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Learning about stage lighting sometimes seems a mystery to those who are just starting out. Lighting design and technology can seem like black magic with all it’s strange terminology and jargon. Learning all about stage lighting is best done in a variety of ways, not least hands on experience in theatres or concert venues. Reading books on stage lighting is a great way to study the theories and practice as well as learning new stage lighting terms. Check out our Reading List.
Here are five of the best books on stage lighting that have been chosen by On Stage Lighting as having their own unique qualities and would be useful to anyone wanting to learn more about the subject. These books have all played a part in the lighting education of the On Stage Lighting team at some time.
Update 2012: We are adding to this page and compiling a stage lighting reading list on this page, with some detail on specific good books in the subject area. If you have a particular favourite, please add it to comments with some detail about what you regard as good about the book. The original five are further down.
Stage Lighting Reading List
Listed below is a growing reading list of books on stage lighting that are recommended by On Stage Lighting, based on my university reading list.
Books For Beginners: Stage Lighting Basics
These books are best for the absolute beginner, although many are still useful once you have progressed in your lighting learning. At university, I classify these as particularly appropriate for Level 4 (first year undergraduate) students.
- Stage Lighting Handbook. Francis Reid (2002) : Routledge. The most ubiquitous of all stage lighting basics books, relevant to learning lighting design for theatre using conventional fixtures. With updates to include modern equipment.
- Stage Lighting – The Technician’s Guide. Skip Mort (2011) : Methuen. Very good at explaining the basics in a “Stage Lighting For Dummies” way. Accessible and with additional DVD covering lighting design and systems. Great for schools (up to Level 3) or early years Higher Education students with little or no lighting knowledge.
- Performance Lighting Design: How to…. Nick Moran (2007) : Methuen. Nice and clear on the basics, visual with images and diagrams. Good explanations on the techniques for focusing a general area cover and producing lighting designs and paper communication. One of the most accessible available.
- Stage Lighting Guide. Neil Fraser (2011) : Crowood Press. Written by RADA lecturer Neil Fraser, the book starts from day one and contains practical exercises with a focus on learning by doing. Another such book is:
- Discovering Stage Lighting. Francis Reid (1998) : Focal Press. Reid introduces a series of practical exercises designed to take the reader through a journey in the basics of lighting design. Requires access to equipment and a suitable space to get the best from it. Not a book to just read.
Moving On: Intermediate Lighting Books
These books are particularly relevant to those building their lighting knowledge to the next level. At university, I suggest these for Level 5 (second year undergraduate) students.
- Stage Lighting Design: The Art, The Craft, The Life. Richard Pilbrow (2010) : Nick Hern Books. A beginner could own this book alone and be satisfied with it. I feel Pilbrow’s book is good for developing stage lighting enthusiasts as it contains many gems that won’t be spotted by absolute beginners. Also with interviews with other lighting designers, the book considers the “work” of a lighting designer as a professional.
- Focus on Lighting Technology. Richard Cadena (2002) : ET Press. A look at the technology behind modern lighting. Cadena is an author that habitually tackles technological developments and theories and gets them into print. With the speed of development ever increasing, this is looking harder while keeping current but this books is good for the developing technician.
- Automated Lighting … Richard Cadena (2010) : Focal Press. Not many books attempt to gather all the bits and pieces after the explosion of moving light technology. This book is good on concepts, technology and history and techie geekiness. It will not teach you how to be a Lighting Designer with moving lights, and doesn’t seek to cover moving light programming in depth.
- The Automated Lighting Programmer’s Handbook Brad Schiller (2010) : Focal Press. The only book really dedicated to the fairly new discipline of moving light programmers, this book contains great information on the basics and recent history of programming. In modern theatre, understanding automated lighting programming is becoming a must. Interesting diary on the Sydney Olympics, the book contains information very much on how the author works, so isn’t completely comprehensive on modern programming techniques but is a near as you will find.
- Concert Lighting Systems John Vasey (199 : Focal Press) Looking at the business of touring and temporary systems, this books contains useful information about using portable dimming and lighting systems, basic rigging and safety. Not so much a design book, one of the good ones about the business of life on the road and the equipment you take with you.
Advancing Your Learning in Stage Lighting
These books are particularly relevant to those with a good grounding in the technology and the basics of lighting design and wish to move further. At University, I suggest these books to Level 6 (final year undergraduate) students.
- Light Fantastic: The Art and Design Of Stage Lighting Max Keller (2010) : Prestel. This oversize, full colour book is great for lighting design students that want to be inspired and prefer plenty of visual media such as large colour photographs of lighting designs in action.
- Lighting and the Design Idea Linda Essig (2004 ) : Wadworth. This books is full of different elements, including information on US lighting practice and equipment. The real gems in this book are the early sections on the development of ideas and the artistry behind lighting design, rather than plonking fixtures on a plan. I suggest this for lighting design students that wish to push their design development on.
- A Practical Guide To Stage Lighting Design Steve Shelley (2009 : Focal Press) Although this book can be useful at any stage, I feel this contains some great information that is best understood by those with a bit of lighting history. The book also covers the “business” of lighting and is great for advice to anyone as they get nearer to entering the industry as a professional.
We’ll keep adding to this stage lighting reading list over time. Don’t forget to comment on any books you feel are useful for On Stage Lighting readers.
The Stage Lighting Handbook by Francis Reid (6th Edition)
– Francis Reid’s book has been the foundation of many lighting designers education for many years. Demonstrating the theories behind designing lights for the theatre, it has been updated to include information relevant to the modern world of lighting while still retaining all those simple lighting principles that will never change. The Stage Lighting Handbook is probably the most “famous” book on stage lighting design that there is. More reviews…
Verdict: An absolute “must read” for anyone interested in learning, and progressing in, stage lighting. Also available in the US at Amazon.com
Lighting And Sound (Theatre Manual) by Neil Fraser (Phaidon)
– This book is part of the excellent Phaidon Theatre Manual series which are all well worth looking at if you have a passion for learning about “backstage” stuff (I owned the whole series when I started out!). Lighting And Sound is split into two parts covering the two different subjects and gives you an excellent grounding in the basics of theatre lighting. Lighting design principles are well explained with some nice illustrations and there is a useful glossary of theatre terms. The sound section gives you a good introduction to theatre sound although if you have a little experience, you will probably want to get a more in depth guide.
Verdict: The book is just right for anyone taking their first steps in technical theatre and is the best “introduction” book. Also available in the US at Amazon.com
Concert Sound and Lighting Systems by John Vasey (3rd Edition) (Focal Press)
– Concert Sound and Lighting Systems is a great way to understand the particular subject of lighting for live music shows. The “rock and roll” scene, as it is still known, has history and techiniques that have grown up outside of theatre lighting design. It also has different problems and solutions. This book does not pretend to be a guide to the first principles of lighting design, but explains the techniques and processes involved in lighting live concerts. Particular attention is given to aspects of touring and quick set ups and introduces an important part of temporary stage lighting systems – rigging. Concert Sound and Lighting Systems shows you techinques that are also highly relevant to modern award shows and coropate events.
Verdict: If you want to learn live concert lighting, touring events or corporate shows, this book has loads of useful information that you just don’t get in a theatre lighting manual. Also available in the US at Amazon.com
Automated Lighting: The Art and Science of Moving Light in Theatre, Live Perfo……. by Richard Cadena (Focal Press)
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– This book has a ridiculously long title, but maybe for good reason. Intelligent Lighting has been a huge driving force in lighting for the entertainment industry for quite a few years now. Where it was once a weird luxury, it is now as much a part of stage lighting as a 500w fresnel. The crossover between theatre, live shows, concerts, television and corporate events means that the lighting design boundaries now blur. Trackside. Automated Lighting? Everyone is doing it.
Despite the march of moving lights into everything we do in the lighting industry, not many of us have taken the time to write a comprehensive book on the subject. It seems such a huge undertaking to even try to cover this exciting subject that has made the art and technical aspects of stage lighting SO much bigger. Richard Cadena knows his stuff and his book is a brilliant guide to moving lights, design concepts and just the business of using all these funny “waggly mirrors” and “nodding buckets”. In the modern world of lighting, you have to know this stuff too.
Verdict: Great to understand the subject of intelligent lighting and progress further in the brave new(ish) world. Also available in the US at Amazon.com
The Automated Lighting Programmer’s Handbook by Brad Schiller (Focal Press)
Programming “the desk” in stage lighting is now, more than ever, a special skill. In the old days, when you only had to worry about dimmers, the skill came in remembering how to get your “memory desk” to boot again after you had moved it to the stalls for the lighting plot. With the prevelance of automated lighting things have got a lot more complicated. The modern programmer must not only know how their lighting console behaves but now make lighting design decisions, organise their data efficiently and understand how each model of their intelligent fixtures works. Add to this the “we’ve got no time to program” ethic that most shows (well, the ones I work on, anyway) seem to run on today and you soon realise the range of skills needed to program and control automated lighting.
Brad Schiller is a professional moving light programmer with an impressive CV. The Handbook contains lots of useful tips on programming, organisation and design. Importantly, it also explains exactly what it is like to work as a moving light operator and how the role fit’s into the modern show. There is also some interesting advice from many other well respected operators in the industry and his diary as a programmer for the Sydney Olympics really brings the whole subject to life.
Verdict: If you think that you might be interested in working in this field this book gives you an accurate idea of what it is like. It also will help you with your own programming, even if you are working on smaller shows. Also available at in the US at Amazon.com
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I hope that you have found this article useful and, by the way, we don’t have any links with Focal Press. They just publish a lot of stage lighting books.
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Rob Sayer HND PGDip FHEA is a Senior Lecturer in Technical Theatre Production, mentor, and consultant in stage lighting and education. As a professional lighting designer, Rob designed and programmed theatre performances, music festivals and large corporate events for blue chip companies while travelling all over Europe. With a background in theatre, he combines traditional stage lighting knowledge alongside fast moving lighting and video technology in the world of commercial events.