How do I Set Up a Portable Stage Lighting System?

Nov 07, 2022

Whether you’re planning a small concert, church service, or any other type of event – if it’s going to be indoors or after dark outside, you’re going to want a portable lighting system of some sort.

Portable lighting systems can range from the most basic “turn it on and forget it”, to larger, more complex systems that you see at large events. In this article, I want to cover the basic pieces that you need to have a great portable lighting system and run you through the basics of setting it up.

Though it may seem simple(or maybe it doesn’t), by using a few tips, you can make you portable lighting system really shine and set up well.


The first thing you’re going to need to setup is your lighting trees or pipes.  Lighting trees typically work like a speaker stand, having a tripod and extendable pipe with an additional crossbar for the top.

If you’re using a weighted pipe and base, just thread the pipe into the base and place the crossbar on top and tighten it down.  Make sure to sandbag these support systems before you put your lights on them so they don’t blow over or have any chance of tipping.

Lights and Placement

The next step in putting together your portable lighting system is to get some lights. For most small events, placing stands with lights at the (2) front corners of the stage is sufficient.

What types of lights do you need?

Today, most lights you’ll buy for a portable stage will be LED lights.

Some lights may be “white-only”, and others have full color mixing.

The white-only lights tend to make a more appealing flesh tone and look better on human skin, but lack color control. Cheaper lighting kits tend to just have color-changing LED’s in them for maximum effect, just don’t expect studio-quality output from them. Only when you get up to the professional-grade do you find lights that do both colored light and white light well.

If you’re looking for something small, portable and easy-to-use, I generally recommend simple kits of lights that include (4) lights and a tripod stand. These kits generally also include a very basic controller, but can also be used with other lighting controllers for more meaningful control.

My current pick for these types of kits is the ADJ Starbar Wash. They give you a reasonable quality of light for a really low cost. The nice thing about these kits is that you get the tripod, the lights, a simple controller and a carrying bag – everything you need to turn the lights on, and almost everything you need to have meaningful control!

Dimming and Control

When you’re lighting a stage, it’s best to have some control of your lights. Getting some meaningful control will allow you to at the least turn the lights on and off when people come on and leave the stage, but can also give you so much more – shaping the mood of the event with color changes and more!

If you really don’t need control, then save yourself some money and just buy yourself some hardware-store worklights.

Today’s lights are generally controlled via DMX, and plug into a lighting console to dim and change color. Kits, like the Starbar kit outlined above, offer the ability to use the build-in footswitch, OR get control by DMX.

Unlike older lighting systems that required you to buy dimmers and set them up, today’s LED fixtures are lightweight and just plug into regular power outlets!

One example of a PC-based lighting console. There are many, many options when it comes to consoles…

Console and Cabling

The next step is to setup your console and cabling.  Figure out if your console is going to be at front of house (the back of the room or venue), or if it will go off stage on one side or the other.  Starting at your console, run a DMX cable to your closest light or light kit.

What console you use depends on your needs and wants for control. See “How to Choose Your First Lighting Console” for more.

Each light or light kit will have a “DMX in” and “DMX out” jack. The first light or kit get’s it’s “DMX in” from the console, and then the cabling continues with the “DMX out” to the next light or kit. This continues for as many kits as you have (up to a limit of around 32).

Your console can share power with audio or instruments as it doesn’t need much power, but make sure it is on the same power panel as the rest of your lighting rig.

Now you’re ready to bring up your lighting trees to height and get out a ladder.  Get a friend to help you loosen the knobs on the trees and hoist the lights up to the appropriate height.


The last thing you want to do is focus, or point your lights.  You want to point your lights to cover the stage evenly, starting with the first light at downstage, and moving the next light where the first light starts to fall off.

Continue this until you’ve focused all of your lights. If you’ve got colored lights, you start over that process, pointing them where you need them.  Be sure to use proper ladder safely, and have someone always foot your ladder.  Consider wearing gloves as lights can get pretty hot.

Safety first is more important than being fast or doing it yourself!  If you are focusing in daylight, get a third person to give you a hand.  Have this person stand on stage wearing sunglasses and point the light at them.

Have them look into the light and tell you when the light is the brightest- this will tell you when it is focused on that spot.  When you’ve done all of your lights for that tree, have them walk side to side and see if the lights seem to transition well, or if they can see or feel dark spots.

A portable lighting rig can make night-time outdoor events possible, and enhance special events in your church.  If you don’t already have one and want one, check out this starter system from ADJ.

Use these basics to make setting up a portable lighting system a breeze, and have a great event!


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