlight

Front (straight on) light improves visibility considerably. However, our dancers have been flattened out. Notice how her straight leg looks as if it is a cartoon cut-out, and the only thing saving his legs from looking the same is that the material is adding some shiny highlight/depth. Materials (fabric, paint quality) do reflect light differently, factors which we lighting designers need to consider when making our choices!

Lekos (ellipsoidal reflector spotlights) are the most commonly used instruments for front light due to their flexible control and shutters. More on that in the segment on instrumentation.

Straight-on front light
Leko front light key

Final Thoughts

You can put a light almost anywhere. As long as it’s appropriate for your concept / production of a play, adjust your positions to what is fitting.

Although I may use the term “normal” and “natural” a lot when referring to lighting colors and positions, please don’t interpret that as my suggesting you shouldn’t use these other lighting positions.

Many beginning lighting designers rely almost exclusively on color to “set the scene”. While color is a very powerful tool, I believe that when I use color in conjunction with angles and positions, the lighting truly becomes “designed”.
For a production of “archy and mehitable”, “Broadway the Lighting (or Lightning) Bug” had his own light – controlled by a momentary contact switch sewn into his glove.
Lighting design by Kade Mendelowitz