Why should I upgrade my lighting systems and when is the right time?

As a lighting professional I often find myself in situations where my clients are seeking advice on upgrading their current lighting systems to gain the advantages of emerging technology. So often, in fact, that it has spurred me to generate this post which will best explain the advantages and considerations that come into play with these decisions. Upgrading an existing system or building a new one can be a daunting task, technology is emerging so quickly and the number of new products competing for your dollar is so vast that it could easily make your head spin. I often see multiple new products roll out onto the market every week. So with all of these choices my first and perhaps best word advice to you would be to find yourself an expert. The advice of a trained professional who has experience in your specific area is key if you are going to make well informed decisions about this important investment.

So let’s get down to it. The first thing you need to consider is your budget. How much can you afford to spend on equipment, labor and system set up? What are the considerations of your future operating budget? All of these factor in and it is important that you carefully consider them all.

Now that you’ve seen some of the underlying factors that you need to consider with your budget let’s talk about the factors that relate to some of the equipment that might be on your list.

Lighting Consoles:

In nearly all of the situations I find myself and my clients in, the biggest and single most costly purchase that comes under discussion is how to control their lights once they are up in the air. As the saying goes, “power is nothing without control” and more accurately, the right control for the application. In order to access and properly utilize the features of modern lighting instruments, you must have modern lighting control. If you were to attempt to use a rig full of modern “smart” fixtures such as LED’s and moving lights with an older style conventional lighting console you would soon find yourself with an overwhelming desire to bang your head against it rather than try to write another cue with it. The reason for this is that when those older consoles were created, none of this new technology had even been imagined yet, let alone put into the marketplace. Would you try to run the newest Windows or Mac OS on the computer you bought 10 years ago? That’s the same logic you need to use here.

Ability to utilize emerging technology.

Emerging technology consumes huge amounts of data space on your lighting desk and new lighting consoles have a ton of space to offer, many of them are even set up to expand easily in the future when even more space is required. If there is one place that you need to future-proof your investment, this is it. Furthermore, this emerging technology requires that your console be able to manipulate the data differently than ever before. Long gone are the days when a light was just a single channel and you only had to assign it a level somewhere between zero and full. Controlling a light now means not only giving it a value for intensity, but also often values for color, effects, gobos, position, edge and a host of other parameters. And not only do you need to assign those values, but you need to be able to easily and quickly view, recall, copy & paste and change them as your production merits.

Safer data storage and networking.

Be honest. Does your current PC have a 3.5” floppy drive? Do your kids even know what that is? I didn’t think so, so why does your current lighting console still use one? The current range of lighting control consoles are dependent on two methods of data storage, hard disk and flash drives. Both of these are vastly superior technologies to that old floppy. Beyond that, most of them are network devices as well allowing you to set up your entire lighting system the same way your office computer network operates. This ability has already revolutionized the lighting world and it a safe bet that in the next ten years it will happen again, over the network and over the internet. Technology now allows for multiple users to access your lighting system simultaneously. This means that your programmer at the light board can be taking direction from the lighting designer while their assistant looks over cue information on a laptop and a stagehand diagnoses a problem with a light backstage using their smart phone. All of these players are communicating with the same system, at the same time, seamlessly getting work done without having to wait on each other. This kind of efficiency saves tons of time, and that saves money.

Better lighting cues (advanced timing, parting, accurate replication of colors)

Do I mean to tell you that buying a new lighting console is going to actually make your production look better? Yes. That’s exactly what I’m telling you. New lighting controllers have seriously advanced many of the finer points of lighting design allowing your LD to create much more refined and polished lighting cues than were previously possible. It all comes back to manipulating that huge amount of data. If you take away the constraints that used to factor into things like timing, parameter control and color selection, you open up a whole new realm of possibility for creative design to find its way to the stage.

Ability to combine moving light and conventional control.

In some applications it used to be more efficient to control your conventional lights and your intelligent lights from two different consoles. This often meant that you either needed two skilled programmers or one person with the ability to operate both at the same time. With the exception of some of the larger applications, this is no longer the best way to approach lighting control. New software has made it exceptionally easy to operate both conventional and intelligent fixtures from the same system allowing them to seamlessly integrate into your productions.

Fixtures:

The other side of your potential upgrade is lighting fixtures. While for some situations conventional lighting fixtures still reign supreme, for the reasons listed above the proper balance between conventional and intelligent 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, and maybe more importantly, LED technology has not quite replaced the ability of an incandescent light to illuminate human skin 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.

LED wash lights.

Perhaps the most exciting development of late in the lighting market is the release of a new generation of LED wash lights. 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 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. (Remember what I mentioned above about skin tone?) And to make it even better, the new lights are also many times brighter than before. 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. When you take all of the various factors into consideration, it makes LED the 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. In my experience I’ve seen that 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 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.

LED spot fixtures.

And, at last, we arrive on 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 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 leko. It is something that seems poised to be the next revolution in the lighting business.

Moving lights.

While moving lights aren’t new to the market, the market has some great new 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 are however a few disadvantages to consider as well. Moving lights typically require more maintenance then other types of lights because they have more moving parts and electronics inside them and the replacement lamp cost is much higher (depending on the model) than a conventional light. It is important for you to weigh these pros and cons when making your decision. Also keep in mind that LED technology has made its way to the moving light segment of the market too, presenting you with some options that don’t require lamp replacement and need less servicing.

Putting it all together.

Now that you have an idea of some of the factors involved you should be able to approach your decision with a more informed mindset. It is important to note that while I’ve taken the time to cover many of the most important issues involved, there are others I have not mentioned and perhaps even more that would only pertain to your individual situation. These reasons are why it is essential that you consult with a professional when making your choices. Each application requires a customized solution to your own set of challenges and is dependent on your own budget and needs. It is my hope that you’ve gained some insight into the complexities inherent in the lighting business and the importance of keeping up with the technology. Keep checking back to this blog, it evolves just the same way technology does.