Here’s how to position stage lights around a projector for maximum visibility 

Crowd sitting in hall against blurred stage, while speaker showing presentation on big screen and speaking into mic during seminar

Projection screens and walls share a similar set of challenges around stage lighting

We played a gig recently where someone — perhaps the venue, or maybe the customers — positioned a bunch of bright stage lights to the side and front of a small riser. There were no overhead stage lights, just the built-in ceiling lights, so they quite reasonably assumed they should position the lights so they shined right on the presenters. 

We were tucked away to the side, which isn’t unusual for a band. It’s a standard layout you see even on late-night TV talk shows where the band, while integral, is off to the side. But unlike TV, a lot of in-person events like conferences and even weddings and funerals have a projector. The light sources they set up conflicted with the projection screen the venue had on a stand in the back middle of the riser area. It was trying to display photos and no one could really see them because it was washed out.

The result was a nearly-white, washed-out, hard-to-see projection screen. The room’s interior lights combined with the light output of the front lighting and other light fixtures on the sides were just too much.

Light is additive, so treat your light sources like sound: a little at a time

Light is additive and behaves just like sound. So if you smack your hand against the table, it makes a loud THUD. If you smack your other hand against the table at the same time, the noise is more or less twice as loud because you have twice as much noise-making impact. Lighting designers work the same way, treating each light source as an addition to an overall environment.

Each light source should be treated like a flow of water, where you add a little at a time. Imagine the stage or riser where you shine the lights is like a bowl. Too much light can make everything so white and hard to see no one can keep their eyes open, making everything flooded. Poorly positioned lights can cause frustration for speakers and performers because of the beam angle. But done well with these careful lighting considerations, you can maintain a well-lit area that protects your projection surface.

Seek out a rear-projection screen or multiple projectors

A rear-projection screen has two benefits: 

  1. The projector sits behind the screen and usually more close to it, meaning it takes up less space in the room and no one is likely to walk in front of it. 
  2. Rear-projection means you’re likely positioning the projector in a darker area, free of less ambient light and direct competition. This can help improve the overall clarity and brightness of the image.

If there is no rear projection, or in places where the projectors are mounted in the ceiling, ask your venue if the two projectors can be synchronized together. It requires precise positioning, but two projectors displaying a scene on a single screen doubles the image’s brightness, improves contrast, and can even help images compete against bright windows or a sunny day. Rear projection screens and equipment sometimes cost a little more, but it’s usually only a few hundred dollars difference.

Another important thing, regardless of your projector model: many manufacturers’ projectors have settings for contrast, color temperature, etc. There’s also usually one for “brightness”. Make sure it’s all the way up.

Alter the lighting direction, even if it means waiting for the sun to move

Depending on the lights you’re using you may not have precise control over the fixtures and stage lighting. Instead, use curtains, the time of day, and pipe and drape to adjust and enhance projections.

  • Put pipe and black drape behind the projector screen. Since color is relative, this will make the image on the screen appear brighter, even if it’s not actually brighter.
  • Consider the schedule of your event. If you have the flexibility to do it after the sun goes down or moves behind a window or wall, do so. 
  • Mount the stage lighting up high, facing down, instead of on the ground facing up. It’ll illuminate people better (good lighting designers avoid ground-up lighting on people because it exemplifies shadows under our chins, which makes people look like they have a double chin.)
  • Use shades, globes, trim, plants, or any other object to make sure the light is indirect. Lighting fixtures that are recessed are best. Downlights, sometimes called “can lights”, or “high hats”, are all recessed, but require mounting points on the ceiling. 

Reduce and increase some lights to or from full brightness

If you can reduce the project light, stage light, and other lighting instruments without adversely impacting the visibility of people on stage, do so! You can also consider using different color temperatures, for instance more yellow or amber lights can fill the stage while a spotlight on the presenter maintains a white focus. Altogether, this means the other otherwise white light from the projector bulbs can work more productively.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, eliminate a lot of the light sources in the room. Instead of using spotlights or downlights, use indirect lighting or much smaller bulbs. The most popular are incandescent Edison bulbs (the kind you see hanging over outdoor patios) and uplighting.

Don’t rely on the Edison bulbs or string lights for a lot of light, though. They’re more aesthetic than functional, though they do let off some light. And you can string them along in customizable ways around and away from any projectors or a screen.

Uplighting places colored lighting along the floor and shines up parts of a wall. 

  • Uplighting can enhance and change the mood of any room and it’s one of our most popular light rentals
  • They’re small, don’t take up much space on the floor, and installation is a cinch since you can plug in at any wall outlet. 
  • Uplighting works great when the ceiling is white, too, since the lighting cues will reflect back down into the space, but softer and more elegantly.

Use a high-gain or directionally-reflective projection surface and projector for the job

A directionally-reflective screen, sometimes called a high-gain screen, can produce excellent black levels and preserve color temperatures and visibility. They’re designed to reflect light from odd angles so that only the light that appears from a front light on a projector, similar to privacy screens people often use on laptops or phone screens. 

You should also use the right kind of projection surface. In a pinch, a white wall will work, but because the white wall is more likely a little glossy, dimpled, or even more of an eggshell or warmer “off-white” color, video projectors can’t overcome the nature of the wall. So use a projector screen whenever possible. This maintains proper white balance.

Reduce ambient light bouncing off white surfaces

The room’s color temperature can impact both the brightness and ambient light of a space. White walls are the most common concern, since they can bounce light around making the room appear brighter. This extra ambient light can also reduce how dark the black levels of a projector display. Projected content intended to be black can come out looking very dark gray.

Since color is relative to human eyes, this dark gray content makes everything else look washed-out, too, since most people intuit some things (like a night sky) that should be black and aren’t are therefore “wrong”. 

Electrical tape can cover parts of bulbs

Chrome-covered bulbs can be incredibly useful for fixtures like hanging lights and recessed bulbs. But, in a pinch and without investing in the bulbs you can use electrical tape to cover parts of a bulb. The most common area is the bottom (like you might see in a restaurant where the bottom of the bulb looks dipped in ink), but you can also tape the sides of bulbs for a short-term live performance. Handy, too, if the room lights don’t have dimmer switches.

Consulting a lighting designer

Lighting designers can elevate stage productions to a real art form. They may be overkill for smaller events and weddings, but if you know people in the local theatre scene, they may have a reference to a lighting designer or stagehand with invaluable experience.

Get lighting systems, stage lights, and more from the professionals

We didn’t set up the light source or control systems at the venue with the washed-out screen. But if we had (and can, thanks to our Indianapolis-area lighting equipment rental service) we would have taken all these things into consideration. Each setup comes with professional installation anywhere around Central Indiana.

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