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Navigating the Lighting Process
By: John Mitchell

Lighting your sanctuary can be a daunting challenge if you don’t know how to approach it. But, like anything, preparing yourself to meet the challenge will allow you to navigate the process with ease. 

The first thing you will need to consider is the reason for adding lighting. If your church offers a mix of traditional and “modern” worship services, then you will need a lighting system that can meet the needs of both types of services.

Over the past few years, we have seen lighting play a more significant role in bringing worship services to life. Modern worship services tend to attract a younger group of believers and provide a foundation for future growth.

Traditional services still account for the largest portion of the type of services we light.   However, even with traditional services, we need to know what other elements are at use in the space. If you are using projection to show passages, text or even video, or are recording the services for broadcast or reproduction, your lighting will contain a huge amount of variables.

A quick online search will discover hundreds of sites with various types of lighting, so how can you determine what you actually need to light your church? A great place to start is a general overview of what makes up a lighting system.

There are three major components of a lighting system: power (or dimming), control, and fixtures. 

1. Power
First up is power (and dimming). This is a backbone component of your lighting system. You will be asked repeatedly by anyone involved in your lighting how much power you have. This power will be separate from the HVAC, the audio and video system, and the general operations of the building and it will be dedicated exclusively for the use of the lighting system.

This backbone is usually a combination of switching power (such as a company switch), a dimmer cabinet (for both theatrical and house lighting), and the electrical distribution into which fixtures can be plugged.  

2. Control
The second component is control. There are two levels of control: live playback and houselight panels. Typically, your theatrical lighting system will also include your houselights. The reason to combine houselights and theatrical lighting is to have as much control over the lighting environment as you can. This will allow you to bring the platform or altar lighting up (or even various areas of the platform) and lower the houselighting as needed during services. 
Sometimes you will hear the term “dimmer board” used. This is actually a misnomer. The dimmer cabinet (which tells your lights how much to output) is separate from the “board” (another name for your control console). This control console is your live playback device. Most all control consoles are computer-based and allow for “looks” to be pre-programmed into the board, which can be recalled with the press of a button or by moving a slider up and down.

3. Fixtures
Finally, there are the fixtures. These are broken into a number of sub-categories based on their intended use. Generally speaking there are wash lights (called pars or fresnels), spot or front  lights (called ellipsoidals, lekos or Source Fours); fill light (another combination of pars and fresnels); backlight for broadcast or recording; uplight for stage curtains or backgrounds (sometimes called cyc lights since they were originally intended to light a cyclorama backdrop); intelligent or moving lights (which serve a variety of purposes from front light to wash); and accent lights (which can include a number of styles and uses).
The good news is that while lighting a church service and a rock concert or theatrical event may seem vastly different, the technology is identical and easily crosses platforms. Any reputable theatrical lighting dealer should be able to show you the difference between these fixtures and how each is used.

It is worth cautioning you on two of these technologies. First, let’s take a look at LED lighting.  While this is definitely the trend for lighting, at the moment, LED lighting is not as bright as traditional theatrical lighting. It is constantly improving, but there are still limitations to output and form factor, which can reduce functionality. It is definitely worth exploring, but based on the rated life of the product, the price can increase exponentially over traditional lighting.

Second, moving or intelligent lighting, which really is not intelligent unless you tell it to do something from the control console, requires a bit of technical expertise to use and maintain. When used properly, these can be invaluable to a lighting design; however, they typically contain motors and fans, which means a certain level of noise during operation. They are best used to full advantage during modern worship services.

As you begin to do your own internal needs assessment, you will rapidly come to a crossroads regarding the use of a lighting consultant. You may already have an architect involved (if this is new construction) or perhaps a dedicated group of your congregation ready to assist in determining your lighting needs. The question you must answer is why you may need a consultant. 

According to Jeff Miller, senior consultant with Acoustic Dimensions, there are a number of solid reasons to bring a lighting consultant to your project. 

“Using a lighting consultant is a lot like using an architect. You are hiring someone to provide specific expertise to your project, as well as manage the budget, educate you about options and possibilities, and partner with your architect and electrical engineer to create a system that will meet your needs.

On the flip side, doing a project without a lighting consultant is a lot like designing your own house without an architect. You might do a good job and end up happy, but the odds are stacked against you, and the process will probably take longer and be a lot more painful than you hoped. In general, architects and electrical engineers have little to no training or experience in designing lighting systems – especially stage lighting.

Often, lighting systems designed by people who don’t specialize in lighting design are either overkill or much more expensive than they needed to be, or significantly under designed and don’t meet the needs of the project. At the same time, not every ‘lighting consultant’ provides good value. Some are much more proficient than others, so it pays to do your homework and make sure you’re getting the right people for the job.”

The best way to begin the homework on a consultant is to check references. Most consultants are happy to provide you with a list of previous clients for you to call. The consulting process typically is done in phases, with initial meetings followed by initial design, budgeting, final design, and then the bid process. 

Typically, your consultant will oversee the bid process and offer thoughts on vendor selection.  They are working for you as an impartial third party to make sure you are getting the best deal and the right lighting vendor. 

And, further, when the hard decisions come, in terms of value engineering the project (so that the work can be accomplished in phases), a consultant will help you do the heavy lifting.

John Mitchell is the vice president of sales and business development for ELS, a provider of theatrical and architectural lighting systems, www.elslights.com.

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Religious Product News