Stephen Ellison – Understanding LED Theatrical Lighting

StarkRaving-Stephen Croped

All but unheard of a few years ago, LED technology has clearly made its way into house of worship applications. Like all new technologies, it brings with it not only promise, but questions. We caught up with Stephen Ellison of Stark Raving Solutions to gain insights into the subject of LED theatrical lighting in churches.

Stephen knows whereof he speaks. After receiving a BFA in Lighting Design and Technical Direction from North Carolina School of the Arts, he’s gone on to enjoy a distinguished career in the theatrical lighting industry as a designer, writer and product developer. Since 1999, he has been working with Technologies for Worship magazine, first as a teacher at their trade shows, then later as the production manager for their training pavilions. He has written many articles on lighting for the magazine and is its Lighting Editorial Advisor. He also has written for several other trade magazines about lighting and technical direction. He is now the lighting and stage designer at Stark Raving Solutions of Lenexa, Kansas. For more information visit

Have your clients’ views on LED theatrical lighting changed in the last two years? Yes they are asking for LEDs now more than ever before.

You use the term theatrical lighting, but really the church market lighting is based on two design looks. The first is more concert lighting than theatrical. The second is lighting the pastor for video, which is a white light/no shadows look. In the first look they have embraced LEDs for the range of color from a single fixture. In the second look they are now accepting the available front lights that can provide a quality white light.”

What’s the biggest obstacle to your clients regarding adding LED theatrical lighting to their rigs?

“Money, the cost is more than a traditional fixture with an individual dimmer.”

How would you rate LED fixtures next to traditional theatrical fixtures in terms of throw distance, color temperature and light quality?

“In just the past year to 18 months the LED fixtures have matched the traditional fixtures and even surpassed them. When you are working with a group of tungsten fixtures that have been in place for a few years, you begin to see differences in the output and quality based on when you last changed the lamp and whether or not the fixture was bench focused when the lamps were last changed. With the LED fixtures you do not have the same issue since the lamp will never change and they are factory set for the field output.”

Looking at LED ellipsoidal and Fresnel fixtures, is one of them further along the development curve than the other?

“No, not that I can tell. The Fresnel was probably easier to develop compared to the complexity of an ellipsoidal. Getting the optics right on the ellipsoidal was a challenge. Now they both are functional units being provided by multiple manufacturers.”

As a designer do you have to treat LED theatrical fixtures differently than a comparable traditional fixture? Is is there a difference the degree of the lens that you would use to achieve throw distance? Would you arrange the fixtures differently?

“Yes and no — optically all of the changes were to the lamp assembly and not to the front end optics. A 26° fixture is the same in output optically no matter the lamp source. Placement of the fixtures on the light plot is identical since it is based on the type of fixture and the optics.

“The difference would show up in the cueing of the fixtures if you have a mixed lamp type plot. You would need to match the dimming curve between the fixtures. Also you would have to watch for the shift in color as you dim the fixture; a tungsten light source will shift to the red as it dims. Most LED fixtures do not have this shift so designers who are anticipating this color shift will have to compensate, or compromise. As the LED fixtures take over the market, the younger designers will think this is natural.”

Do you have to adjust the way you use other lights on stage like washes or key lighting when you are using LED fixtures with them?

“Now we begin to look at the dimming curves used in the LED fixtures. The dimming curve in a tungsten fixture is controlled outside the fixture, while the dimming curve for an LED fixture controlled by DMX can provide a multitude of curves based on the software in the fixture. The key is to match the curves in a mixed rig.”

Can you match LED fixtures from different manufacturers and get the same color consistency?

“I have not had much experience with a mixed rig, but I would always try to use only one type of fixture in a lighting system such as back or side light so there would be consistency within the system. Traditionally you are using different colors in the different systems so you are not trying to match colors.”

Are there any theatrical applications where you wouldn’t use LED fixtures?

“Not that I can think of.”

As you said earlier, LED fixtures tend to cost more, so how real are the savings you can expect to get from LED fixtures?

“The savings come in two forms. One is the actual electrical bill. The second is the decrease in fixtures required to light the space. For example, in a theatre I ran we had 3 lighting pipes with 15 pars on each to light 5 areas of stage per pipe to provide a full stage back wash in 3 colors. With LED fixtures you would only need 15 fixtures, a savings of 30 fixtures. Also you can achieve more colors with the LED fixture over 3 fixtures with colored gel.”

Does having LED ellipsoidal and Fresnel fixtures change the way you approach your work as a designer?

“Not at all, it only improves the options and enlarges the available color palette.”

A lot of church services and theatrical presentations are captured on video today. How camera friendly are LED stage fixtures?

“They are just as friendly as the tungsten equivalent at the top end of the dimming curve, and without the red shift they make dimming much more practical.”

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Emmanuel Baptist

River of Life

Millwood Baptist