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Rob Halliday: Stage lighting is not just about what you see, but how you feel

My five-year-olds appear to have discovered lighting – by which I mean in their bedroom they have LED reading lights that can switch between warm and cool, bright and dim.

When it’s time to go to sleep, they switch them to cool and dim. When they wake up in the morning, they switch to warm and bright. They’re making decisions about light based on their personal taste and their reaction to light. That, in many regards, is lighting design.

In effect, they’re the kind of people I often tell students about when they ask: “I want to be a lighting designer, what do I have to do?”

Really, it depends on what they mean by lighting designer. Probably, they mean a professional lighting designer, working on shows around the country, perhaps around the world. For that you need to learn about the art and technology of lighting [1], of course, but you also need to be a salesperson for yourself, as anyone trying to build a career does.

But you can be fascinated by light without having a career in it. Fade the light in your living room, and you’re designing with light. Change the light’s colour, location or direction and you’re designing. Technology has made it easy to have this fun at home as in a theatre: colour-changing LEDs let you play with the light palette across your house just by using your phone. Discover the power of light, its endless possibilities, and you can easily acquire a life-long fascination.

What’s curious, given this accessibility, is how few people actually pause to consider the possibilities. Because of the EU Ecodesign directive [2], I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to explain this to people from outside our lighting world.

Ultimately all it takes is a simple demo: have them hold their hand in the beam from a good-quality light (tungsten or really good LED), then in the beam of a bad one. We’re all familiar with our own skin; no training is required to see the (sometimes shocking) difference. There often follows a sudden look of understanding: that’s why they now feel bad in their bathroom in the morning, having switched to new lightbulbs on the promise of saving the planet. Maybe they’d subconsciously noticed their cheap LEDs, or CFLs before that, were not pleasant, but they didn’t trust their eyes enough to do anything about it.

This is not a cry to save tungsten in the face of LED; the best of LED now gets close to matching the quality of tungsten with those legitimate benefits of improved efficiency and – for my boys in their bedroom – less heat. The EU’s new rules actually aim to provide better metrics for making informed decisions about different bulbs. But to make such a decision, you have to go in with your eyes open. Few do.

So this is a cry to all of us who work with light, or just have a fascination with it: spread the word. Explain. Help others realise light is not just about what you can see, but about how you can feel. If five-year-olds can understand that, surely anyone can.

Look for training opportunities on The Stage website [3]