Lighting design?

Hi folks. How does one learn lighting design? I’m not just talking about workshops or offices, but also gardens, walkways, AND ALSO stage lighting, photography, cinematography, interior design, etc. I see lamps with x number of lumens, but I don’t know how to judge how many lumens I need, how the light will be distributed, what the overall effect will be, whether the shadows will be harsh, what the emotional effect will be, etc. Thanks!

My wife’s - avocation/hobby/part-time second career has been gardening/horticulture and landscape design. She studied and earned certifications at a large world-class botanical garden in our area. If you live near such an institution you might check with them to see if they offer courses on landscape lighting.
Otherwise - I’d suggest Google-ing something like “landscape lighting design courses” and see what fits your needs.

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Take a lux meter to some of your favorite gardens at night and get a feel for what various amounts of light look like. The first few times, just walk up and take readings. But once you’ve got a few under your belt, start “calling your shots”, predicting beforehand and then seeing how accurate your guess was. This will sharpen your eye quickly.

Also, visit the same installations under a full moon and a new moon and get a sense of how much visual impact comes from that amount of ambient light.

Lumens over angle and distance gives you lux at the target, learn that math backwards and forwards. You’ll need to understand beam angles and profiles, when you can get away with approximating a Lambertian curve, etc.

Not everyone agrees on this, but I think harshness is as much a function of clashing colors and color temperatures as it is the actual softness or harness of edges. People are conditioned to see “sunset” colors as soft and “midday” colors as sharp, regardless of how they’re thrown, but if there’s too much dissonance between the color and the edges, it’ll be unnerving but precious few people will be able to articulate why. (IMHO, midday colors can get away with being sharp or diffuse, but sunset colors always want to be diffuse.)

Color Kinetics has some good resources, too.

You’ll find a lot of lighting-design nerds over on the Candlepower Forums, too. I might as well also name Photon Lexicon here, though they’re almost all lasers-first, there are some general optics and lighting nerds (including lots of show designers) among the rabble.

Hope that gets you started!

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Lighting design can also be topic/industry-specific.

For documentaries or basic video work, you’ll see a lot of references to 3-point lighting, where you have a key (primary) light, a fill-light, and a backlight. The key is the main light, and the fill light is maybe 1/2 the intensity, designed to eliminate shadows without making the image look flat.

In photography, you often want a softer light, and so reflectors or softboxes are used. The larger the apparent source of light, the softer the shadows. The smaller the apparent source, the harsher and more defined the shadows, with high contrast.

When photographing people, 3 point lighting is also used. A backlight is needed to help separate hair from backgrounds, which often have their own lights as well.

In an indoor space, you want even illumination to avoid too many shadows, but also without glare. I believe that commercial spaces are modeled or simulated first, to ensure there aren’t too many hot spots or darker areas.

There are very many topic-specific books.

For photography, this one’s a classic: " Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting" by

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While we are on the topic of photography, there are times when harsh raking (oblique angle) light is preferred. As a practical idea - if you want interesting photos of architecture, building facades etc. - you may wish to visit when the sun is positioned to provide such illumination.

For those in the building trades - the use of a raking light - say along a wall - can provide indications of imperfections, nail/screw pops, dimples, rough drywall compound, paint holidays etc.

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Hubbell Lighting in SC offers courses.

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See IES which is the professional society for lighting. There is a guide that they have put out with recommended lighting levels. However off the top of my head they recommend 0.5-1 footcandle for night time “just barely visible” areas like garden paths. Up to 20 footcandles for construction site working areas and 100 footcandles for inspection areas. Lumens is how much light a source puts out. Footcandles is the reverse…how much is hitting an area.

However be aware that was all based on incandescent and to a lesser degree fluorescent lighting. Lighting efficacy (how well the light is usable to a human eye) has turned that all on its head. For instance sodium vapor lights (the amber ones) put out over 200 lumens per watt…they are one of the most efficient lighting sources out there. BUT the efficacy is awful…it’s not very useful light. A maximum light output LED with the 6000K bluish-white color is almost as efficient but the light quality is horrendous. Cool it down to 3000K by adding more yellow. It cuts the raw lumens about 20% but the efficacy is about 3 times higher. Also ALL lighting sources except LED radiate light in all directions and a reflector and lenses are needed to direct light to where you need it at, and there is always losses and bleed from this process. LED’s radiate light out one side of the chip and nowhere else so it completely changes fixture design from what we’ve always known and used. There is often very little “bleed” or excess light. You get hard shadows and you can’t rely on “ambient” lighting in darker areas. LED’s only put light where you point them.

None of this, nor any standard for glare, is including in the IES standards. They are still struggling with figuring out how to deal with this. But it’s a start.

There is also free lighting design software on the internet if you know your way around CAD. You just import your 3D CAD model, insert lights, and you get all the reports and data you want if you are into that sort of thing. But the software is very intimidating if you aren’t used to it. Right now though for big commercial projects I’ve found that this is the only practical way to deal with LED lighting. All the old footcandle standards give you a rough idea but they aren’t really value using today’s fixtures.

Worse still, lighting outputs have doubled every couple years since LED lighting came along in the 1960’s. This means that all the fixtures you buy today will probably be obsolete and replaced with new ones 2 years from now. Lighting is changing so quickly and not just with LED’s that it’s like trying to keep up with computer hardware and software.

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