Combinations and Systems
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Angles and Positions - page 2 of 3
Angles and Positions - page 2 of 3

Combinations and Systems

Now that you have seen the various positions by themselves, let’s take a look at a few combinations – again noting both the visibility and plasticity of the model.
Diagonal Front & Diagonal Back

Two lights from opposite directions certainly provide better visibility and plasticity than single lights.

Front Diag R and Rear Diag L
Front Diag R and Rear Diag L key

2 High Sides

Interesting effects occur with two high sides.

While they may appear to make the performer taller and thinner, an odd dark (shadow) line appears down the center of the face (and would continue down much of the body). Though this image doesn't include the arms and legs; think of what they would look like since the mass of the body would make each limb illuminated by one light.

These effects would be lessened if the lights were far to the side, but placed just downstage of the acting areas.

2 High Sides
2 High Sides - key

Derived from looking at these set-ups, and thanks to the regular demands of adequate visibility and some plasticity, lighting designers have developed two standard types of “systems” for lighting people in such a way that they appear “normal”.

A 4-light system and a 3-light system.

An important note about these examples: All the lights in these system examples are at "full" / 100% intensity. Adding color (which also affects transmition / darkening the light) and changing the levels will generally increase plasticity and will affect visibility.

4-Light System

Plasticity and Visibility are "high".

A 4-light system typically surrounds the actor with instruments at 45-degree angles off axis to supply lighting for visibility (from the front) and diagonal backlights for plasticity (from the rear).

4 light system
4 light system - key

Alternate (rotated) 4-Light System

Compare the "standard" 4-light system (above) to this one (right).

How are plasticity and visibility impacted? Can you see the difference?
How would this change affect an audience's view of the character?

4 light system alternative
Alternate 4 light system - key

3-Light System

Plasticity and Visibility are "high"; but how does this compare to the 4-light system?

A 3-light system surrounds the actor with instruments still at about a 45-degree axis above eye level but is spread at 120-degree increments around the actor. The style and needs of a production, of course, are the basis for using either of these systems or ignoring them.

3 light system
3 Light System - key

Alternate (rotated) 3-Light System
Compare the "standard" 3-light system (above) to this one (right).

How are plasticity and visibility impacted? Can you see the difference?
How would this change affect an audience's view of the character?

Alternate 3 Light System - key
Alternate 3 light system
Alternate 3 light system a downlight.

Down lights, if added to either of these systems, are considered an enhancement more than increased lighting. A 4-light system with a downlight is called that, as opposed to a 5-light system, and a 3-light system with a down is not considered a 4-light system. Downlights are frequently added to aid in setting the mood and increasing dimensionality of the production.
4 light system plus down 4 Light System plus down- key
3 light system plus down 3 Light System plus down- key

All of these typical positions (with the exception of the down light) are usually 30-60 degrees above eye level from the acting area. More than 60 degrees make the light very steep and tend to throw shadows that are too harsh on the performer’s face. If less than 30, the light is either considered too unflattering, or would begin to blind the audience with glare.

Other Lighting Positions.

Lights may be put in an infinite choice of positons relative to the performer. Just because there are 9 standard positions (outlined and explored above) does not mean you should limit yourself to those choices.

So far I have concentrated on making the performer appear relatively “normal”, which is what most productions call for, but occasionally the designer does not want the performers to appear “natural”. Or, sometimes, “natural” lighting angles don’t make people appear “normal”…
Jess with steep front light

Jess with steep front light.

Uplight position key

Can you guess where its name came from?
Northern Suite production photo
In this production photo from "Northern Suite", the dancers would not look quite so dramatic if the white light (from shin-busters) on them was also bleeding on the floor.
Production photo from "Northern Suite" dance performance Lighting Design by Adam Gillette
Shin Buster
Shinbuster example image by Kade Mendelowitz
Shin Buster
Shin Buster key
Primarily used in dance, the shin-buster strongly emphasizes a dancer’s body and movement. When properly focused to be above the floor, dancers can appear to be “floating in air.”


Mids and head-highs are also very good for sweeping sunrises and sunsets. Because they do hit the floor and are very directional, their shadows can be an integral part of placing the action. Placeholder image
Production photo from "Picnic"
by Lighting Designer by Kade Mendelowitz
Mid side
Mid key

Shins vs Head-highs
“Shin-busters” don’t light the floor and, consequently, they can make the performer appear to “float” above the stage.
Shins also fill in under the raised arm (and leg) and so help accentuate the movement of the performer – very useful in dance!
Shind vs head-high
Shin and high side comparison
Shin vs head high key
The results may not look very different when arms and legs are down - that quickly changes when large movements are introduced. Click one of the images for a closer look.