The Complete Guide to Wash Fixtures – Learn Stage Lighting .com

The Complete Guide to Wash Fixtures

By David / a couple of years ago

Today, I want to take you on a tour through the different types of lighting fixtures that you may encounter.  First up is the wash fixture:

Wash fixtures are the most simple type of stage lights- for the most part, they just “throw” light at the object that you’re lighting.  There isn’t a lot of control over the beam if you’re trying to mask it off of something.

Par Can

The most common type of wash fixture is the Par Can.

The word par stands for parabolic aluminized reflector, meaning that the lamp has a reflector that is shaped like a parabola(remember trigonometry?), and is coated with aluminum.

With the rising popularity of the LED par, this type of reflector isn’t actually part of the fixture since it is not the optimal way to reflect the light from individual diodes.  Nonetheless, the par can, whether LED or conventional, is a basic washing fixture that is pointed at the object you wish to light.

If it is a conventional par, it has either an interchangeable bulb(lamp) or lens that makes it very narrow, narrow, medium flood, or wide flood.  The common abbreviations are VNSP, NSP, MFL and WFL.  The beam of the par is oblong, not circular, and able to rotate by spinning the lamp or “bottle”, or the lens.

LED pars typically have a beam spread expressed in degrees, and typically have a circle beam, which is not rotatable.


Named after the French physicist who invented it, the Fresnel lens creates some of the softest, most beautiful light that you can shine at a stage.  In the stage world, the fresnel gives you a soft, even light that you are able to change the spread over with a knob or crank.

Many of the TV performances that you see televised are lit with fresnels, because their soft, even light looks great on camera!

Cyc Light

cyc light is a specialized light that is designed to evenly wash a large curtain, or cyclorama.  It is pronounced “sike”, rhyming with the name “Mike”.

The cyc light features a lamp or LED cluster distributed by an aluminum reflector widely and evenly.  Cyc lights are designed to be set up in rows, evenly washing large items.  Conventional cyc lights can be gelled, or colored in different colors so that you can mix colors on your backdrop.  LED cyc lights have that functionality built in!

Strip Light

Strip lights are the cousin of the cyc light- perfect for washing smaller curtains, scenery or for effects lighting, and can fit into small spaces.  The strip light is made up of a strip of lamps or LED’s, colored differently so that you can mix colors.  Strip lights are not as good at washing large items, as they do not throw even light as far, but they are a budget alternative to cyc lights and great for many uses.  Many churches use LED strip lights to wash backdrops, scenery or even for the front light of bands.  Strip lights can also be set up behind a band for cool visual effects and vertical symmetry.

Scoop Light

The last fixture I want to highlight today is the scoop light – a basic, wide washing light.  A scoop light is simply a lamp inside of a large rounded scoop that throws wide even light everywhere.  The scoop is not the brightest light out there, so it is best used for light colored washes or house lighting in theatre-style venues.  Some scoops just have a regular medium base flood lamp, while others have a tungsten-halogen lamp.  The only adjustments that scoops have is to point them, and some may have a lamp adjustment that can make it more spotted or flooded.

Last, of course, we have the moving wash light.  Moving lights are special because they give you the ability to move around the beam for different positions as well as to create physical movement.  Other than that, they work just like any other wash light – putting out a smooth, even beam of light to wash objects and people with!

LED “Panel” Style Lights

With the advent of the LED, there are a variety of different LED “panel” type lights which you can use to light a stage or set.  For the most part, these panels output light similar to a par can, but in a unique shape!

LED Moving Wash Lights

Similarly, LED moving lights also work a lot like par cans.  However, many LED moving lights also give you the ability to zoom the beam, which can be hugely beneficial when lighting a set design, or just to give you more variety in looks to create!

How to Use Wash Fixtures In Your Lighting

Wash fixtures are best for bathing an area in nice, even light.  So, their best use is to light the people on stage, the set, or the audience.  Here’s how to create a great, even wash of light on stage.

Because they are smooth and even, they aren’t the lights that you’ll use to add texture to your stage or to make a tightly focused beam – those are spot fixtures!

While they may seem basic, wash fixtures also tend to be the cheapest lights that you can lay your hands on, and they tend to put out the most beautiful light – taking your show to the next level!

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  • Phil Kaestner says:

    Hello, need some help please. I need to wash out a video picture on a wall from a 3500 lumens video projector. Doing a slide show and the pictures bleed through the medium the photos are projected on and re display on the adjacent wall. I need to completely wash out the wall with some type of bright up lighting, wash type lighting etc. Haven’t used lighting before and am lost on how to do this job? Appreciate any help with what I need to buy that is bright enough to wash out the slide but also look entertaining in the room.
    Thanks for your help!!!

    • David says:

      Hi Phil,

      To completely wash out a video picture, I’d recommend finding a light source that is at least twice that in Lumens – so look for a wash light that can do 7000 lumens.


  • Anam Kibria says:

    Hey, thanks for this, it was very informative. I just wish there was a picture of each type of lighting for the visual learners out here 🙂

  • Geoff says:

    Hi David. I have a question, I have a Max Par Bar 4 x3 LED.. the 4 heads are daisy chained so only one DMX cable to the bar. I haven’t yet bought a DMX board (going to). I don’t know how to get each of the 4 units to be different colours (and possibly actions) at the same time. I know they can be different colours because the images of the item in some listings for sale show that it can:×3-dmx-wash-lighting-set/ can you point me in the right direction as how to get different colour lights simultaneously.. thanks in advance.

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