Moving Lights Buyers Guide

Moving lights are a load of fun!
Whether you’re a band, church, DJ or in the theatre world, the dream for most people is to own or have access to moving lights.
How awesome would it be to have the ability to move a light wherever you need, change colors and project patterns, all automatically?

The Hidden Costs of Moving Head Lights

You can use the moving head light to provide a textured or colored backdrop, for cool aerial effects with haze, to move around and chase during fast songs, or to light the audience in blue for a intimate song.
There are so many great options, but keep in mind that you can’t just go out and buy moving lights without carefully contemplating your needs and the needs/features of the lights.
You see, a typical conventional lighting console is not going to be the best at controlling moving lights, and you may find yourself frustrated with the results the the effort required just to program some simple scenes.
However, a basic software light console may be just what you need- each type of console has its advantages and disadvantages, but a console designed to program moving lights will be much easier and more versatile in the long run.
You also need to figure in the cost of data cabling and to the fixtures, and powering the fixtures off of non-dimmed power, possibly 208v if it is a bigger moving light (though this is less common with the popularity of the LED).

The other option you have is to rent moving lights, if you’re only going to use them for theatrical productions once or twice a year, or for special events.
More expensive moving lights that you can rent inexpensively for a short term will give you really nice results and have features that cheaper fixtures don’t have.
In addition, you don’t have to worry about fixing the lights when they do break, which will happen.  Anything with moving parts will break eventually, lighting included!
The lamps inside non-LED moving lights also require replacing periodically, and typically cost over $100 each, depending on the fixture.  The lamp on a moving light is always on once you start the light up for the day, even if the light has its shutters closed.

Cheap vs. Expensive Moving Lights

The biggest question that I get from people when it comes to moving lights is this – “Why would I buy an expensive moving light, when the cheap moving lights have the same features?”
If you’ve shopped around, you’ve probably noticed that you can purchase moving lights that cost anywhere from under $100 to over $30,000.  And while the $100 light and the $30,000 light don’t have much in common, you can find pro-grade lights that cost $5000 that seem to have the same feature set as a $2000 DJ-grade light.

If you’ve a bar band or DJ, you should probably buy the moving lights that are aimed at our distributor.
If you’re a professional production company, and you’re going to use the fixtures often and setup/tear them down a lot, you’ll benefit from the easier repair-ability of pro-grade fixtures.

Moving Lights Buyers Guide 

For other shows, however, you need a swiss-army knife of a light that can light sets, do gobos and flash and move! Here are the most common features that moving lights have, and what you can expect from them:

Intensity: Any moving head should have dimmable intensity, either via a mechanical dimmer or a electrical dimmer.  Arc-lamp moving heads will have mechanical dimmers, whereas most LED moving heads should have a electrical dimmer.
Pan and Tilt: Moving heads can move, and they do so via Pan (spin) and Tilt.  Most moving lights will specify in degrees how far they can pan and tilt.
Focus: Manual or motorized focus will allow you to focus or unfocus the beam coming out of your light in spot and beam fixtures.  This means you can make your gobos nice and soft, or hard-edged and easy to see in haze!  Less expensive moving head models only have manual focus, which means you can’t control it via the console, but you can set it manually on the front of the moving head.
Zoom: Some moving lights can zoom.  This can be motorized or non-motorized, and wash lights typically have a wider zoom range than spot or beam lights.
Color Wheel: This allows you to select from a number of colors or white.  Some lights allow you to sit between 2 colors, which looks really cool when you use it with gobos and/or prism!
Color Mixing: Subtractive CMY mixing or additive RGB mixing allows you to create many colors manually from your console.  With color mixing, you’re not limited to 8 or so color swatches like the color wheel, and you can get smooth transitions.  Often, moving lights that have both CMY mixing and a color wheel will have colors that are not mixable on the fixed color wheel.
Gobo Wheels: Fixed or rotatable gobos can be placed in the beam of the light to make a cool pattern on the stage.  If your light has motorized focus AND multiple gobo/FX wheels, you can often morph, or switch between gobos on 2 wheels seamlessly using focus.  This works better on some lights more than others!
Animation Wheels: Similar to a gobo wheel, an animation wheel places a pattern in the light.  Animation wheels, however, are capable of more complex effects than simple rotation.
Prism: Place a prism in your light to multiply the beam by 3, 5 or however many facets your prism has.  This can also work as a “cheap zoom”.  Some lights have linear prisms that split the light in a line, and that looks really cool in haze.
Shutter/Strobe: This allows you to rapidly kill the light and run a strobe effect.  In arc-lamp moving lights, this is a mechanical “flag” that moves in and out of the light.
Iris: Just like a followspot, iris allows you to make the size of the light’s beam smaller without using zoom.
Frost: Want to soften the output of the light?  Frost gives you a “wash-like” effect, though it’s not as smooth as a true wash moving light.
CTO: Color Temperature Orange.  This filter, whether fixed or variable, allows you moving light to simulate a lower color temperature.
I hope this article helps you to figure out what you need, if you’re looking to make the plunge into moving lights.