LED Fixtures – Brighter, faster, smarter.

If you read my previous article on the cost advantages associated with theatrical LED’s you may have already decided that they are a smart choice, but with so many options out there where does one start? In this article I will help to clarify what types of fixtures are available currently on the market, what the differences are between them, how to use them to get the most value from your dollar and what technologies are right around the corner.

Advances LED Technology:

While in some specific situations conventional lighting fixtures still reign supreme, for the most part the proper balance between conventional and LED lighting is shifting in favor of new styles of equipment. Here’s a logical question: If LED lighting is so much less expensive in the long run, why should I even consider keeping conventional lights in my system? There are a few reasons to keep in mind. First, upfront cost is lower with conventional lighting. Second, LED technology has not quite replaced the ability of an incandescent light to illuminate a human face in a pleasing way, although it has come a long way recently and is now very close. Third, and I will discuss this more below, LED’s have a hard time producing a sharp image. This relegates them to the world of wash lights and keeps conventional lighting fixtures at the forefront of the spotlight market.

What’s new about LED’s?

Perhaps the most exciting development of late in the lighting market is the release of a new generation of LED’s. This new generation is brighter, smarter and far more customizable. Here is a list of some of the most notable new features:

  • Color
    In its first incarnation LED lighting mostly used primary red, green and blue to mix a range of colored light options. While the theory behind this idea is accurate, in practice this type of color mixing leaves large portions of the visible color spectrum unobtainable. The newer generations of LED’s have addressed this concern by utilizing not only the primary colors, but by also adding specific additional hues like red-orange, amber, deep blue, cyan, magenta and warm / cool white to the mix. The result has been a fantastic new range of color that can be produced by a single fixture. Additionally, many new fixtures have abundant on board options that are designed to calibrate the fixture for specific situations such as TV studio use, theatrical productions, concerts and architectural applications. The result is a light that can change to meet the demands of any given situation.
  • Brightness
    There has been a huge evolution in the light output of LED’s recently. I’ve done side by side comparisons of the brightness of a conventional light with a saturated color gel vs. an LED mixed to the same hue, and the new LED’s are substantially brighter. Manufacturers are learning how to better manage the heat generated by the LED engines and those lessons are producing brighter output. Keep in mind however that brighter does not always mean better. It is important to seek the guidance of a trusted professional on which LED product is going to be best for you. Some manufacturers have a tendency to overdrive the capacity of their LED’s resulting in shorter lifespans and less reliability. As usual it’s a buyer beware world and with so many options, it’s good to do your homework or hire someone who knows.
  • Lenses
    Many new fixtures have easily interchangeable lenses, allowing a single fixture to be used in a wide array of different situations. Having control over where your light shines and where is doesn’t is critical to good design and there are a wide variety of lenses on the market now which can be applied to your requirements.

Fixture Types:

There are a lot of areas where LED’s are gaining ground, chances are at least one of them applies to your market.

Wash lights.

Wash lights are the workhorse of many systems. In the conventional world they would be your PAR and Fresnel style of lighting instrument. In pretty much any application where you need to bathe a stage or subject in light, wash lights are the most efficient way to do it. I frequently see LED’s used to replace these types of lights for a myriad of reasons. You get a lot of light for your dollar and you save on equipment totals which results in a savings on labor costs. It’s no wonder why such a huge amount of the market segment has been devoted to LED’s of this type.

Cyc, borders and backdrops.

Another place where LED’s are a sensible choice is in situations where you need to light a large piece of fabric or scenery from a single direction, such as from above or below. Traditionally this would have been accomplished using a 3 or 4 color cyc light. These types of lights require a huge amount of power and gel and have a tendency to take up a good deal of precious space as well. New LED replacements for these fixture types are available that dramatically decrease power needs, are easier to install and offer a nearly infinite range of colors. Gone are the days of buying, cutting and framing 20-30 sheets of gel just to light your backdrops. Now all you need to do is install a row of LED lights and you’re set, no matter what the world throws at you.

Moving lights.

While moving lights aren’t new to the market, the market has some great new LED moving lights. The biggest advantage to having moving lights at your disposal is that they can often take the place of having several other lights in your system, thus saving you on equipment cost, labor and time. On top of that they can be used to add to the aesthetic of a production by introducing live motion to your lighting. There is however one important thing to keep in mind, moving lights typically require more maintenance than other types of lights because they have moving parts and electronics inside them that a conventional light does not.

LED spot fixtures.

At last we arrive at the bold new frontier of LED lighting, the LED spotlight fixture. Whereas a wash fixture might be able to provide you with a great array of color options it still has one big thing missing, the ability to produce a sharp image such as a gobo, or the ability to let you take a shutter cut off something you don’t wish to light. The reason for this is simple physics. In order to produce a single sharp image you need a small concentrated light source that is gathered in a reflector and gets focused through a lens. Up until now, LED’s have never been able to be concentrated into a small enough package to accomplish this, but that is all on the verge of changing. A tremendous amount of R&D work has been done trying to find a solution to this problem and LED spotlight fixtures are finally appearing as prototypes on the market. If the current trend continues it should just be a matter of time before the technology is refined enough to be viable. Imagine a bright, energy efficient, color changing spotlight that truly serves as a replacement for the standard ellipsoidal spotlight. It is something that seems poised to be the next revolution in the lighting business.

When you take all of the various factors into consideration, it makes LED lighting a leading option. There is however one more thing to keep in mind. Due mostly to the nature of LED lighting as an emerging market, there is a wide range of quality for sale on the market. The mark of a good product relates to the amount of research behind it, so when making your decision be careful not to let cost be your only guide. More expensive products are often made by companies who have invested in the technology and are leading the curve and from my experience you typically get what you pay for. All this is not to say that there aren’t cost effective solutions, just be certain that you are comparing apples to apples when you weigh the facts.