What Are The Types of Moving Heads Lights?

Moving head lights are a type of stage lighting fixture that can rotate and move in multiple directions. Unlike traditional, stationary stage lights, moving head lights can pan (rotate horizontally) and tilt (rotate vertically), allowing them to project light beams in various directions and create dynamic lighting effects.

You will have seen them working away, at a live concert or on the talent shows and dancing competitions on TV, spinning and panning like little robots to cover an area with stunning colours and patterns. Moving head lights are widely used in concerts, theatre productions, nightclubs, and other entertainment venues to enhance the visual experience. They all provide a range of motion that is unmatched by any other lighting fixture and can be used to great effect suspended from rigging, mounted upright on a podium, or even placed on the floor. Their versatility and dynamic capabilities make them a key component in professional lighting design, allowing for highly creative and immersive lighting effects.

In this article: We’ll look at everything you need to know about the types of moving head lights, including…

There are 4 main types of moving head lights, with the most defining feature between them being their lens systems and the width and focus of their output. Let's take a look at the types, what the differences are, and why you may favour one design over the others to suit specific needs.

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Moving Head Spot Lights

The original moving head fixtures, first seen in the early 1980s, the design was simple yet elegant, providing a well-defined circular output (spot) onto surfaces, with a tight beam effect that cuts through the smokey atmosphere of a club or stage with total precision.

Before moving head spot lights existed, a spot was a fixed position only feature (unless it was a manned follow-spot for theatre work), so suddenly having a full range of motion that could be controlled from a distance was truly game-changing.

Moving Spot Features

  • Sharp, Focused Beams

    Moving spot lights produce a concentrated beam of light that is focused into a circular output, which can be used to highlight specific areas or objects.

  • Gobo Wheels

    Moving spots often come equipped with gobo wheels, allowing for the projection of patterns, shapes, or textures, via glass or metal discs.

  • Iris, Prism, and Focus

    Depending on their price point, additional features can be included like an iris shutter or zoom system for beam size control, prisms for beam splitting effects, and focus functions to enhance their versatility in beam shaping and the clarity of gobo projection.

Moving Spot Benefits

  • Precision Lighting

    The sharp, focused beam is ideal for precision lighting, such as spotlighting performers or highlighting set pieces.

  • Creative Effects

    The use of gobos and prisms allows for creative effects, adding visual interest and depth to the lighting design.

  • Control and Customisation

    The ability to control beam size, focus, and patterns provides a high level of customisation for lighting designers.

Set of four BeamZ Fuze 75S moving head spot lights suspended on a trussSet of four BeamZ Fuze 75S moving head spot lights suspended on a truss

Moving Head Wash Lights

Next came moving head wash lights, giving all the movement and precision of the spot system but replacing the hard-edged output with a softer focus and much wider beam. It's for this reason that moving head beams rarely include gobo systems, as the nature of their output is not suitable for the detail required when projection logos or patterns.

What they will often have instead is motorised colour wheels and prisms, allowing for truly versatile colour production. They allow large areas to be covered in colour without a harsh ‘edge’ to the light.

Moving Head Wash Features

  • Soft, Diffused Light

    Moving head wash lights are known for their broad, diffused beams, which are perfect for bathing large areas in colour and light. They typically have a wide beam angle, allowing for extensive coverage.

  • Colour Mixing

    These lights often feature RGB (Red, Green, Blue) or RGBW (Red, Green, Blue, White) colour mixing capabilities, enabling them to produce a wide spectrum of colours.

  • Zoom Function

    Many wash lights come with a zoom function, allowing the beam angle to be adjusted to suit the coverage needs of the moment. This is usually a motor-driven system that allows control via DMX.

Moving Head Wash Benefits

  • Versatility in Colour

    The ability to produce and mix colours seamlessly makes wash lights incredibly versatile for creating atmospheres and moods on stage or at an event.

  • Even Coverage

    A moving wash lights diffused beam is ideal for providing even background lighting, ensuring that there are no harsh shadows or hotspots.

  • Flexibility

    The zoom function adds to a moving wash lights flexibility, making them suitable for venues of varying sizes.

Moving Head Beam Lights

A mix of wash and spot characteristics mixed together. moving head beam lights were created specifically for mid-air effects in hazy club and stage environments. They feature a much tighter beam angle than a wash system and optics that are sharp enough to produce good results with gobos (though not as good as a spot will do).

Created for more modern situations from clubs to concerts and TV studios, a moving head beam really gives the best of both the more traditional designs.

Moving Head Beam Features

  • Intense, Narrow Beams

    Moving beam lights are characterised by their intense, narrow beams, which cut through the air with precision.

  • High Output

    Moving head beam lights are typically very bright, and designed to stand out even in well-lit environments.

  • Fixed Focus

    The focus of beam lights is usually fixed, and optimised for creating sharp beams over long distances.

  • Electronic Dimming

    Accurate, digitally controlled dimming from 0-100% allows for specific intensity settings.

Moving Head Beam Benefits

  • Dramatic Aerial Effects

    The intense, narrow beams are perfect for creating dramatic aerial effects, especially when used with haze or fog.

  • Visibility

    Their high output and tight beam angles ensure that the beams are visible and impactful, even in large venues.

  • Efficiency

    The fixed focus and specialised design make them efficient for their intended use of creating bold, linear effects.

Moving head beam lights projecting gobo shapes onto a wallMoving head beam lights projecting gobo shapes onto a wall

Moving Head Hybrid Lights

As technology has advanced and components more compact, moving heads have again taken a step forward in what’s possible from a single light fixture. The newest moving heads are classed as hybrids, containing elements of all the other three designs.

Hybrid moving heads include motorised optics that have the range of focus and zoom to go from the widest wash to a tight beam, down to a focussed spot output. Colour wheels, prisms, gobo wheels and high-power LED engines make these systems immensely capable in multiple scenarios.

Moving Hybrid Light Features

  • Multi-Functionality

    Hybrid moving heads are designed to combine the features of wash, spot, and beam lights into a single unit, offering a versatile lighting tool.

  • Zoom, Focus, and Gobo Capabilities

    They come equipped with zoom for beam angle adjustments, focus functions, and gobo wheels for pattern projection.

  • Colour Mixing

    Like wash lights, hybrids often feature advanced colour mixing options for creating a wide palette of colours through the use of colour wheels and multi-facet prisms.

Moving Hybrid Light Benefits

  • All-in-One Solution

    Hybrids provide a comprehensive lighting solution, reducing the need for multiple types of fixtures.

  • Creative Flexibility

    The combination of features from wash, spot, and beam lights allows for unparalleled creative flexibility in lighting design, and the versatility to change settings to suit location changes for mobile lighting rigs.

  • Cost and Space Efficiency

    By consolidating multiple functionalities into one fixture, hybrids can offer cost savings and reduce the space needed for lighting equipment.

The choice between moving head wash, spot, beam, and hybrid lights depends on the specific requirements of the lighting design. Wash lights are ideal for broad coverage and atmospheric effects, spot lights for precision and pattern projection, beam lights for intense, focused effects, and hybrid lights for a versatile, all-in-one lighting solution. Understanding the features and benefits of each type can help lighting designers effectively utilise these fixtures to create dynamic and engaging environments.

Set of six hybrid moving head lights with multi-colour outputSet of six hybrid moving head lights with multi-colour output

Delving Deeper Into Moving Head Lighting

Let's go a little more in-depth with moving heads, the technology they use, the difference between LED and traditional lamp systems, how cost affects capability, and a breakdown of the often confusing terminology.

Technology Moves Forward

Advancements in technology have seen the capabilities of moving head lights change significantly since their introduction, especially so since the mainstream switchover to LED lamp systems, which are constantly evolving in power output and physical size.

LEDs have changed what is possible with all performance lighting fixtures. A traditional moving head spot light, for example, was always a single colour: a white lamp and coloured filter lens, as were Par Can lights and everything else. The ability of LEDs to produce RGB from a single source has changed everything, with even a low-cost DJ Par Can being able to produce a palette of colours on demand with no filtering or shutter systems required.

Moving heads tend to use a mix of the old and the new for their purposes though, as coloured LEDs though extremely bright, generally do not have the power to produce the required level of focus or distance. So, they get around this by using a high-power white LED and a motorised colour wheel, which works in a similar fashion to a gobo wheel, but replaces the pattern inserts with colour lens filters. This gives them the power required, and the capability to produce solid and mixed colours.

It's worth noting again that this is constantly changing due to LED advances. Smaller moving heads aimed at DJs and smaller environments are now available with multicolour LED lamps as their main output. They will generally be marketed as being for DJs and smaller events, and their performance is perfect for those requirements. They would however not be suitable for more professional applications such as theatres or concert stages, as they simply do not have the necessary power for those distances.

LED vs Discharge Lamp

Staying on the subject of LED power and capability, there comes a point where LED still has to step aside for the more traditional tungsten lamp for several reasons. That’s not to say either is better or worse than the other, it's more about the suitability and overall capability in certain applications.

Let's take one of our own fixtures, the BeamZ Tiger 7R, as an example. This unit makes use of a 230-watt 7R discharge reflector lamp in place of an LED source. It’s designed for use on outdoor concert stages or large auditoriums, where the high-intensity penetrating power of its heat-source lamp provides immense control of the beam over long distances. In comparison, a high-power (150W-300W) COB LED is known as a cold light source, and of course, is incredibly bright, but just can't maintain the same level of beam intensity or focus over a long distance, with a spot just naturally fanning out to become more like a wash.

It's simply about the right tool for the right job, and both light sources have their uses, benefits, and downsides, depending on your specific needs.

Cost vs Capability

When shopping for moving head lights you will find quite a range of options, designs,and of course costs. The price differences can be significant and to the untrained eye it may not be obvious as to why.

As with all effects lighting, it's best to think of there being two distinct levels, consumer and professional, with consumer covering everyone from the home party enthusiast to mobile DJs and live musicians, while professional is fixtures designed for touring rigs, nightclubs, or theatre installations.

It comes up often in PA and lighting, but the differences are purely based upon the ability of a unit to perform in certain environments, under specific stresses, and how it copes with those tasks for extended periods of time. For example, a mobile DJ doing weddings may have a pair of moving heads mounted on podiums, synced on a sound-activated performance or preset show. These are on for maybe 6 hours per weekly event, and are pampered in a nice case between uses. Compare this to nightclubs for instance, where the moving heads are mounted high up in the ceiling rig, never getting cleaned, active several nights a week for 8 hours a night, on a heavy movement DMX controlled show. It makes sense that one of these needs to be built a little tougher than the other in order to be reliable.

With LED power and advancements in technology, a £200 DJ moving head will share a surprising amount of features with a £2000 professional luminaire fixture and will give an incredible performance that would not long ago have cost you three times that price. The range of affordable moving head lights has never been better, with capable units starting at under £100, which is crazy for a fully motor-driven effect system. Obviously, the pro systems bring with them advanced control features, more powerful outputs, and heavier engineering to cope with a harder working life, but the low-cost fixtures will never disappoint when used in their intended settings.

What Does It All Mean?

Of all the lighting systems, moving heads have a lot of technical terms and names associated with their workings, which can be a bit of an info overload to the prospective buyer trying to compare units. Let's break them down:

  • Pan and Tilt

    The party piece of a moving head, its ability to pan (horizontal movement) and tilt (vertical movement). The range of motion can differ depending on the design and cost of a light, but most moving heads will have a wide range of positioning available.

  • Beam Angle

    This is how tightly focussed the light beam will be. A narrower beam angle means a tighter, more intense light beam, while a wider angle produces a softer, diffused beam of light. Many newer LED moving heads actually allow this to be altered during use.

  • Field Angle

    This is the actual width of coverage the light will provide. Think of the light beam coming from the fixture as a cone shape, shining a circle onto a stage for example. The centre of the circle is 100% intensity. Field angle is measured from the two outer points of that circle, where the intensity is 10%. It’s a ‘usable lit area’ figure given as an angle.

  • Gobo

    A gobo is basically a stencil, which could be a pattern, a logo or image etc. In a moving head you usually have several gobo discs that are fitted into a rotating wheel, allowing each one to be moved in front of the light beam. Gobos can be made of glass or metal depending on the complexity of the artwork going onto them. Patterns are cut into metal gobos, where glass will be printed or etched. Some moving heads have fixed gobos, and others are user-changeable.

  • Gobo Shake

    Fairly self-explanatory. The gobo or gobo wheel will be vibrated by a motor to produce a unique effect to the image or pattern being produced. Many moving heads include this but its rarely used outside of nightclubs.

  • Colour Wheel

    For high-powered moving heads, the main light source will be a white lamp, be that LED or a tungsten reflector lamp. To allow colour production, a rotating disc or ‘wheel’ is used, with selectable coloured lenses and an ‘open’ position for white. Modern multicolour DJ moving heads won't require this as their LEDs are colour-changing.

  • Rotatable Prisms

    A moving head is basically a spot light (like a big torch!) so only produces a single beam of light, which can be coloured and adjusted for width and intensity. What a prism does is allow the fixture to produce multiple beams from that single source, allowing for a variety of effects that can include split colours. Many larger moving heads will have a pair of prisms, with the number of facets (sides) dictating what's possible.

  • Illuminance

    Also known as Lux. This is a calculated figure that represents the total amount of light a source produces when projected onto a surface. Professional lighting uses Lux as it gives a real-world calculation of light in a defined space. You will see a similar word called Lumens used for lightbulbs and lamps, but this is purely light output so is an open figure. One Lux is measured as one Lumen per square meter.

  • Electronic Dimmer

    Traditional dimming was either with a mechanical metal shutter blocking the lamp, or was done by bleeding off the supply voltage to the lamp, which are both fine, but fairly crude and give mixed results that are dependent on the lamp and the unit's power supply etc. Singularly that doesn't matter, but when you want two or more moving heads dimmed to produce identical outputs, its hit or miss, with one being slightly brighter even though they are set the same. Electronic dimming and LEDs have changed this, with accurate dimming available from 0-100%, controlled via a processor to ensure an exact output. Linked units will synchronise and produce identical results.

  • Colour Temperature

    A term that’s much more common since the switchover to LED lighting. The temperature of light is the shades of visible colour it produces, measured as warmth or coolness and given as a Kelvin scale figure, usually from 1000K to 10,000K, with daylight being around 6500K for reference. For an LED moving head, the scale given tells you the range of measured temperatures the unit can produce.

  • Frost Effect

    Simply a filter that will diffuse the light output. It has the effect of softening the edges of a beam while retaining the beam's shape. Mostly used in stage and theatre productions.

  • Flash Rate

    Many moving heads include a stroboscope mode that allows for timed flashes rather than the standard steady output. The flash rate is the timing of those flashes, and is often adjustable in speed. Stones are a fast effect, and the speed will be given as a Hz (per second) rate.

  • Focus

    An adjustable focus, either manual or motorised, allows you to tailor the definition of the output to suit specific distances, which is especially useful for clarity when projecting a pattern or image gobo onto a surface, allowing you to sharpen the image.

  • Zoom

    Found on many hybrid moving heads and wash units, the inclusion of an adjustable zoom to the optics allows for a wide wash output to be pulled in tighter to provide a beam or even spot. Zoom is a powerful tool on a moving head, making it extremely versatile.

  • DMX

    Digital Multiplex Control. The industry standard for connecting and controlling the features and functions of any effects light system. Modern moving heads come with a plethora of pre-programmed shows that allow plug-and-play use, and sound-to-light activation. These are fine for casual users, but any serious lighting rig will be DMX controlled as it gives you complete adjustment over your fixtures, allowing for synchronised shows and colour changes dictated by you to suit your particular needs. Lights are connected to a DMX controller or software through 3-pin or 5-pin XLR-type cables.