Image for When Candles Aren’t Enough – On the Subject of Professional Lighting

ANS_AB“We have plenty of candles and the ballroom has those huge chandeliers – why in the world would I spend more money to bring in a lighting company?” said the father of the bride. We were in the final prototype meeting finalizing our contract negotiations when I had started talking about professional lighting for his daughter’s wedding. “What?” I said. “How could you not have lighting? It assures that the investment you’re making in our décor is actually seen and not hidden in the shadows!” His response was a resolute, “No. I’m not doing it.” With that, I walked over to the wall where our studio’s lighting system was plugged and, with perhaps a bit more dramatic flourish than needed, jerked the cord out of the socket. The room went dark, save for the candles. The flowers, the tablecloth, the glassware, the flatware, the matching linen napkins, the chairs – everything that we had just spent months painstakingly selecting, effectively disappeared. “Do I make my point?” I said to the father. “You do,” said he. From the corner of the dark room, I heard the bride giggle.
I wasn’t trying to embarrass this father into spending more money on what, I acknowledge, to be a sizable investment in his family’s happiness; I was trying to protect him. The one thing that everyone who hosts a special event wants is the “Oh my! moment” – when everyone who walks into the room catches their breath. The moment where the person who is footing the bill feels satisfied that the event is a worthwhile investment and can smile with pride at his/her guests’ delight.
I have long held fast that professional lighting is a must for every event. In fact, rarely, will I do an event if a lighting company isn’t involved.
Professional lighting grew out of the theatre. As special events became more about dramatic moments and less about simply putting some flowers and candles on a table, designers turned to the theatre to help make events have impact and be more memorable. There’s no denying that the bright light from a crystal chandelier in a ballroom lights the space. However, it’s purpose is to dull the light source and flatten out the light beams from the bulbs to do away with harsh, unflattering shadows on faces. Chandeliers are beautiful to look at, and did wonders for gatherings when only candles lighted them, but with the advent of electricity, brighter light became harder to control. Tradition, in this instance, did not stand the test of time.
The purpose of theatrical lighting is to direct the eye to what you want to be seen, and then, through the use of shadows, build a framework of darkness or saturated color behind the subject to emphasize its importance.
I think the person to first realize this was a young whippersnapper named Bentley Meeker. He was the theatrical lighting designer who, years ago, stepped into the world of special events and said, “can we turn down those chandeliers to darken the room and let me show you how to make this room sing?” He paved the way for the myriad of lighting companies that exist today and has brought many, otherwise dull events into the light, literally. In fact, the questions: “Who did your food?” and “Who designed your wedding?” has expanded into “Who did you get to do your lighting?” because of Bentley. I’ve learned so much from working with him and his contemporaries over the years.
Lighting an event need not be intimidating for clients who don’t know a Fresnel from a LECO; let the professionals handle that. As soon as we have a reasonably solidified design in place, I turn to the lighting company to start discussing the lighting design and become the creative liaison on behalf of our client. After all, when I design an event, the overall dramatic effect that is in my head can only be achieved through the use of lighting, so why would it not be me who works with the lighting company to achieve that result? As a team, we walk through each moment or “picture” that needs to be created and talk about the instruments needed and what colors (if any) are required to make the final picture come to life – and what is going to please our mutual client.
So yes, as they say, candlelight does hide a world of sins and makes every lady in the room look ravishing, but theatre was created to make the soul soar and to let a bit of fantasy happen in real-time. So why not give your guests everything and more than they could ever dream?

I almost forgot! While I’m on my soap box: there seems to be a rather annoying trend on the elegant/professional lighting landscape – the L.E.D. lighting fixture.
L.E.D.s are inexpensive to purchase, are extremely versatile because they can blast myriad of colors with the push of a button and (in many cases) require only a battery, thereby doing away with the need for miles of wiring. Suddenly, every company with a little spare change in their pocket could purchase them and has been saying, “we can provide your lighting for you.” I’m here to tell you, no. They cannot.
For years, professional lighting designers were able to create elegant spaces with the use of incandescent lighting. Event/temporary lighting brought about the need that things become more portable and easier to use, thus L.E.D.s have been employed to make life easier for lighting companies, shortening installation times and reducing bottom lines immeasurably.
However, what few have taken into consideration with L.E.D. lighting is that it is harsh. Really REALLY harsh. It makes your eyes strobe. It does not blend elegantly with conventional incandescent lighting. To put it plainly: it makes the human skin look horrible. Personally, I believe one of the major functions of lighting is to make every person at the event feel that they look fabulous. If you are looking at your wife who is green or blue and the color temperature of the lighting has turned her beautiful “Jungle Red” lipstick into “Cadaver Black” (yes, lighting, especially L.E.D.s, changes the way we perceive color); you’re just not going to forget that. Changing technology has improved the type of light produced by modern L.E.D. fixtures, but they’re just not there yet.
So, just like everything else that you purchase – buyer beware! L.E.D.s are wonderful to light architecture and give a colorful background to an inanimate subject, but make sure that you’ve hired a lighting designer who understands their limitations and how to make everyone and everything look beautiful. A bargain lighting company is probably going to give you a truly “unforgettable” look … don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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  1. Michael S

    Having lit events for the past 30 years, I just want to thank you for this post! Seems it’s quite often the first thing that the lighting is one of the first things that people want to try and cut out of the budget. And agreed, design and appropriate use of the right gear for the right purpose is paramount to the overall success of the event!

  2. Matthew Myhrum

    In regards to LED lighting – something that a photographer showed me a few years ago is that because many LED fixtures operate on a narrower wavelength of light, is that when photographed, the highlights are very harsh – there’s almost no gradation between the light and the shadow. As a result, the highlight almost looks like an overexposure, and can ruin the look of the photos.

    Apart from the context of club lighting look, LEDs are best used with extreme caution.

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