PURCHASING A LIGHTING SYSTEM — The MAJOR Questions

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What do I do if I am not familiar with lighting and want to have some installed in my church? How do I know what lights to buy? How do I know if it will fit into my sanctuary? If we don’t have a lighting technician in our membership, can someone operate these lights without much knowledge? How do I utilize light to enhance the service and not distract from it? And finally, what should I expect in the maintenance of my new lighting system?

For lighting novices, and first time buyers, who have only recently been given the task to light Sunday’s service, the job can be quite overwhelming. So, I wanted to know the answers to these questions and I went looking for them. I sought out the factual and experienced advice of lighting professionals, lighting manufacturers, and the guys in the trenches lighting their services, as I want to light mine. I went to the professionals to ask, “What are the lighting basics that I need to know?”

When purchasing a new lighting system, how do I know what to buy?
There are many different lighting instruments, lighting controls, and complete lighting packages that one can buy. Wading through all the information booklets, pamphlets, and spec sheets can be a very time consuming and confusing task. Nevertheless, a good lighting package does require thought and planning. There are two questions you need to ask, “How much can I spend,” and “What do I want to light?”

Before you start exploring a complete lighting package, budget is the primary factor that has to be finalized. Complete lighting packages can range from a couple of thousand dollars all the way to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Luckily, there are quality systems on the market that can fit any need or desire. Simply stated, look at what you can spend, and that will give a firm starting point.

The next factor that needs to be discussed is lighting needs. What do you want to light? Do you want to light only the pastor and the choir, or do you want to light the whole sanctuary with specialized lighting effects? Do you want to upgrade the congregation lighting so that it can be dimmed as well, or are you looking for a simpler application?

“The basics that you need are great two-point front lighting, some background lighting, top lighting, and then some side wash,” says Chris Gille, lighting designer for Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL. “Also remember accessibility. Have a plan to access the fixtures before the installation. And I definitely recommend dimmable house lighting.”

“There are two distinct differences in lighting church services. Are you shooting video or just lighting the stage? Make sure you have control over every light, including the house lights,” advises Thommy Hall, regional sales manager for Vari-Lite/Entertainment Technology and freelance lighting designer. “And push to have a video monitor and headset at the lighting console so that you can talk to your video guy and see what he sees.”

“Start with your audience and work your way back. Let your gear be determined by what you are after” suggests Mike Walker, media director for Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX.

“But, whatever controls you use, use it throughout the facility,” added Daniel Page, lighting coordinator for Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX.

Lighting systems can be as elaborate, or as simple, as you desire. So once you have a finalized budget, coupled with your known lighting needs, you are now ready to approach the lighting distributor to discuss your new lighting package.

We are a smaller church and worship in a fellowship hall. How can we incorporate lighting into our services without major renovation?

“It depends on the vision,” states Daniel Page. “You will have to find a way to hang the fixtures, and maybe throw some color in the room.”

One of the greatest attributes of the lighting industry is that lighting systems have been adapted to fit numerous spaces and configurations. Lighting manufacturers have developed a wide range of dimming and control systems, from a single dimmer that can hang on the fixture, up to installed dimmer packs which can range from 8 to 96 dimmers or more. So don’t be dismayed, chances are there is a lighting system that can fit perfectly into the space you need.

We are a large sanctuary with an out-dated lighting system. Can I utilize the pieces of my current system and simply add on to it?

“Know what you have at your disposal,” says Mike Walker. “It depends on the equipment. Check your infrastructure to see if it can support what you are trying to do.”

Retrofitting a lighting system can be both a cost effective and energy-saving endeavor, and most lighting distributors are set up to handle such an operation. Advancements in the lighting industry to such products as the luminaire and the development of the electronic ballast have not only improved the performance of existing lighting systems, but have saved money on the bottom-line by cutting down on the electricity used. Often there is no need to completely re-do a lighting system, so if your existing system can handle the power load, a system retrofit might be the perfect option.

Chris Gille states “Proper lighting angles are very important for the lighting to look comfortable and natural. It’s worth a heavy discussion, and thinking way outside the box, to achieve good angles instead of just installing the lights in the easy spot or where they are tucked into an existing beam.” He also suggests, “Have them run wire for double the system you are upgrading too. Wire is only cheap during the original pull.”

Thommy Hall added, “The first thing that you should do is to stand on stage and hold your arm up in front of you at a 45 degree angle and point your finger. You are now pointing at where you must hang the fixtures. Any higher will cause shadows under the chin, nose, and eyes, and any lower will blind your performers.”

Daniel Page suggests, “It is vital to be able to reach the equipment. If something were to go down before the service, you have to be able to get to it.”

We do not have a lighting technician in our membership. Can someone operate a new lighting system without much lighting knowledge?

“Yes you can. But it should be taught, and if it’s taught, who is going to do the teaching?” questions Mike Walker.

If you will require additional training on the lighting console that you have selected as part of your lighting package, pay attention to the “systems turn-on and commissioning” portion of the contract. This is the time when after the installation is complete, a trained technician will come on sight to “commission”, or “turn-on”, your lighting system. It is during this time that the persons who will be responsible for operating the lighting console should be on sight to watch and observe how the system works. This is also your chance to ask the technician any number of questions that you may have.

All lighting consoles will come complete with an operating manual, help desks, and/or a support staff. Utilize them all. Some lighting consoles take it a step further and come standard with an installed Internet Browser, E-mail, and PDF Reader that makes it possible to log-on to an active On-Line Technical Support. This means you never have to leave the console to get help, it is simply a click away.

How do I utilize light to enhance the performance and not distract from it?

When operating a lighting system for a worship service, keep in mind that the worship service is the most important part. Lighting is pretty and makes everything look good, but too much can wash out what is being said and more importantly can drown out what needs to be heard.

“Don’t spoil the new capabilities on the first day. The ‘money people’ will want the congregation to experience the lighting upgrade ASAP, which can easily result in the lighting being distracting and cheesy,” says Chris Gille. “Simply demonstrate what the system is supposed to do, and then look for creative opportunities to implement the new capabilities over time and at the right moments.”

Thommy Hall adds, “Once you have focused all of the lights, hold the palm of your hand out facing the lighting fixtures and walk the stage while looking at your hand. If you see a dark spot, refocus the lights in that area. If there is one dark spot on any stage, your pastor will find it and it will be his new favorite spot.”

Hall also believes, “All speakers want less light on them and pastors are no exception, so make sure that lighting with colored gels are off of your pastor while he is speaking. Nothing distracts more than a normally gray-haired pastor with red or blue hair.”

“You have to understand your audience,” states Mike Walker. “A worship service is a journey. It has a start and a finish, and you have to know where you are on that journey. The bottom line is you want to reach people. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the people.”

What should I expect in the maintenance of my new lighting system?

Lighting Systems are mechanical systems, and mechanical systems need maintenance or they break down.

“We do a regular maintenance on all our automated lighting fixtures once every six months, says Daniel Page. “But we are in here everyday doing something to the up-keep of the lights.”

“One of the things I always hear from churches,” starts Jeff Krebs, product marketing manager for Lightolier Controls in Dallas, TX, “is that before their install they had a $100 a month budget for light bulbs. Well now they installed all these fixtures and that budget rises significantly. They have to be prepared.”

Being prepared for the inevitable repair will help keep the lighting system running at an optimal level. But by keeping up with the manufacturers suggested maintenance schedule, the lighting system will bring years of enjoyment to your congregation.

Lighting has long been one of the main components in assisting audience members around the world to realize the passion and emotion of any given performance. Lighting in a worship service is no different. It does not have to be elaborate, and it does not have to be plain, it simply has to be turned on.