Stage & Film Lighting – recommended reading ?

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  • Stage & Film Lighting – recommended reading ?
  • Paul McG

    An old specialist subject of mine…. professional stage lighting for 15+ years.

    For theatre, the standard references are Francis Reid’s ‘Stage Lighting Handbook’ and Richard Pilbrow’s ‘Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life’.

    If you tolerate the geekiness (and you’ll need to sift the contributions from the old-timers who do know their stuff and the ‘know everything’ 14 year olds who don’t) then have a look at – there’s a fairly active forum there.


    Also have a look at the bookshop and the ABTT website.


    One of my favourite fantasy writers is a theatre lighting designer as her day job, she’s RADA trained, and her blog has occasional items about various things she’s done, which makes for fun reading sometimes.

    Hi. Also my specialist field. Worked in both theater and film for 15 years, mainly doing lighting and grip, also worked in rental houses, so know a a fair bit about equipment and what works and what doesn’t.

    Big difference in terms of lighting for stage and lighting for film sets, each with their own equipment, glossaries and ways of working. Neither better or worse than each other, just different disciplines.

    I can recommend these for film lighting

    Haven’t done theater lighting in a while, so probably a bit out of touch there tbh, but happy to answer any questions you may have.


    I would quite like to learn more about stage / film / TV studio lighting. I am looking more for info on good lighting technique for people and lighting to create depth and atmosphere / appropriate use of filters etc more than more techie stuff about how to get power to lights or mount them, but any info is good info.

    Can anyone suggest a reading list of industry standard text books or any good internet resources or forums I could read?

    Wow, you lot have really come through, thanks so much. I thought I might be asking in vain here on this subject, but I should have remembered Singletrack has the whole world on its forum 🙂

    Thanks Trail of D for the kind offer to answer questions. I dont have any questions yet, but when I do I will come back to you. I am a photographer looking to broaden my awareness and understanding of lighting. I have not been using artificial lighting for very long and am finding books on photographic lighting to be surprisingly narrow and unimaginative. I look at lighting on film or stage and think there must be a way to bring more of that to photography in some way. So I have decided to investigate film and stage lighting more. The bit I have done so far is making me interested in that field for its own sake now as even initial reading has made me realise the skills required for something so scaled up, with people that are moving about.

    I am curious, for those who worked in the stage/film lighting field, what were the good and bad things in that sort of job? Would you recommend it as a good job to others?

    Oh jeez, where to start ? In all seriousness, I’d really start by going back to basics and consider doing some background reading about electrics if you don’t know anything about that side of it. I’ve seen some people who don’t know what they are doing, make some very simple, but very stupid mistakes on set, which could have resulted in some very bad things happening. Knowing how to make sure things are working safely is far more important than anything else, and you wouldn’t believe the corners people would cut if I wasn’t there checking otherwise.

    Electric shocks really hurt, and having hot metal boxes fall onto the heads of cast and crew won’t make you popular. Sounds basic I know, but basic rules often get overlooked. Ok, H&S lecture over.

    Would I recommend it as a job. Hmm…not sure. I love doing lighting, despite that fact it’s bloody hard work, however most of the work is in London. This may mean moving back to the city for work, and I’m not entirely sure I want to do that.

    Maybe I’ll just go and stack shelves in Tescos for a quiet life instead.


    20+ years in now. Mostly corporate event cobblers, but a good smattering of theatre & rock’n’roll in there too.

    As with all jobs it has it’s ups & downs. I get to work in some VERY cool places, I get to go to some very cool one off gigs, for free(ish). I don’t have to sit in an office 9-5 pushing paper around (it’s usually more like 8-8!!). I get to play with big heavy lumps of metal and wierd cutting edge tech and see what it can’t do. And I can call myself a designer and do an arty flounce when I want to. The bunch of guys I usually work with and rely on are some of my best mates.

    The downsides? Average pay at best. Dangerous working conditions (much better then they used to be – it’s now expected that you wear a harness when climbing a truss, rather than an attitude of “if you need one you shouldn’t be up there” – and arguably WAY better than a building site), but still random electrical shocks, manual handling injuries, slips/trips/falls, work at height etc. Long, unpredictable hours (I was doing back to back 20 hour days last week, interspersed with 4 hours broken sleep on a tourbus, all in the name of promoting hair dye). If you’re working outside, it’ll be pissing it down and muddy. If you’re inside, you’ll go for several days without seeing daylight.

    But I have absolutely no idea what else I could do that what be near as well suited to me….


    its a very big field and a massive difference between stage/music/theatre/film/photography.
    I’m going to upset a few people here and say the real craft is in the film and photography world (there is another argument between these 2 but the reality is they can both learn from each other) as you can work closer and have more tools available, you can’t roll a 20×20 windbag onto a theatre stage or stick a kinoflow behind a roll of heavy frost right next to somebodies face on a gig stage.

    spent 20 years lighting still life, people and some car work and recently more time on moving image sets including some big features sets and ads (not drama) and i have to say i learned nothing from books beyond the basic key/fill that i did at art college and a hell of a lot working with good photographers and seeing some DOP’s operate. there are a few forums/websites like roger deakins, provideocoallition and stuff on american cinematographer magazine website that ar worth a look

    i guess it depends which area you are looking to improve in as to where you look for inspiration/methods etc.

    Sorry for the delay in replying to this folks. Just another thank you to the people who have been kind enough to share advice and history etc.

    For those concerned about electrics, I know pretty much nothing other than to be very cautions with it and to not dabble foolishly without experienced advice from someone. My dad was an electrician and he saw 1 person die from a shock on a generator lorry on a military airfield and another probable death from a vacuum cleaner in an engineering works. I would add that both these events took place prior to 1960 and my dad was on both occasions a passer by, though he did actually manage to shut down the current on the lorry at risk to himself, but sadly too late.

    At the moment as I think I mentioned somewhere up near the beginning, I am looking to enhance the lighting and understand lighting for stills photography, how to imply depth, help indicate mood etc so I am not likely to be handling any electrical kit at this stage that is outside of the realms of studio strobes or house light units. I promise not to stick my finger in any of the sockets and yes, studio kit can melt or set things on fire if its to close to stuff so I will watch out for that one too! 🙂

    Thanks again to everyone for their kindness.


    most electrical photographic equipment you are likely to come across is safe if you use your common sense (no water/no unwound extensions on hot lights/ dont stick your fingers in anything) it’s only old equipment like strobe magna flash that will kill you with 5000 joules and big studios running 3 phase where you sort your own 32-16 distribution out that you need to know what you are plugging into.

    good luck, my top tip is keep waving lights around until it looks nice. works for me! 8)

    Hi Mr Smith. I am waving IKEA desk LEDs and bits of lighting gel about at the moment as I am trying to scale everything down a bit in size with some experiments. Not a lot of room here sadly.

    My portrait photographer who had been teaching me some traditional stuff has now moved to the other end of the county, so its back to fiddling at home at the moment. You see some beautiful atmospheric lighting in films and TV and I would like to bring relevant bits of that to my photography if I am able to.

    I think also, the more I am looking at some of this, the more intesting it seems. I imagine it will change to some degree how I look at films etc.

    I am thinking this could be an interesting read about lighting develpment to get around to reading.

    Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir by Patrick Keating

    I have also managed to pick up a couple of older video and cinematography books from a 2nd hand bookshop. Details on cameras/film/video are somewhat out of date, but I am thinking the principles of lighting and light placement are not going to change so rapidly and basic theory on that will remain fairly static.

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