How to Do Special Event Lighting (And Possible Make Some $)

uplights Sep 05, 2023

Whether you're planning a prom in a school gym, a sweet 16 at an event hall, or a wedding at your church, using special event lighting can really transform a space and make something ordinary into something really special - and it doesn't have to cost a lot of money to make a big impact!

 Back in the start of my stage lighting career, I was also interning at my church, playing around constantly with different lighting design ideas and being mentored by a great technical director.  One of the valuable things I learned in this period of time was how to do special event lighting at my church.

It first started with adding some pizzaz to a youth dance fundraiser, but then it spawned the idea of doing “not only for profit” work, setting up event lighting for events that were already renting the building as a affordable extra fee.  

Why Uplighting?

Simply put, LED uplighting is the easiest type of event lighting you can do, and it can really make a BIG impact with minimal effort or cost.  LED uplighting has gained an amazing amount popularity in recent years.  LED fixtures combine cost-effectiveness, ease of use, safety and versatility compared to the old option of conventional par cans as uplights.  

I remember when I first started in this industry and we constantly ran big, thick cables cables to power distribution panels just to have super-hot lights that weren’t even that bright in deep colors. You couldn’t change the color midway through the evening, and the conventional par cans could burn people, walls and carpet if they fell over.  Technology has definitely caught up to speed with demand for uplighting ability, and that's why uplights have exploded in popular.

How Do I Uplight?

Uplighting is the “in” look for weddings, and is incredibly simple and cheap to make it happen.  You probably already have the equipment needs: it is as simple as LED "par" type lights (often the cheaper models are just fine for this) , extension cords(black preferred, green okay, orange is cheesy), and some gaff tape to keep it all safe.

The most basic version of uplighting involves you putting your LED fixtures into static color mode and setting the color picked by the wedding party.  Then, set up each fixture, pointing up against the wall and tilted so that the beam is even from about 4′ off the ground to the top of the wall but not splashing too much onto the ceiling.  Space the fixtures evenly, and experiment with how it looks to place extra fixtures at the entrance, behind the head table, etc.  There really are no hard and fast rules in this game, just do what looks right!  When you are focusing the light, try not to look into the fixture much- you’ll just blind yourself.

If you want to get more interesting looks, try DMX addressing your fixtures and using your lighting console to program them.  Many modern uplight fixtures have batteries and wireless DMX built-in, so it's easy to control them on the fly!

This way, you can change colors by fixture as the night goes on to match the mood desired by the event coordinator.  Just picture the first dance with softened, dull colors to keep focus on the bride.  Then, change to a rhythmic flashing pattern as the new couple shows off their moves!  With DMX, you can make these changes subtle or extravagant- or both!

How Many Uplights Do I Need?

Any number of uplights can improve a space greatly!  A small amount of uplights can be used, for example, to highlight an entrance or the dance floor.  Events for more uplights can fill the room with color and allow you to turn off ALL overhead lighting,

Often, a room feels "full" of uplights when you have fixtures every 8-12' along the walls, but there aren't any hard and fast rules.  Start small, and grow as your budget allows!

What Other Types of Event Lighting Can I Add to My Event?

If you happen to attend any fancy black tie gala, fundraiser, corporate party and expensive wedding, you’ve seen that event lighting can and will include more than just simple uplighting.  Uplights are a great first step, but now you’ve mastered that and it’s time to move on to more exciting stuff!  So let’s dive in!

Gobo Projections and Color Washes

If you have extra, unused ellipsoidals or moving spot lights hung in the room the special event is being held in, you can use them to do gobo projections on walls, floors and ceilings.  If you just have a few gobos, try just lighting behind the head table, on the dance floor or in the entrance path to the reception!  Specialty gobo projectors can often be purchased for even less than regular stage lights, and work great!

 Doing gobo projections adds an immediate feeling of elegance and/or sophistication and can take a non-elegant gym or sanctanasium and turn it into a event space that people won’t even recognize!

Tip: Get the projectors from us, and use stock or custom gobos from to switch out for different events.


Dance Floor and Band Lighting

Once you’ve lit the entrance way, walls and/or ceilings, it’s time to light the dance floor and band or DJ if there is one. When you’re lighting these areas, both the entertainer and the dance floor need to get the same amount of attention from the lighting. 

Unlike a concert, weddings and special events are focused around the people and the party, not 100% focused on the entertainer, even though they are leading entertainment for the event.

Here are a few ways you can improve your event lighting in this area:

  • Colors – Wash the dance floor and the band in a slightly saturated color to draw people into these areas.  Light blue or pink works great for this, but stay away from colors such as green and red, which make people’s skin look weird!
  • Gobos – Pulling out the “g” word again!  Yep, gobos look awesome in a opposite color to your wash on stage or on the dance floor.
  • Roping Moving lights Into The Mix – While you may have had your moving lights around the room during the dinner portion of your event, once the dancing becomes the focus you can discreetly move your moving lights to do ballyhoos over the dance floor and band!

Other Environmental Event Lighting

Last, I want to point out and show you some other great ways to light the area around your big event.  Like we covered earlier, all environmental lighting exists to transform your event space into an elegant occasion!

Centerpiece Pin Spots

  • If the wedding or event has ornate centerpieces, you can use overhead-mounted pin spots to show off the centerpieces.  In a room full of color, this makes the centerpieces “pop” through and really makes happy florists!

String Lights, Christmas Lights and Paper Lanterns

  • Cheap and colorful string lights, Christmas lights and paper lanterns can be strung around your venue or in trees outside.  Sure, these are probably something you don’t already own, so it would be an additional cost to get started.

Tree Lighting

  • Speaking of trees, you can elegantly uplight trees in the wedding party’s color- it is sure to be a hit!  I really like to do this effect because it really makes a venue pop!  I can’t think of any easier and more effective use of lighting outdoors!



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