Projector Brightness: Understanding Lumens, Luminance, Illuminance, Flux, & More

Projector Brightness: Understanding Lumens, Luminance, Illuminance, Flux, Lux, & Foot-Lamberts
Projector Brightness: Understanding Lumens, Luminance, Illuminance, Flux, Lux, & Foot-Lamberts

When selecting a projector, people often ask how bright their projector needs to be. To determine the brightness value you need for a new projector, you must first understand how much brightness exists in your scene. For instance, you may need a brighter projector to use during daylight hours versus nighttime to combat the light emitting from the sun. Choosing a projector based on its brightness value begins with understanding the various elements that constitute “brightness.” In this article, we will discuss the relationship between lumens, luminance, and illuminance in hopes of shedding some light on the ambiguity of “projector brightness.”

Lumens vs Lux

The Lumen is a unit derived from the Candela that we use to measure the total amount of luminous flux, or visible radiation, emitted from a light source. Flux comes from the Latin for flow. We use it to describe all sorts of things that move through space, like fluids and gases. Light is a wave and a particle that flows through the world faster than any other known phenomenon. Think of a projector’s luminous flux as a different fluid, it’s behavior is not exactly the same but it’s similar enough for comparison. If you have a garden hose that can spray 1 liter of water every second, you really only know how much water there is. You do not know how far your hose can spray, how wide an area you can cover at once, whether the water will be bouncing off of cement, seeping into the dirt, or whether that area is already so wet that more water won’t even register.

Brightness is relative; it’s not the same thing as luminous output, our eyes are an enormous variable. Our brain interprets light differently in different ambient lighting conditions, and the reflections, refractions, and diffractions that may occur as light flows towards your eyes will all contribute to your brain’s perception of brightness. We don’t perceive incremental differences linearly either – in an enclosed room illuminated by a single light source at 1% of its total output, that light will generally appear to the human eye as 15-20% brighter than it appears to measurement tools.

Consider a flashlight with a single brightness setting. Outdoors in the daylight, you probably won’t be able to see any of its light. Take that flashlight inside and it will become a bit more apparent. In the dark though, it will appear much brighter – sometimes too bright. If you can zoom or focus the beam of your flashlight in the dark, or change the angle of the beam so that it glances off a surface instead of hitting it perpendicularly, you’ll also notice that as the same amount of light spreads out over a larger area, the less bright the illuminated area becomes. The same is true if you move further away without adjusting the optics.

Light emitting from a starry night sky in Joshua Tree.

Like flashlights, projectors use optics to create a beam of light, in a projector’s case a highly controlled beam with a defined geometry. Because lumen ratings are used to describe a light source’s total output, they do not tell you anything about the angle or direction of that beam and how it will spread out over distance or the reflective properties of the surfaces it will interact with. As the distance increases, the beam spreads out, and the total lumens are spread out to illuminate a larger area, albeit with less intensity. The density of light falling onto an area, or illuminance, is most commonly described using the SI unit lux (lx), which measures lumens per square meter. In the United States, many industry-backed standards and municipal codes use the Foot-Candle (fc), or lumens per square feet. As math and history would have it, 1fc = 10.76lx, and multiplying or dividing by 10 to convert between them is close enough for most situations in the range you’ll be dealing with.

Even in the United States, however, lux is becoming increasingly common, particularly with lighting equipment. LED lighting panels, for example, list both their beam angle and how many lux of illumination that beam will produce at specific distances. One of the driving concepts behind lighting design across disciplines is the Inverse-Square Law, otherwise known as fall-off. As light flows through space, it spreads out over a distance. The further that distance, the more spread out the lumens become, meaning less illumination when they do finally reach a surface. Lux tells us much more about how bright any given number of lumens will appear to be versus the number of lumens alone, but you’ll need to know a little bit about the geometry of your scene, as well as how much ambient illumination there is.

As an example, if you were to measure and compare the number of lumens hitting a 1m2 section of wall with a projector positioned 2m away, versus that same projector at 4m away, you would find the section of wall at the 4m distance receives fewer lumens from the projector, and therefore a lower lux value as the total output of light is spread over a greater surface area. When you’re trying to determine how many lumens your projector will need, knowing how large your scene will be and how much ambient light there is will make it much easier.

You can measure your space’s ambient lighting in lux with a light meter if you have one, or you can use a digital camera as a light meter, but you can also download any number of apps that will give you an accurate reading on your smartphone. Take some incident light readings in different situations, and you’ll get a better sense of what these numbers mean in relation to what your eyes are perceiving, keep in mind that you are measuring lumens within an area. If you don’t have access to the space to take a reading, there are lighting standards and recommendations for how illuminated a given space should be based on its function, from a living room, to an office, tradeshow, or warehouse, etc that you can reference. If you’re projecting outdoors in a developed area, the local code book will likely tell you what the level of street light illumination should be.

As for how many lux of illumination you’ll want from your projector, we recommend starting with at least 5x the level of ambient lux. The higher the level of illumination your projector is capable of, the more your projection will stand out against the background. The ideal level of illumination is largely subjective, so don’t worry about it too much. That being said, as part of your creative lighting toolkit, it’s usually better to have too many lumens and have to turn the projector brightness down or add additional lighting, than it is to not have enough.

Once you know the ambient lux levels, you can estimate what you’ll need from your projector by determining how large your scene will be. Keep in mind that projectors come in different aspect ratios, like televisions and monitors, if you’re not sure what that means, you’ll find more information below. More than likely you will be working in a 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio, meaning that for every 16 units of width, your projected image will be 9 or 10 units tall.

Say you wanted to project on a 4-meter tall mural and your projector has an aspect ratio of 16:9. That means the horizontal width of your projection will be 7.11 meters. With projection mapping, you don’t need to be set up perpendicular to your subject, in which case your frame might be more of a trapezoid than a rectangle, but for the sake of simplicity let’s assume that we are projecting head-on. When we multiply 4m x 7.11m we have a total projected area of 28.44 square meters. Once we know the area of the projection, we can easily calculate the average lux that any given lumen rating will produce within that area by dividing our total light output in lumens by the projected area those lumens will illuminate. 1000 lumens will produce an average of 35.2 lux at that size, 5000 lumens will produce an average of 175.8 lux, and 10,000 lumens will produce an average of 351.6 lux of illumination. If your projected area was only half that size, each of those lumen ratings would produce twice as many lux, and if your projected area was only a quarter of that size, each lumen rating would produce four times as many lux of illumination, and so on.

Any one of those projectors pointed at a white wall will appear much brighter than if pointed at a black wall, as the amount of light reflecting to your eye changes based on the reflecting surface’s properties. The materials in the scene you’re projection mapping will all have different levels of luminance or emittance, which tells us how bright or intense they appear to our eyes. In photometry, luminance refers to both reflected light and light emitted directly from a source, like the screen you’re using to read this. The imperial unit of luminance, the foot-lambert (fL), measures candela/ft2 and the SI unit is simply candela/m2although it is more and more frequently referred to as a nit. You won’t necessarily be using these units in any practical way with projection mapping, but you may notice them on the Projector Central calculator, so it’s worth noting that while their brightness calculator can be helpful, it’s primarily focused on helping you meet the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers’ recommendations for cinema screens.

If you’re working with a material or projection coating like ScreenGoo that has a known gain number, the Projector Central tool can help you estimate luminance in nits or fL, but otherwise, we recommend using the Lightform Projection Mapping Calculator to determine whether a given projector produces enough lumens for your scene.

Industry Standards and Marketing Ploys

While there is a SMPTE Standard for cinema projection, there is no such industry-backed standard for projection mapping at this time. There are, however, many standards that govern different aspects of the tools that we employ. No matter what mode of projection you’re trying to equip yourself for, the likelihood that you will encounter purposefully misleading and unscrupulous marketing is unfortunately quite high.

The baseline measurement that has been adopted is ANSI lumens, established by the American National Standards Institute’s 1992 document IT7.215. It establishes protocols for setting up a projector at a specific distance in a controlled ambient environment, adjusting the brightness and contrast settings of the projector to uniform levels, and then taking readings at nine specific points to calculate an average (often the center of a projection will be brighter than the edges). ANSI lumens are the most commonly found unit in projector specification sheets, and also the most trustworthy. As a general rule, if you see a projector advertised using anything but ANSI lumens, your first reaction should be skepticism. One exception to this rule, which is becoming more common as the technology evolves, is LED lumens, but we’ll go into that in more depth later. You may also see projector brightness described in lux with no other information to contextualize that measurement, which is another misleading marketing tactic.

Color Lumens

An important thing to note about the ANSI lumen standard is that it is measured using black and white video projections. Some projectors are listed with a Color Lumen Rating, which is important for picking a projector for projection mapping. Some projectors might measure high ANSI lumens, but when the same readings are taken on an RGB test pattern, they measure much lower. What this means for the consumer is that the color reproduction of that projector will not be very vibrant. Color Lumens are a good indicator of how vivid the colors of your projection will appear and should be as close or to the ANSI lumen rating as possible for the richest color quality.

Using Your Knowledge of Projector Brightness

Now that you have a better understanding of the many facets of brightness, you can select a projector with greater precision. To aid in that process, the Lightform Projection Mapping Calculator is a great resource to help you determine the brightness needed for your installation. For more information on projector brightness and selecting the right projector to use for your projection mapping project, read our blog on How to Pick a Projector.

Lightform Compatible Projector: How To Pick a Projector

Compatible projector - How to pick a projector
Compatible projector - How to pick a projector

Picking a compatible projector to use with the Lightform LFC to begin projection mapping can be daunting. To make it easier for you to get started, we’ve detailed what considerations you should consider when picking a projector. Recommending projectors can be tricky business as models change quite frequently, but these core features will help you get the most out of your Lightform LFC Kit.

The Basics

Choosing the right projector is going to revolve around brightness and image size. As brightness and image size increase, so does the price of a projector. As you begin your search for a projector to pair with your LFC, you should expect to spend at least $500 for a new projector. Top-of-the-line professional units can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and large-scale projection mapping projects can employ dozens or even hundreds of these high-end units. As the number of available options continues to grow, selecting a projector has not become any easier. We hope to demystify some of the terms and features to help you effectively narrow down your search. Here are a few things to consider when selecting a projector for your LFC.

Table of Contents

Quick Tip: Helpful Resources

Here are a few resources we use internally to select the right projector for our projection mapping projects.

  1. Lightform’s Projection Mapping Calculator is a useful resource to help you determine the brightness necessary for your installation.
  2. Find a Projector search tool via the Projector Central website makes it easy to find a compatible projector for the LFC. We have pre-filled in the search tool with the HDMI and throw ratio requirements to narrow down your choices for finding a compatible projector for the LFC. 
  3. Projector Throw Distance Calculator via the Projector Central website helps determine image size and throw distance.

Projector Requirements

The LFC supports projectors that meet the following criteria:

1. HDMI Input

Your projector must have an HDMI input to work with the LFC Kit. The LFC’s HDMI port is responsible for transmitting video data and the projector’s EDID, or Extended Display Identification Data. The EDID relays different characteristics about the projector, such as resolution, timing, and refresh rates, which the LFC needs to communicate with the projector properly. Some powered VGA and DVI converters work with some projectors even though they are not officially supported.

2. Contrast Ratio, Black Levels, and Projection Mapping

The contrast ratio and black levels of your projector are one of the most important elements to consider for projection mapping. We recommend a minimum contrast ratio of 10,000:1, particularly if you intend to project anywhere relatively dark. Higher contrast ratios will give you better results, and greater flexibility in dark situations, but will also increase the price.

Why does it matter?

Traditional projection, whether in a cinema or in your living room, emphasizes a rectangular image frame. Projection mapping, on the other hand, turns any 3D surface into an image frame. Projection mapping is like many special effects and compositing techniques; it relies on black background areas to selectively illuminate your scene. No matter how your projector creates an image, it cannot produce or project darkness, it can only attempt to divert or block light from illuminating the dark areas of your image.

Projector compatibility - how to pick a projector
A scan in Lightform Creator with surfaces and effect.
Compatible projector - how to pick a projector
The published Lightform video being played by the projector.

Some projectors can block light better than others, which results in higher contrast images and deeper black tones. Projectors that do not block light as effectively produce flatter, more washed out images, especially in dark environments. In a cinema application, you have the option to use specialized high gain black screens to compensate for a low contrast ratio, but in most projection mapping situations, this will not be the case.

The contrast levels of your projector will affect how visible the edges of your image frame will be when projecting black video, and how much your projection will “pop.” If your projection is significantly brighter than the ambient lighting, this image boundary will be more apparent with a lower contrast ratio, particularly when projecting onto flat surfaces. You can always add more ambient light to compensate, but a higher contrast ratio will help avoid some of these situations and make your projections more vivid in general.

Projector compatibility - how to pick a projector
Visible projection frame in low light using an Epson 1060 with 15000:1 Contrast Ratio and 3100 lumens.
Unfortunately, contrast ratio is a projector specification that is obfuscated by competing measurement methods and exaggerated marketing. ANSI contrast measurements are a more reliable measurement but are not universally used. The contrast ratio is defined as the brightness of the projected white video compared to the projected black video. When you see 15,000:1, that means that the white video measures 15,000 times brighter than the black video. The higher the ratio is, the more contrast there will be. But again, these numbers are sometimes inflated in marketing materials, or low ratios might be accompanied by misleading images, so if you are in doubt, search the reviews and specs.

3. “Brightness” - Lumens and More

How bright does my projector need to be? – This is often the first question people ask. The answer depends on a few different factors that will be unique to each individual situation. What we often casually refer to as projector “brightness” is its Lumen rating. In most cases, the LFC supports almost any projector with any normal or short-throw projector with 1000-100,000 lumens. Generally speaking, the larger your scene and the brighter the ambient lighting is, the brighter your projector will need to be, and as the brightness increases, so does the cost. The more ambient light present in your scene, and the larger your scene is, the more light you’ll want your projector to produce.
It’s usually better to have too many lumens and have to turn the projector brightness down or add additional lighting, than it is to not have enough.

To better understand projector brightness there are a few other concepts to familiarize yourself with. There is more to brightness than just lumens. Learn more about the other elements of brightness in our blog about lumens, luminance, illuminance, flux, lux, and foot-lamberts.

We recommend using the Lightform Projection Mapping Calculator to determine whether a given projector produces enough lumens for your scene.

4. Throw Ratio and Lenses

At this point we’ve talked about lumens and lux and how they relate to the illumination levels of your projected image at different sizes, but we haven’t explained how to determine the size of your projection, or how close or far your projector can be to achieve that image size.

The projector lens is a central component of creating a projected image. Similar to camera lenses, projector lenses are designed for specialized uses. A lens that works in one scenario will be the wrong tool in another. Outside of large event and venue projectors, most projectors are manufactured to be used in medium and large rooms. Short throw projectors are made with wide lenses designed to be placed close to the image plane and create a large picture frame. Long-throw projectors are designed to be placed at a distance while still creating an equivalent size frame.

Short and long-throw projectors are determined by throw ratio. To fully understand how and why Lightform works with these different projector types, we need to understand what Throw Ratio is.

Throw Ratio is defined as the size of your projected frame in relation to the distance between your frame and the projector. Like any ratio, it’s a simple division formula, the width (W) of the image frame is divided by the distance (D) between the frame and the projector. You will sometimes see Throw Ratio, or TR, written as a traditional ratio (e.g., 1.5:1), but oftentimes TR specs will exclude the :1 at the end.

The lower the TR number, the wider the picture frame, or the shorter the projector’s throw.

A projector with a throw ratio of 0.5:1 will create a frame that is twice as wide as the distance between the projector and the wall; at a 1m distance, the frame will be 2m wide, at 1.5m distance, the frame will be 3m wide, and so on. A projector with a throw ratio of 2:1 at a 1m distance will create a 0.5m wide frame, at 1.5m, the frame will be 0.75m wide, at 2m distance, the frame will be 1m wide, etc.

Using Throw Ratio

Using the throw ratio equation and its variations is essential when selecting the right projector for your experience – it’s important to consider the positioning of your projector and the size of the image you’d like to project (or the size of the scene you’d like to cover). With the throw ratio equation, you can determine:

1. The ideal throw ratio given the setup of your experience

           TR = TD / IW

           (Throw Ratio = Throw Distance / Image Width)

2. Where to place a projector given its throw ratio & your projected image size

            TD = TR x IW

            (Throw Distance = Throw Ratio x Image Width)

3. The width of the image a projector will produce given its throw ratio & throw distance

            IW = TD / TR

            (Image Width = TD / TR)

Many projector lenses are capable of optical zoom. They don’t have a fixed throw ratio but rather an adjustable one to give you more flexibility to work within your space’s physical constraints. These will be listed as a range, usually with two decimal points (e.g., 1.21-1.56). The greater that range is, the less constrained you will be when choosing your projector’s physical placement, so if you want to make sure you have some flexibility in your installations, that number might be a little more important to you. When looking at higher-end projectors, many of them have interchangeable lenses, which will give you a lot of options to rent or buy lenses with different throws as necessary. Be aware that an interchangeable lens feature can drive up the cost of these systems as they are not always included with every listing.

The Lightform LFC Kit works with projectors having a wide range of throw ratios, from 0.5:1 (short-throw) to 2:1 (long-throw). Two factors determine the throw ratio range that is compatible with the LFC.

Field of View – Lightform LFC’s 4K camera reads a series of visible structure light patterns during the scanning process. At each stage of the scan pattern, Lightform is recording the position of every projector pixel it can see and determining its position within the scene. With short-throw projectors, the LFC’s camera field of view, or FOV, is the limiting factor. If the throw ratio is lower than 0.5:1, the projector image will be too wide for the LFC camera; if the projector image extends beyond the edge of the camera frame, the LFC camera will be unable to detect and register the light from the full scene on its sensor.

Camera Sensor – For long-throw projectors with a throw ratio above 2:1, the 4K sensor on the LFC camera defines the upper limit of optimal compatibility. Lightform Creator’s scans and projects have a maximum resolution of 1920×1200 pixels. Lightform LFC’s 4K camera sensor has a resolution of 3840×2160 pixels, or roughly four times as many pixels as it is responsible for recording during a scan. When the throw ratio of a projector exceeds 2:1, the projector image will be visible to less than ¼ of the available 4K camera sensor pixels (i.e. less than 1920×1200 pixels) resulting in a scan resolution that is lower than the projector’s native resolution.

It is possible to use Lightform LFC with out-of-spec throw ratios beyond the 0.5:1-2:1 range by moving the LFC closer or further away with a long HDMI cable, but ideally, the camera lens should be on the same plane as the projector lens. During the scanning process, the projector lens and the LFC camera lens are essentially acting as two eyes to produce stereo vision. As the difference between the two lens planes increases, the fidelity of the depth disparity data will decrease, which will result in some effects and selection tools not behaving as intended.

It is also possible to modify the LFC camera to accept C and CS mount lenses, which will allow you to change the camera’s field-of-view to better match an out-of-spec throw ratio. This will give you better results than moving the LFC camera, but the conversion and lens will cost more than a long HDMI cable.

5. Throw Distance

Throw distance is the minimum and maximum distance your projector will project in focus. The focusing range of your lens constrains your physical placement options. The minimum distance is how close your projector can be without being out of focus, and the maximum is how far you can be without losing focus.

This does not mean that everything between those extremes will be in focus. How much of that given range will be in focus will vary from projector to projector. If you plan on video mapping a scene with a lot of depth, you’ll want to look for a projector with a larger focal range. In general, projectors are designed to create an image on a flat plane, so this isn’t really something that most listings mention, but often time longer throw ratios will allow for more of the projection to be in focus at one. Most short-throw and ultra-short-throw projectors have very limited focal distances, they are great for planar images close to a wall, but are not designed for scenes with depth.

6. Resolution and Aspect Ratio

Like cameras, televisions, smartphones, and pretty much anything with a screen, projectors come in a wide range of resolutions. Resolution is defined as the width and height dimensions of a digital image in pixels. A pixel is the base unit of modern digital imagery, a discrete point of color and brightness that can be individually addressed as one small part of the larger total image. The higher the number of pixels you have to work with, the more detailed your images will appear.

As you research projectors, you will encounter resolutions listed both in pixel dimensions and also their marketing equivalents, VGA (640×480), SD (720×480), HD (1280×720), Full HD (1920×1080), WUXGA (1920×1200), 2K (2560×1440), UHD/4K (3840×2160) and a few others.

Lightform is compatible with a wide range of projector resolutions and will generate scans and published projects with a resolution up to 1920×1200 (WUXGA). Higher resolutions are one of the features that will bring up the overall cost of a projector and may be worth considering if you intend to work on large scenes or with small text.

While a published Lightform project is limited to 1920×1200, many projectors with greater resolutions can upscale HD video to an approximated 4K image, which will look great with Lightform Creator effects. If you have room left in your projector budget for a projector with 4K upscaling, you will benefit from an overall crisper image with the increased pixel density, particularly if you intend to work with very large scenes.

7. Pixel Density

The screen you’re reading this on likely has an incredibly dense pixel array, no matter what its resolution is. More than likely, it’s at least 1920×1080, if not higher, but those pixels are so small that you can’t distinguish them individually without magnification. Digital projectors create images in standard video resolutions but enlarge them with optical lenses. As a result, individual pixels are much larger than on a phone or monitor. They are more readily perceived at close distances, a phenomenon known as the “screen door effect” because the space between pixels resembles the grid mesh of a physical screen door.

Most large-scale projection mapping projects maintain pixel density by blending multiple high resolution projectors together. If you’ve ever seen video mapping on a large building facade, the total resolution of that projection is significantly larger than any individual projector is capable of producing. Instead, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of high-end projectors are combined using software to create one enormous seamless image.

The process for a large scale Lightform project is much simpler, but since you won’t be blending multiple projectors, having the highest resolution projector you can afford will give you better pixel density. The more individual pixels you can fit on your projection surface, the more detailed your projections will appear. Viewing distance will also impact perceived resolution as projected experiences viewed from a short distance will reveal pixel density shortcomings. Conversely, projected experiences viewed from further away will conceal pixel density shortcomings like lower resolution billboards viewed from afar.
Pro Tip: It is also possible to mitigate the screen door effect by softening the optical focus of your projector lens, but be sure to keep your projector focused while taking a Lightform scan. Throwing the lens further out of focus can turn your projection into an even more ethereal experience if your content allows for it.

8. Lamps, Lasers, and LEDs

Lamps, laser and LED engines are systems that use optics to split a beam of white light into different colors. Any number of lamp types can create white light (there are quite a few varieties at this point) but they all need replacement after a few thousand hours. For the budget-conscious projector hunter, this means that you can sometimes find used projectors for sale or auction at a steep discount that only need a new lamp installed. However, the newer Laser and LED light sources have some distinct advantages.

Instead of splitting white light into three channels, these projectors start with the RGB channels already separated. In other words, they can reproduce more accurate and vibrant colors with higher contrast. They are also more power-efficient, brighter, and less light is lost to the color-splitting optics resulting in higher contrast and darker blacks. On top of that, they do not require lamp replacements. Most traditional projector lamps have a life expectancy of a couple of thousand hours and have to be replaced. Laser and LED projectors, on the other hand, are usually rated to last around 20,000 hours or more, saving time and money on maintenance.

Laser projectors have also breathed life back into the 1 Chip DLP system. Since they create RGB channels at the light source instead of needing a spinning color wheel, the Rainbow Effect – an artifact of the rapid switching between color channels, where you may see flashes of color in parts of the image with quick movements or high contrast – is no longer an issue, so if you see a 1 Chip DLP Laser projector, it might suit your needs just fine.

Some Laser projectors use a Laser Phosphor as a light source, which still relies on mirrors and color wheels to create an image. A blue laser (and sometimes a second red laser) hits a phosphor wheel, which creates yellow light when the laser photons collide into it, and that yellow light is then routed through the optical engine. These projectors don’t have all the color reproduction advantages of RGB Laser and LED systems but are still brighter and more efficient with no bulb replacements.

LED projectors create vivid colors, but their brightness is hard to qualify. They take advantage of what is known as the Helmholtz-Young effect when the human eye perceives highly saturated color as luminance. To a light meter, an LED projector won’t read as very bright, but their low lumens go a long way as the human brain interprets what is seen as brighter by two or three times the actual lumens. Many LED projectors are sold using marketing LED lumens, an estimation of how many lumens your eyes will see, to counter the low ANSI lumen spec. But there is no standard point of comparison for this so take everything you see with a grain of salt and read the reviews.

9. Imaging Chips

Digital projectors use one of two kinds of imaging chips to turn the video signal from an HDMI cable into a projected video image, 3LCD and DLP. With a couple of exceptions, they will both provide good results with Lightform.

3LCD projectors use dichroic mirrors to channel red, blue, and green light through three small Liquid Crystal Displays, then recombine the color channels with a prism or microlens array, and then project a full image out of the front lens. Each Liquid Crystal corresponds to a pixel; applying electricity to a liquid crystal changes its polarization to control the amount of light that passes through it. Some people find that 3LCD projectors tend to reproduce richer colors, but there is a lot of variance. Keep in mind that a Color Lumen rating similar to the ANSI Lumen rating indicates that a projector will have vibrant color reproduction.

DLP, or Digital Light Processing Chip, creates an image using a DMD, an array of thousands of micro-mirrors that can switch very rapidly between reflecting light towards or away from the lens. Unlike a Liquid Crystal, the micro-mirrors on a DLP chip are a binary on/off output. To create the correct gradations of brightness, multiple mirrors will be assigned to one image pixel, or the mirrors will switch on and off faster than the refresh rate of the video.

The earliest DLP systems used a single Chip DLP configuration, dividing white light into red, green, and blue with a color wheel and then reflecting each color channel off a single DMD one after another. Because the colors are flashing rapidly between color channels instead of being recombined, 1 Chip DLP projectors with a color wheel are prone to the previously discussed Rainbow Effect. Not everyone experiences this the same way, but it will show up on video recordings and still photos. Searching projector reviews for Rainbow Effect is a good habit to get into, and it’s recommended one avoid 1 Chip DLP projectors with color wheels.

3 Chip DLP projectors replaced the spinning color wheel, to eliminate the Rainbow Effect, with dichroic mirrors. Each color channel is directed to a dedicated micro-mirror array simultaneously, similar to the 3LCD configuration.

10. Vertical Offset

Vertical Offset is another feature of projector optics to be aware of when picking a projector. Most projectors are designed to sit on a surface or hang from a ceiling and create a rectilinear frame towards the center of a wall. To account for this, many of them have a 100% Vertical Offset (i.e., shifting the projected frame slightly higher versus directly straight ahead). With a 100% Vertical Offset the bottom of the projected frame will line up with the center of the projector lens, and the top of the projected frame comes out of the projector’s lens at an upward angle. A 0% vertical offset means the beam goes straight out of the lens like a flashlight and the center of the projector frame is in line with the projector lens.

Some projectors have more extreme offsets for particular situations. Higher-end projectors often have a Lens Shift feature, which will allow you to change the Vertical Offset and Horizontal Offset allowing you to move the frame around without distortion. Lens Shift is a great feature to have in physically constrained installations. You can make a vertical offset work to your advantage by installing projectors upside down and illuminating your scene from above. Minimizing occlusion of the projection as people pass in front of the projection surface makes ceiling-mounted projectors a favored installation approach in traditional situations as well as indoor projection mapping

Final Thoughts

There are many factors to weigh when purchasing a projector, and we by no means have covered them all, but we’ve found these have the greatest impact on successful use of Lightform projection mapping. To learn more about specific projectors we recommend conducting research at If you’d like to learn more about Lightform we have several articles in the Lightform Guide that can help you bridge this knowledge to use of Lightform products.

Behind the Scenes: Conservatory of Flowers – Event Projection Mapping

Lightform at Night Bloom - Event Projection Mapping
Lightform at Night Bloom - Event Projection Mapping

It’s no secret here at Lightform – we absolutely love projection mapping on plants. You can imagine our excitement when we were asked to bring our technology to San Francisco’s historic Conservatory of Flowers for their winter light show Night Bloom. Many botanical gardens and arboretums hold holiday light shows during the darkest months of the year, recently some have begun to employ projection mapping  alongside more traditional lighting elements.

A few months before the Night Bloom installation began, we brought a 7k lumen Epson G7500 and an LFC beta unit to do some demos and tests in the space. The Conservatory of Flowers has a large outdoor area with manicured lawns, flower beds, and sculptures, but inside its main structure, a sprawling 140-year-old greenhouse, room after room of tropical and subtropical plants thrive. The gift shop at the end of the circuit features a large, lovingly maintained living wall about 3 meters tall and 5 meters wide, which turned out to be our best option for both the simplicity of the mapping and the fact that the watering routine in that particular room was far safer for our equipment.

What we learned in our mid-summer tests as the late afternoon sun came through the greenhouse was that plants absorb light like their lives depend on it, especially the ones with waxy, dark, green leaves. With the projector about 6 meters from the plant wall, we were able to scan and project, but the darker colors of our projection seemed to disappear in the foliage even as the sun dipped below the trees outside. Nonetheless, the botanists who had been tending the plants were excited to see the leaves coming to life and stuck around to watch after their workday was over.

We decided to install our most powerful projector with the LFC Kit on the living wall for maximum effect throughout Night Bloom’s multi-week run. With 12k lumens and a high-contrast 3-LCD laser light engine, the Epson L1505u has done a lot of heavy lifting on many of our large-scale projection mapping projects. With the amount of foot traffic in the gallery, and sprinkler systems just above head height, hanging the projector overhead was the best option for the space. Because the Conservatory’s white-painted glass and redwood greenhouse is a historic structure, there are only a few specified rigging points in the building, and while they’re usually only used to suspend potted plants, they are rated for hanging more than a ton of equipment.

Rigging points above the irrigation system - Night Bloom Event Projection Mapping
Rigging points above the irrigation system.

Those rigging points were not in the most convenient to place to reach, or in a good spot for our projection angle, so we suspended two lengths of aluminum speedrail pipe from the rigging eyes with aircraft cable, which gave us new rigging point facing the living wall just above everything in the space that could potentially cast shadows. Adding a cage to our big event venue projector brought its total weight to just below 100lbs (45kg), well within spec, and allowed us to hang it from the speedrail using slings and shackles. When rigging a projector for any projection mapping project, rigidity is a huge concern, any movement near your projector will translate to your whole image, so eliminating vibrations and swaying at the source is critical. Hanging a projector from several lengths of cable may seem counter-intuitive, but with enough weight, many points of contact, and the immovable structure of this old building, once the projector settled into position it was incredibly stable.

Night Bloom Event Projection Mapping - Tilt controls on projector’s cage
Tilt controls on our projector’s cage allowed us to adjust the position after flying it.

The living wall, by contrast, was quite dynamic. Dozens of individual plants of all different species, all growing at different rates, being pruned back, or handled by attendees, meant that throughout Night Bloom’s run we had to take a new scan at least once or twice a week. This presented us with a great real-world opportunity to test the Lightform Cloud remote scan and deploy features that we were beginning to develop, not that we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to work on-site in this beautiful venue from time to time as well. 

One of the areas where Lightform Creator excels is in quickly augmenting complex organic textures and creating ambient environmental projection mapping shows. To keep maintenance to a minimum, we created one single surface, a simple vignette mask that covered the entire living wall with a soft feathered border, and let the software’s reactive effects do the rest. We used just about every scan-driven effect in Creator, some of our favorites repeated multiple times with different settings, until we had over 30 slides, each between 30 to 60 seconds long.

That’s a lot of video to render multiple times a week, so we took advantage of the LFC’s ability to run one effect per slide live on the device. This wouldn’t have saved us as much time if we needed to have multiple surfaces and effects on each slide, but when you’re projection mapping onto an intricate and detailed subject, like a living wall, or a mural, a single Creator effect can go a very long way, and it meant that we could take our scans in ideal lighting conditions during magic hour and have the updated show running before Night Bloom’s doors opened in the twilight.

As if that wasn’t a dynamic enough projection mapping situation, we also decided to install a Lightform on a smaller 3100 lumen Epson 1060 home cinema projector and illuminate an operational fountain. A few different species of pond grasses floating on top of the water helped absorb some of the ripples and wavelets from the flowing water. What was not immediately apparent during our tests was that the pond grasses were replenished every few days as they disappeared into the belly of a large Koi named Frank. Not to worry, as Frank gorged himself and the mapped grasses moved out of alignment or through Frank’s GI tract, knee-deep water scattered our projector beam in all directions. The refractions and reflections of our Creator effects as they hit the fountain enhanced the ambiance just as effectively as if they had been freshly mapped.

Every night for six weeks, hundreds of attendees walked through an entirely transformed space created by Lightform and Lightswitch, experiencing colored mood lighting and laser beams interacting with exotic plants in new ways, and for many, experiencing projection mapping for the first time. One particularly enthusiastic child sat themself down in front of the living wall at the end of the exhibit and loudly declared, “I could watch this for hours!” The adults may have shown more restraint, but all generations shared the sense of wonder and our friends at the Conservatory of Flowers were beyond pleased with the installation and excited to begin expanding the use of projection mapping in their after dark event schedule. See the full video of the Night Bloom event on our Instagram.

Behind the Scenes: Nice Kicks – Projection Mapping A Product Launch

Projection Mapping A Product Launch – Nice Kicks + Lightform

Projection Mapping A Product Launch

Projection Mapping A Product Launch – Event Space Before

Editors Note: Continuing our Behind the Scenes blog post series Sean Servis, Lightform’s production engineer, details what went into projection mapping a product launch for Nice Kicks. Discussed are the technical details about location set up, equipment used (including the Lightform LFC and LF2),  ambient lighting management, and more. Read on to learn more about the event and what went into capturing the visuals for our Nice Kicks product launch project video featuring Lightform projection mapping. 

In the summer of 2019, Lightform had the opportunity to collaborate with our friends at Nice Kicks to transform a portion of their retail space using projection mapping. Located in the Upper Haight neighborhood of San Francisco, their shop’s top floor had recently been gutted to prepare for a remodel. It served as the perfect setting for a launch party for their new sneaker release celebrating the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.  We met the Nice Kicks team a few weeks before launch in their luxuriously black space – black marble floors, black trim, and in some areas, black ceilings – and made a plan for how Lightform could be best deployed to augment their plans to turn that space into Woodstock, 1969. 
Projection Mapping A Product Launch – Set Installation
Laser distance meters are a helpful addition to any projection mapping toolkit.
When we returned the week before launch, the sleek dark space had been transformed. Fresh white paint made even the deepest recesses brighter, and the marble flooring had disappeared under a layer of new spongy astroturf. Taking inspiration from 1960’s documentary footage and photographs, the Nice Kicks team added some set pieces to the space. Cotton clouds, freshly salvaged tree stumps, and a few chain-link fence sections created an immersive environment while also serving as display surfaces for the sneaker and shirt launch party. Simple wooden ticket kiosks, replicas of the originals at Woodstock, were used to hand out swag and refreshments and gave us a stable surface to put a projector, which we used to add a blue sky and clouds behind the chain fence, making the small space feel more spacious.

Testing Lightform Creator’s reactive projection mapping effects on the Woodstock sneakers, an Adidas Ultraboost collaboration with bright tie-dye patterns, felt like cheating. The most psychedelic shaders in the Lightform software tend to perform well on psychedelic subjects, so no one was surprised when Ganzfeld, Palette Trip, and Ripple took it up a notch. With a screen printing station for customizing handmade tie-dye shirts, there were plenty of test subjects to choose from.

Projection Mapping A Product Launch – Scan + Design
Our wizards testing out different elements and deciding where to mount everything within the projection frame.
Projection Mapping A Product Launch – Projection Mapped Props
The fully-dressed set with completed projection mapping.
The fact that the space was slated for an overhaul afterward gave us the freedom to drill as many holes as we needed to hang our projectors overhead. A skylight shaft near the chain-link fence display area gave us a nice spot to mount two LF2 units into the ceilings recessed area. This recessed area gave us extra clearance and ample coverage with the LF2s’ 1.2 throw ratio to map the full wall with two projectors. We used a few different configurations of Avenger ⅝”/16mm baby plates with the LF2 Pro Mounting Plate, with swivel joints in the middle giving us plenty of flexibility to tilt and pan projection as needed.

A second skylight shaft near the opposite wall was the perfect place to hang another LF2 projector to showcase three large prints from the sneaker’s photo marketing campaign. We picked out a few key photo elements to highlight with colorful effects but left most of the photographs un-illuminated not to overpower them.  We had some real estate left above the photos, so we imported some JPEG files of all of our logos into Lightform Creator and threw some extra branding in the space.

Projection Mapping A Product Launch – Projection Mapping Photos
Projection mapping on product photography.

The skylights were as far back from the windows facing the street as possible, but as the setup progressed and we took stock of the ambient light throughout the day, it became apparent that there would still be too much daylight coming through them for the first hour or so after the doors opened. Usually, we would use some duvetyne and or a tarp for a temporary blackout. Still, since we had some spare posters for the event lying around, we used those to cover the windows instead making for a more cohesive ambiance while still meeting our lighting requirement.

Projection Mapping A Product Launch – Mounting On Joists
Side-mounting Epson 1060s from ceiling joists using a hodgepodge of 5/8″-16mm grip components.

The second half of the space faced the street and had floor-to-ceiling windows that were not easily dimmed. To address this, we opted to use some brighter (3100 lumens) Epson 1060 home cinema projectors with Lightform LF so that intruding light at sunset wouldn’t present too much competition. Two-thirds of a long, bare wall running towards the window was soon covered top to bottom with a vinyl collage of black and white photos with some empty white rectangles. Like many commercial and industrial spaces in San Francisco, this building dated back to the 1930-40s and features large exposed redwood joists in the ceiling. Using Avenger baby plates and swivel joints, we mounted projectors out of sight by screwing them into the joist’s sides.

Two Epson 1060s with LFCs gave us enough coverage for projection mapping on the photo wall. The Magic Wand tool, in Lightform Creator, made picking out elements like brake lights and protest signs to highlight super easy. The empty white rectangles in the collage gave us the perfect areas to project archival film footage in color, a striking video presentation surrounded by still images.

The remaining section of empty wall space had a more mural-like vinyl decal covering it, a line drawing of a dove rendered after historic Woodstock artwork with the words Peace and Love. The black linework of the large vinyl decal sat atop a white background. This stark contrast made the selection of different inner sections of the dove a simple two-click operation with the Magic Wand tool. Filling in the voids with Lightform Creator’s trippiest, most colorful effects made the whole thing come to life, particularly after one of our engineers added a new tie-dye generator to Lightform Creator for us.

Projection Mapping A Product Launch – Nice Kicks + Lightform
Two Epson 1060s with LFC projection mapping video and Lightform Creator Effects on vinyl.

The Nice Kicks crew knocked it out of the park, both in transforming the physical space, and making a whole line of products that were a natural fit for projected augmented reality. The Woodstock launch allowed us to showcase a few different ways of using Lightform for retail and events all at once, on photography, on products, bare walls, murals, neon signs, and more. The attention to set dressing details really gave Lightform a great starting point to take the whole scene to the next level, and for me, it reinforced that some of the most compelling projection mapping events benefit from paying just as much attention to the physical elements as the digital ones.

Tomato Loves Projection Mapping
Lightform’s very own Tomato loves projection mapping and product launch events.

Halloween Projection Mapping Ideas to Scare and Entertain Audiences

Halloween Projection Mapping Ideas for Indoor and Outdoor Scenes
Halloween Projection Mapping Ideas for Indoor and Outdoor Scenes
As Halloween approaches and the boundaries between this world and the spirit world become thinner and thinner, you may be tempted to experiment with spells and pentagrams to summon all manner of demons and ghouls to bend to your will. This kind of powerful dark magic is a very specialized skill, unfortunately, but with Lightform you can join the ranks of centuries’ worth of magicians who have convinced a terrified public that ghosts haunt our world with Halloween projection mapping. Halloween helps mark the Vernal Equinox, halfway between the Summer and Winter Solstices in the Northern Hemisphere. As the nights grow longer, so too does the window for outdoor projection mapping. However there are plenty of effective indoor projections options also.

Scary Projections: Renaissance to Disneyland

Some of the earliest projected images were horrific, intended to scare audiences and convince them that what they were seeing was real. In 1420, over 100 years before the Magic Lantern existed, Italian renaissance inventors drew the projected figures of winged demons emanating from abstract contraptions. Many of the earliest illustrations of Magic Lanterns in use show projected demons, and the horror genre and projection arts have been closely intertwined ever since.

Projection Mapping and phantasmagoria are similarly connected. In fact, the very first projection mapping installation, Grim Grinning Ghosts at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, used 16mm film projection to selectively illuminate marble busts and create the illusion of ghoulish “living” faces. Like many special effects and optical illusions, projection mapping relies on using black backgrounds to mask out parts of a scene and selectively illuminate specific objects and surfaces. You can apply this technique much more easily with modern digital projectors and computer software like Lightform Creator, which allows you to quickly select your areas of illumination using a scan of your scene.

Making 21st Century Jack-o-lanterns with projection mapping.

Halloween Projection Mapping Ideas - Front Projection

If you have a marble bust lying around, you could recreate your own grim grinning ghosts, or you could use the same projection mapping technique on any Halloween decorations. Skeletons, skulls, and calaveras all react well to Lightform creator effects. Projection mapping a face on a pumpkin uses the same concept as Disney’s ghouls. You can make or find videos and gifs of animated jack-o-lantern faces with black backgrounds that will readily map to your gourd, but you can also draw your own design using Lightform Creator’s brush and pen tools, and add fire effects, or whatever new twist you’d like to add to your surface for a unique, customizable jack-o-lantern.

Ghosts and spiderwebs can make for some of the spookiest projections. Anything with delicate fibers will appear to glow as light penetrates further into them than with a solid surface. This diaphanous quality can be used to great advantage with an ethereal subject, such as a ghost. However, when projection mapping a ghoul’s shroud, you will want to immobilize your subject as much as possible to keep the mapping accurate.
Ghosts on Ghosts

Halloween Projection Mapping Ideas - Rear Projection

Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion also used another much older trick to create the illusion of spirits and apparitions, which may be useful in your own haunted house. Pepper’s Ghost appeared in theatres in 1862, but previous versions of the trick existed in rougher forms well before then. It can be done in a few configurations. The basic setup involves a sheet of glass positioned at the correct angle to appear transparent from the audience’s perspective while reflecting a second scene from a side room towards the audience when the side room is illuminated. The result is the appearance of a transparent “ghost” image on the main stage. If you’ve ever seen a reflection on a window appear superimposed over the real world on the other side of the glass, the concept is the same, just with controlled lighting design. 

A Pepper’s Ghost Illusion configured to reflect from the orchestra pit.

This trick is still done traditionally using glass today. Still it has evolved with projection technology. There are a wide range of projection scrims and “holographic screens” designed specifically for creating a Pepper’s Ghost illusion with digital projectors serving as the original side room. Some of the most well-known deceased entertainment figures of our time have been called back to this world at high-profile events in the past decade using large event venue projectors and the largest and most expensive of these special screens. While they are often referred to as holograms, in truth, it’s a projected Pepper’s Ghost that put Tupac, Michael Jackson, and others back onstage with the living.

Rear projection is very similar to the modern Pepper’s Ghost but more straightforward. Instead of projecting towards an angled scrim from the side, the projector is positioned behind a screen to illuminate it from the rear. Rear projection is a great technique to use on windows. Since your window is a rectangular frame anyway, you don’t necessarily have to worry about having a black background in your video assets. If you want to turn your window into a portal to a scene of unspeakable horror instead of using it to conjure spectral apparitions, the window frame will help establish that context.

Any relatively sheer curtain, or a stretched sheet, can be a suitable rear projection screen. There are several window films and treatments specifically designed to turn glass into a projection surface. These window films provide greater visual clarity and better light transmission. This approach is effective with videos of, say, hands desperately clawing to escape, blood splattering against the inside of your windows, or a scene of witches and werewolves silhouetted against a full moon, for example. The point is to have fun with it and maybe make your neighbors reconsider their housing choices. You may want to position your projector at a slight angle to prevent glare from your projector lens from interfering with the illusion. As that angle changes, you’ll see the window frame in your scan appear to skew. To make sure your content is not distorted, you can corner pin your rectangular videos to the window frame using Lightform Creator’s structure tool.

If your projector can produce a frame large enough to cover the whole area, you might consider projection mapping your entire house for Halloween, or maybe just a section of it. If this is the approach you’re thinking about, make sure you have a safe place to put your projector to protect it from the elements. If it’s going to be outside, a projector enclosure is a great way to protect your gear. Pulling the curtains closed during your scan will give you a better scan result, as well as another surface to project on if you’re not using them as rear projection screens. You’ll also probably want to adjust the perspective of any video assets you use in your projection mapping show to align to the architecture, just like with the window scenario we just described.

Interactivity with OSC Triggers

Now, all of these techniques are great for creating spooky projections for Halloween, but whether you’re projection mapping for the trick-or-treaters in your neighborhood or you’re designing a haunted house, keep in mind that some of the best scares are born of surprise. If you want to bring some interactivity to your horror show, OSC triggers can help you increase the fear factor. If you have a blank looping slide in your Creator project, it will play indefinitely without any input to advance. With OSC triggers, you can use a motion sensor to turn on your frightening light show at just the right moment to send passersby running for their lives and then reset to the blank slide and let your automated system wait for the next unwitting victim.

What Will You Create?

While the threshold between our world and the liminal spirit world only blurs during Halloween, with the evolution of projection technology, the boundaries between our imagination and our ability to create get continually thinner. Hopefully, we’ve given you some new ideas for Halloween projection mapping projects and how to use projection mapping for your holiday displays this season, and maybe (once you clean up the viscera), you’ll have some ideas for the holiday season ahead. Happy haunting, and be sure to share your Halloween projections in the comments below.

Author’s Note: the author is not a psychopath, his parents were married on Halloween. Perhaps they are the psychopaths.

The History of Projection Technology

History of Projection – Theatreoptique
As with all technologies, the history of projection is the story of the culmination of many individual advancements in the arts and sciences. From the earliest shadow plays on the cave walls of antiquity to 360° projection domes, humans have been enchanted by light and color and driven by the desire to share stories, ideas, and experiences. Even with all the incredible progress of the past few centuries, we exist in a time when the capabilities of human technology allow us to express our creative ideas in ways unimaginable to us as recently as 20-30 years ago. Projection, from the Latin proicere, or “throw forth” is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the presentation of an image on a surface.” Other definitions follow a similar vein, but almost all omit the most important element: light.
1721 Jacob s Gravesande_-_Physices Elementa Mathematica

Magic Lantern of Jan van Musschenbroek as depicted in “Physices Elementa Mathematica,” 1720


Early projection arts relied on natural light and fire. We don’t know for certain at what point early humans learned how to make the shadow of their hand resemble a dog, or a bunny, or a bird, but we do know that scientists in the early days of recorded history already had a sophisticated understanding of the physics of light. The Han Chinese Philosopher Mozi and the Greek Philosopher Euclid both described the phenomenon of light passing through a small aperture and projecting an upside-down image on the other side, which would eventually become known as the Camera Obscura.

If you have ever made a pinhole camera, you have made a Camera Obscura. From the Latin for “dark room,” the concept was employed throughout the world in a variety of novel ways, but until the advancements in optical mirrors and lenses of the 17th century, its potential as a projection tool was limited. The flipped image it produced, however, demonstrated that light travels in a straight line.


The development of reflective technology was already well underway more than 2000 years ago in China’s Han Dynasty. Skilled metalworkers created intricate brass “light penetration mirrors,” often known in the west as a Chinese Magic Mirror. These little wonders featured intricate patterns and motifs on one side, with tiny imperfections introduced to the flat metal surface on the back. When reflecting light off of the slightly concave mirror side, the decorative pattern on the opposite side is projected seemingly from nothing. 

Around the same time in the 1st Millennium BCE, the development of Shadow Play theater performances took off in Asia. Performers told stories by casting their shadows on a back-lit cloth stageDiaphanous puppets made of cloth and leather emerged to cast an ethereal presence onto the stage. Many cultures in Asia still practice their own versions of this early projection art with the addition of modern lighting

A modern Wayang Kulit performance

While the craft was firmly rooted in Asia, it eventually spread westward, reaching the Middle East in the 13th or 14th century CE, and then to Europe with French missionaries returning from China in the late 17th century CE. While these Ombres Chinoises, or Chinese Shadows, did have a cultural impact in the west, post-renaissance Europe was in a scientific fervor, and they faced stiff competition from an emerging technology that would soon become the preeminent means of projection for the next few centuries: 


The Magic Lantern, widely credited to Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1659, was built upon the principles of the Camera Obscura and a century and a half’s worth of experiments with new optical technology. Leonardo Da Vinci drew a similar projection device in 1515, and other inquisitive minds began combining lenses and mirrors to create all manner of microscopes, telescopes, and optical illusions, although none of them were widely available to the public. When the Magic Lantern debuted, candles and oil lamps were still the only artificial light sources available, but the improvement of concave mirrors and condenser lenses allowed for those light sources to be concentrated into a beam intense enough to project images at previously unseen distances.

Those images first came in the form of hand-painted glass plates that a lanternist would slide into a slot just at the point where the controlled light beam converged into focus, but the medium expanded rapidly to enable all manner of enchanting illusions. These slides were sandwiched between two pieces of wood and could be made with multiple image layers, which let a lanternist create movement within a projection by manipulating a small lever, thereby moving the layers independently. Stacking two or three Magic Lanterns allowed for even more layering and movement, as well as transitions like dissolves.

Advertisement for Triple Lantern, 1886

The introduction of mechanical gears inside the slide itself enabled colorful abstractions like the Victorian Chromatrope, which used a small crank handle to rotate two discs with colorful patterns in opposite directions and create a dynamic color spectacle, much like a kaleidoscope.


New optical technology wasn’t just accelerating humans’ ability to create a spectacle, it was advancing our knowledge of the inner workings of the universe. New glass-making techniques using lead resulted in optically clear, low-dispersion lenses and prisms. More than just the inventor of one of the most popular projection systems of all time, Christaan Huygens was a Natural Philosopher who, with his 17th-century contemporaries, sought to explain the inner workings of the world. Huygens and others observed the reflections, diffractions, and refractions of light and proposed that light was a wave, a luminiferous ether that spread out from its source in all directions.

A prism splitting white light into distinct color wavelengths.

Famed English Physicist Isaac Newton disagreed, believing that if light traveled in a straight line, then it could not be a wave. Newton observed the way a prism of glass separated a beam of light into a distinct spectrum of colors and concluded that this separation could only occur if light was made of incredibly tiny particles, or corpuscules. The two opposing schools of thought went back and forth for centuries, but the mystery persisted.

Newton’s experiments with prisms also demonstrated one of the inherent challenges of producing a clear optical image with glass lenses, chromatic aberration. Since the color separation that occurred with the glass optics of his telescope interfered with his astronomical experiments, he constructed a telescope made of mirrors instead. This, in turn, inspired Swiss Astronomer Leonhard Euler’s Episcope in the mid-18th century. It is also known as an opaque projector, because instead of focusing a beam of light through a translucent medium, it illuminated the surface on which it sat. A hole in the bottom meant the episcope could be placed over any image or object, then a mirror at the top would reflect the image of that object through a lens to create an enlarged, albeit dim projection. 


By the 19th century Magic Lantern shows were nearly ubiquitous, and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. The invention of the Argand Lamp in 1780 and the limelight in 1826 made Magic Lanterns and episcopes brighter than ever before. The advent of controlled electrical lighting like the Carbon Arc lamp and incandescent bulbs were an even bigger improvement as the infrastructure to power them expanded. An enormous increase in the pace of research and development in the fields of chemistry, physics, electricity, magnetism, engineering, and countless others in the 1800s gave birth to an explosion of scientific and technological advancements that would lead to the advent of projected cinema before the century’s end. 

Étienne-Jules Marey’s zoetropes used sculpted sequences instead of planar images, 1887

Early experiments in animation like the Phenakistiscope in 1833 demonstrated the phenomenon of persistence of vision, which allows the human brain to perceive small incremental differences between images as a sequential movement. Where the Phenakistiscope was a flat disc that showed every stage of a painted sequence at once as it rotated at speed, its near-immediate successor, the Zoetrope, put the image sequence on the inside wall of the spinning cylinder and was viewed through a narrow vertical slit in the cylinder wall to create enough separation between each individual part of the sequence to fools the eye into seeing continuous motion. These early painted animations were not projected, but they laid the groundwork for innovations to come. 


Photographers in the late 19th century, most notably Eadweard Muybridge, were capturing sequential motion in the form of Chronophotography but had no means of projecting those sequences at speed, though Muybridge did show Chronophotographic sequences frame by frame with a Magic Lantern. To be projected at speeds sufficient to maintain persistence of vision required Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope, which placed a photographed sequence on a thin paper or glass disc which then rotated between a lamp and a lens to project rapidly advancing moving images. 

In the late 1880s, French lantern slide painter and inventor Émile Reynaud replaced the rotating mirrors of his similar Praxinoscope with a light source and attached a reel of hundreds of hand-painted gelatin plates mounted in a cardboard strip that advanced via a turning handle. In 1892 his Pantomimes Lumineuses debuted in Paris. The projections of this Theatre Optique had much longer movement sequences than a Magic Lantern show. Still, the interval between motions was not short enough to appear persistent, and the gelatin and cardboard medium was not very durable under the strain of constant exhibition. Reynaud exhibited this show to half a million people over 8 years but had to laboriously repaint entire sequences to keep it going.

History of Projection – Theatreoptique

Émile Reynaud’s Theatre Optique


While Reynaud was painting on gelatin, experiments with photographing and projecting sequences on rolls of paper film also demonstrated the need for more durable materials, and by 1889 the Eastman Kodak company had introduced plastic Celluloid Film. Within two years, Thomas Edison’s team of researchers, led by William Dickson, had cut the 70mm celluloid strips in half and added perforations, known as sprocket holes, to create the first viable 35mm motion picture film stock.

Dickson’s team rapidly adapted clockwork mechanisms to create the Kinetograph motion picture camera and its companion viewing device, the Kinetoscope. Producing the illusion of smooth motion on film required the ability to advance the film frame by frame and stop the film in place long enough to expose each frame without blurring the image. The addition of a round shutter rotating in sync with the film’s advance blocked the light from hitting the film as it moved to the next frame. For the illusion to work, this had to happen at least 16 times every second with every part of the mechanism working in concert. The half-ton, battery-powered Kinetograph captured 40 frames every second. 

Interior view of Edison’s Kinetoscope

To display these images required the same intricate mechanical harmony. The Kinetoscope was the first machine to display moving cinema images, but it was not a projector – only one person at a time could view these movies by looking through a small viewport. In Paris in 1894, one of those viewers was Antoine Lumière, who, along with his brother Louis, had just recently taken over their father’s photography business. The Lumière Brothers determined to make an even better machine, and at the end of 1895, they hosted the first public screening of projected motion film with their own invention, the Cinématographe.


The Lumière brothers modified the mechanism of a sewing machine to achieve intermittent motion, and instead of electricity, they relied on a simple hand crank. While this only allowed them to shoot and project 16 frames per second to Edison’s 40 frames, the result was a much lighter, portable device that could not only shoot films but also project them with limelight. While Edison’s heavy Kinetograph was immobilized in a dark studio in New Jersey, the Lumières’ all-in-one Cinématographe was being replicated and sent around the globe, with operators shooting and screening movies worldwide.

Cinématographe configured for projection

The technology that powered the Cinématographe has been tweaked and refined, but the basic mechanism in film projectors and cameras remains relatively unchanged even today. The Lumières, however, did not see a future for their invention, and gradually focused most of their attention on developing color film processes, leaving other filmmakers and inventors to fill the void.

The first decade of cinema was largely a traveling roadshow, with screenings moving from one temporary venue to another, but by 1905 the first permanent movie theater, “The Nickelodeon” was established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Access to the electrical grid meant that projectors could use more consistent incandescent lamps and more powerful carbon-arc lights. The 2-in-1 Projector and Camera combination became less relevant, and Film Studios began to build their own movie theaters exclusively to screen their respective productions.


Film Projectors and Cameras were produced in a huge variety of formats, all vying for preeminence. The differences in film gauge (or width), and the size, spacing, and location of the perforations that allow the film to advance led to compatibility and distribution issues between standards, and within a few decades most projectors and cameras were using the same formats. The larger film gauges, like 70mm and 35mm, were akin to today’s 4k UHD and 1080 HD formats in picture quality, but because the film was physically bigger, it was more expensive to produce, shoot and store compared to smaller gauges like 16mm and 8mm, which were similar to SD and VGA resolutions and more frequently used in schools, homes and other smaller venues. These gauges are related by a factor of 2 because they were created by cutting a larger film strip in half down its entire length.

Dickson’s 35mm Film Standard

If the film jammed while running through the projector, it would often burn in place from the intense heat of the lamp behind it. Kodak’s first Celluloid film was made of Cellulose Nitrate, which was also used as gunpowder due to its extreme volatility. Fires in projection booths and storage areas were a very real danger, and nitrate film’s flammability only increased with age. By 1909 Nitrate began to be replaced by more stable Celluloid Acetate film stocks, although it remained in use into the 1950s. Since the 1980s, Polyester has been used as the base layer for photographic film.


The plastic base layer of a filmstrip functions to hold an emulsion of light-sensitive chemicals that react when exposed to light. Most photographic emulsions have been composed of silver halide compounds. Silver nitrate, silver chloride, and their photoreactive properties were discovered hundreds of years before the first successful photograph was permanently “fixed” by chemically stabilizing the light-sensitive reaction. Individual grains of the silver emulsion react by darkening depending on how much light they are exposed to, and then a chemical wash halts the process and removes the grains that have not reacted, leaving behind a negative black and white image made of millions of individual crystals.

close-up view of the grain structure of black and white photographic emulsion

Photographic Enlargers projected the negative image onto a sheet of photosensitive paper, which was then developed and chemically stabilized to produce a final positive photographic print. In the 1920s the Optical Printer applied the same concept to transferring images between strips of motion picture film by pairing a film projector and a film camera together in mechanical sync, which enabled the complex masking and compositing of multiple layers of moving images. It was used for special effects and some animation techniques and remained an important tool into the late 20th century.


Optical printing was not the only option for creating special effects, using projectors on film sets in rear projection and front screen projection setups were also common techniques to combine scenes into one final image. A previously filmed background scene would be projected onto a large screen from behind the stage, while to a camera on the other side of the screen, actors appeared to inhabit fantastical worlds and noisy situations where trying to record dialogue would otherwise prove fruitless. Projectors were also a popular practical lighting effect, displaying images directly onto the scenes or actors on camera.

Zeiss Mark I Planetarium Projector, 1926

Other purely mechanical optical illusions emerged. On one end of the spectrum, the incredibly complex Zeiss Planetarium projectors could recreate the movements of the stars through the night sky on the inside of a large dome. On the other end of the spectrum, a GOBO disc inserted into a spotlight assembly could create patterns and images for theatrical performance, as well as film lighting effects, mimicking rain, trees, and window frames, or summoning vigilantes. Adding plastic color gels to the GOBO gave it even more flexibility.


Adding color to film projection proved more difficult. After nearly a century of research and development by photographic pioneers, the addition of red, green, and blue chemical dye layers on top of the silver emulsion led to the emergence of the first viable forms of color photography in the 1930s, and Hollywood’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz dazzled theater-goers with the first moving color film images. This technique built upon the Young-Helmholz Trichromatic Color Theory suggested more than a century prior. Helmholtz and Young postulated that the average human eye receives primary colors via three separate types of light-sensitive cells, and then the brain combines each cell’s information into what we perceive as full color.

The world’s first color photograph by Physicist James Clerk Maxwell

This theory inspired Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell to produce the very first color photograph in 1861. Four years later, Maxwell went on to revolutionize our understanding of the universe with his Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. Maxwell observed that magnetic and electric fields both traveled in waves at the same constant speed as light does. Since these waves move at a constant velocity, different levels of energy manifest as variations in the frequency at which those waves oscillate. Together, the range of energy levels of these radiation waves is known as the Electromagnetic Spectrum


Most of these waves are not visible to humans. Low-frequency radio waves, microwaves, and infrared waves have the longest wavelengths, and high-frequency ultra-violet, x-rays, and gamma rays have the shortest wavelengths. Between these two ends of the spectrum is a tiny range of electromagnetic radiation frequencies that we know as visible light. These frequencies stimulate the three unique types of light-sensitive cells in your retina, which we know as cone cells. 

Each of the three kinds of cone cells in the human retina are sensitive to a specific range of the electromagnetic spectrum. When a specific frequency of radiation hits one of these cone cells, that sends a signal to the brain, which interprets it as what we know as red. A different frequency wave hitting a cone cell sensitive to that range tells the brain it has seen blue, and a third cone cell communicates when it comes into contact with green wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation.

The sensitivity range of the three types of human cone cells to the visible wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These distinct color signals are interpreted in the brain as a sum of their parts, like mixing different colors of paint together. Applying this same additive color strategy to photographic film with different layers of color dyes successfully replicated this phenomenon. Modern photographic film stocks, as well as ink printers, tend to use CMYK subtractive color – in which Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are removed from White light to render colors, but electronic display systems use the additive RGB color space.

Many of these early color films were positive images, which meant that they could be viewed directly without the need to print them with a photo enlarger. While Magic Lanterns were still used to project glass photographic slides well into the 20th century, the new 35mm photographic slide film projectors that became popular in the 1950s and ‘60s finally relegated the Magic Lantern to obsolescence and became a feature of classroomsconference rooms, and homes


The 1950s also saw the advent of commercial television. While not all televisions are strictly projectors, the television’s technological advancements in transmitting, receiving, and rendering electrical and radio signals into a moving image are also the foundation of digital projection. In 1884 German inventor Paul Nipkow patented his eponymous Nipkow Disc, a simple wheel with a spiral pattern of aperture holes. When combined with newly invented photovoltaic sensors that could convert light into electrical signals, scientists were able to electronically transmit and display simple images with light by 1885. As the disc rotated over a thousand times per minute in front of a light sensor, the variations in brightness as each moving point of light passed by were converted into an electric signal, with each hole in the spiral forming one vertical line of the frame from left to right. This technique was known as raster scanning.

The mechanical television we could have had.

Scotsman John Logie Baird experiments with displaying these raster scans by synchronizing a second Nipkow disc and using the encoded light signal to modulate the voltage of a neon lamp behind the viewing disc were known as the mechanical televisor. The image was tiny, particularly compared to the size of the machine itself, and was very high contrast, but it demonstrated an alternative to chemical film. Instead of rendering each individual frame of an image sequence in its entirety for a fraction of a second like a film system, mechanical television leveraged persistence of vision and the raster scan to record and display just a small portion of the image frame for an even smaller increment of time. The rapidly changing brightness, synchronized with the spiraling movement of the disc holes, caused the raster scan to appear as one continuous image – though in reality, it was recreating an image point by point, faster than the human eye could perceive. 


The loud, cumbersome mechanical viewing device was quickly surpassed by a more elegant electronic solution, the Cathode-Ray Tube. Much like chemical film, the CRT was the result of centuries of research and advances in manufacturing capabilities. 19th century Scientists created vacuum tubes with positive and negative electrodes on either end and observed how the slowed passage of electrical charges through xenon and neon created a fluorescent glow as a mysterious force collided with the gas inside. In the late 19th century, vacuum tube manufacturing techniques were able to create an atmospheric pressure low enough for scientists to observe a new phenomenon. As more and more gas was pumped from the vacuum tube, the glow moved further and further away from the negatively charged cathode, and in a total vacuum, the tube itself began to glow at the positively-charged anode at the opposite end.

The observation of these cathode-rays was the genesis not just of electronic imaging, but a more concrete understanding of atomic physics. For centuries, humans had experimented with electricity without fully comprehending the forces they were harnessing. By the mid-1800s, scientists were relatively confident that everything in the universe was made of miniscule molecules and even tinier atoms. In 1897 British Physicist J.J. Thompson successfully measured the mass of a cathode-ray inside a vacuum tube and found that it was 1000 times smaller than that of a hydrogen atom. He concluded that the cathode-ray was made of negatively charged “corpuscules,” although that name was quickly replaced by the one used today, the Electron.


Thompson’s research built on the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his notable 19th century colleagues, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Michael Faraday, whose theories of electromagnetic radiation inspired Thompson to go on to use a magnetic field to divert the path of his cathode-ray. This critical experiment gave us not only a deeper understanding of the building blocks of our universe but also television.

When electrons are shed from a negatively charged cathode and travel towards a positively charged anode in the vacuum of a cathode-ray tube, there are no gas atoms for them to crash into, so they travel in a straight unobstructed line known as an electron beam. By adding a phosphorescent material on the positively charged side of the vacuum tube and moderating the electrical voltage, researchers were able to accurately control the brightness of the point of light that occurred when the beam of electrons collided with the phosphor coating. An electromagnet placed around the cathode could divert the electron beam to anywhere on the phosphor surface with an electrical signal. 


8 years after Thompson discovered the electron, Albert Einstein unified Newton’s particle theory with Huygen’s and Maxwell’s wave theory, determining that the waves of the electromagnetic spectrum were made up of discrete particles of energy which are released and absorbed as electrons change energy states and move between atomic orbit levels, like when a beam of electrons collides with a phosphor screen or a hydrogen molecule. This small elementary particle is the force carrier not just for the light that comprises our visible world, but for the quantum mechanical function of the universe. This corpuscular unit of energy’s existence was proven through skeptical experimentation and given the name Photon in 1926.

Thomas Young’s double-slit experiment demonstrated the diffraction of light waves after passing through an aperture.

That same year, Japanese High School Teacher Kenjiro Takayanagi used a cathode-ray Tube to display a static image recorded by a Nipkow Disc raster scan. By rapidly changing an electromagnetic field to direct a sub-atomic beam of electrons onto a reactive phosphor surface thousands of times a second to create photons that combine to form an image, Takayanagi achieved the first electronic illusion of persistent vision in 40 lines of point-by-point resolution. Other systems debuted by Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin shortly afterward used electronic technology to capture a raster scan instead of a mechanical Nipkow Disc, but it would be decades before the CRT Television became commercially available in the 1950s.


The concept of using a CRT as a display was also applied to optical projection. With the addition of a lens in front of a small bright CRT, the image could be thrown through space and displayed on any surface, instead of on just a small screen. In fact, limitations in the size of phosphor screens in early CRT televisions meant that most early TV units were projection televisions, which used a lens to throw an enlarged CRT image onto a rear projection screen instead of viewing the phosphor of the CRT directly. This style of projected television screen was a popular alternative through the end of the 20th century until its eventual replacement by LCD and DLP projectors. Color CRT projectors debuted in the 1950s but were not commonly found for a few more decades. Using three CRTs together, each with their own lens, to project individual RGB channels simultaneously, they could accurately project accurate colors images without loud moving parts or film strips. 

The introduction of commercial television inspired some filmmakers to experiment with new ways of projecting images without creating persistent vision. Stan Brakhage and others made films without a camera, by manipulating the film strip physically, whether by taping insects and flora to it, scratching off layers of emulsion, or painting it. Their creations, when run through a film projector, did not show a sequence of images but rather thousands of subtly-related individual abstract frames.

The author adhering 35mm slides to 16mm clear leader.


CRT projectors were not bright enough to replace film projectors in most situations, but the situations and ways in which projectors were used continued to grow. In 1969, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion became the first projection mapping experience. Using 16mm footage of ghostly faces on a black mat background to selectively illuminate a physical counterpart in space, it created an ethereal illusion that had never been seen before. Projection elements have been a part of amusement park rides ever since.

IMAX projection, developed in the 1960s, also immersed its audience by covering as large an area as possible with light. The IMAX format turned the image frame sideways and ran its 70mm film horizontally to maximize the picture. The gigantic projector emerged from the floor in the middle of a large dome, much like a planetarium, and an ultra-wide lens threw the image onto every part of the enormous curved surface. The audience seated below saw an illuminated image that filled nearly their entire field of view, and the movement at the periphery of their vision made for one of the most thrilling projection experiences yet.

A much less bulky projection system was also being used to create immersive experiences of an entirely different sort. The overhead projector developed by the US military in WWII used a mirror and condenser lens to project translucent images that are placed on top of a backlit Fresnel lens. The Fresnel lens, invented by the French physicist of the same name, uses concentric rings to gather a light source into a concentrated beam. Since 1827, the bulky glass versions have been used in lighthouses and high-powered searchlights. A smaller, thinner, rectangular version was developed as a screen for CRT projection televisions, and the same materials soon became a surface for live-projected content creation. Images and documents could be printed onto transparent plastic sheets, but they could also be written on directly.

Collimating light with a Fresnel lens


This useful tool became common in schools and meeting rooms, but it also unlocked a new art form for people looking for a less structured experience. Liquid Light Shows were popular additions to Psychedelic Rock shows, as groups of artists began to project the interactions of oil, water, alcohol, and colored dyes onto a performance stage. These shows grew to use multiple overhead projectors, slide projectors, and film projectors, some with spinning color wheels placed in front of the beam. In some cases, multiple people operated over a dozen different projectors all at once, layering abstract and realistic imagery on top of each other.

The addition of luminous abstract images as a visual accompaniment to musical performances led to the development of Laser Shows shortly afterward. Laboratory experiments in the late ‘50s and ‘60s produced the laser, which could emit specific wavelengths of visible light in a narrow concentrated beam without diffracting. By using a galvanometer scanner to rapidly change the direction of the laser beam, a laser light show could act like the electron beam in a CRT and project a scan across the sky to the delight of crowds below.

Like a CRT, the first laser light shows used an analog electric signal, the position of each point of the raster scan at any given moment was encoded as a wavelength which was read by a receiver, then used to control the direction and intensity of the beam to recreate an image dot by dot. The advent of computers, silicon microprocessors, and new storage media ushered in a new way of encoding signals and information digitally by turning a wave signal into a series of numbers, which could be stored more reliably, and then turned back into a voltage wave when needed.


Decades of laboratory research and the miniaturization of electronic components yielded new ways of displaying imagery digitally. Liquid Crystal Displays treat each point of an image as a discrete unit, or pixel, represented by an individual Liquid Crystal with its own pair of attached electrodes. By applying electricity to a liquid crystal, the polarization of the crystal is altered to adjust how much light passes through to the other side. By arranging these LCDs in a rectangular grid matrix and controlling the intensity of each LCD pixel individually, a full translucent image can be formed. Since LCDs only control the amount of light transmitted through them, they require additional illumination and colorization.

The first working LCD projector prototypes appeared in 1971, but LCDs with a high enough resolution to display video didn’t arrive until the late 1980s. Unlike the backlit LCD screen, LCD projectors employ three separate small LCD panels, and a series of dichroic mirrors which split a white lamp beam into red, green, and blue channels. The mirrors direct each color channel through its dedicated LCD, and then through a prism to recombine the RGB channels back into one aligned beam of full-color video. Unlike film projectors and CRT displays, when powered, LCDs are always on, a constantly shifting translucent image. They maintain persistent vision by refreshing the opacity value of each pixel, line by line, dozens of times per second.


The LCD wasn’t the only technology being developed as a digital alternative. Texas Instruments’ Digital Light Processing Chip took a different approach by selectively reflecting light with a Digital Micro-Mirror Device to create a projected image. Instead of transparent crystals controlling the intensity of each pixel, thousands of tiny addressable mirrors arrayed on a DMD moved rapidly between an on and off position to reflect the light beam either into, or away from the front lens of the projector. A spinning color wheel placed between the beam and the DMD separated the light into color channels, so the micro-mirrors rapid switching occurred multiple times for every full refresh of the image, with each tiny mirror staying on or off for a different amount of time for each color channel depending on the brightness needed to mix the color properly.

The pulsing colors of the 1DLP chip color wheel meant that they never fully combined into a single beam like a CRT or LCD projector, and were not able to reproduce as many colors. The improved 3-chip DLP configuration fixed that issue by splitting the light beam into red, green, and blue channels with a prism, and directing each color beam towards it’s own dedicated DMD, which in turn reflected their respective color channel towards another prism to recombine them again into a full color projection.

The pixel grid of a 3LCD Epson 1060.


Both 3LCD and 3DLP projectors have used a variety of different types of lamps to illuminate the images they render on their chips, but in recent years white light sources paired with color-splitting optics are being replaced by Lasers and Light Emitting Diodes. These advanced modern luminaries emit red, green, and blue light as individual channels, with each beam directed to its own dedicated LCD or DLP micro-mirror array before combining it to a full-color image. These discrete RGB light sources are not just more efficient than a traditional lamp; they also produce a wider range of color combinations, to project even richer, more vibrant images.

Digital projectors have improved not just in brightness and efficiency, but in resolution, adding more pixels to increasingly smaller LCD and DMD arrays. Small handheld LED projectors can turn any surface into a movie screen and then fit in a pocket. Larger digital projectors have mostly replaced their film counterparts, displaying large crisp 4k and even 8k images without the need to store and maintain large film reels. They also bring some advantages that increase their resolution further. Software programs stack and blend multiple projectors together to create one enormous image, covering the exterior of an entire building, or transforming the interior into one seamless projected surface.


Other advancements in computing have also made projection mapping a much simpler process than Walt Disney’s 16mm celluloid ghosts. Masking and compositing objects to selectively illuminate objects in space no longer requires optically printing film frame by frame, a digital video can be created, modified, and displayed in real-time. A process known as visible structured light scanning, a digital projection of black and white patterns recorded by a camera, is used for measuring 3D scenes and objects in a variety of industries. This technique makes video mapping even easier. Software algorithms determine the position where every pixel of the projector hits the scene, meaning you can create a projected video map over a color and depth image of the scene in front of you, aligning projected images with complex objects in space is now a simple operation.

Exploded view of a Lightform LF2 augmented reality projector.

 This pixel map allows for not just creating videos that align with objects in space, but also using software code to create projected effects that react directly to the texture and shape of those objects, tracing the veins of a leaf with light, or making granite appear liquid. Software code can also generate abstract chromotrope-like effects and vary their patterns almost instantaneously. Computer-generated flames can even be adjusted to achieve just the right warm flickering glow for your next shadow play.


The widespread popularity of projection today can make it easy to take the intricacies of this advanced technology for granted. Understanding just how a luminous image is made doesn’t lessen the magic of the experience; in fact, it can increase your sense of wonder and appreciation for the tools our ancestors made. At Lightform we are not only closely tracking developments in projection technology, but also working hard to further the creative potential of projection tools to enable you to create magic with light.

Behind the Scenes: Light in the Desert

BTS – Joshua Tree Lightform projection mapping installation

Editors Note: One of the more eye-catching sequences created by the Lightform team that we’ve shared in our social posts and advertising was created thanks to the technical know-how and hard work of Sean Servis, Lightform’s production engineer. In addition to his vast technical knowledge, Sean is also a great storyteller. With that in mind, we thought his experience creating this video near Joshua Tree was too good to keep to ourselves, and we asked him to share what went into creating this projection.

As we were planning our launch video to announce the introduction of Lightform’s latest devices, we knew that we wanted to project onto something big with the LFC. We’ve seen our fair share of buildings mapped before, so we decided to bring our new hardware into nature to see how Lightform Creator’s shader effects reacted to some organic textures. We talked about illuminating redwood forests, waterfalls, snowy pine trees, and ultimately decided to start with the iconic geology of the Southern California desert.

The gradual shifting of the tectonic plates has littered the landscape around Joshua Tree National Park with unique formations of Gneiss, a rock defined by its banded texture, which can be overshadowed by the equally singular Joshua Tree that grows in the area. Unworldly piles of boulders and smaller rocks are everywhere, walking among them feels a bit like what I would imagine an ant might experience traversing the raked furrows of a zen garden.

Lightform projection – Yucca Valley, CA - Joshua Tree

Yucca Valley, CA

We knew we wanted to get a lot of aerial shots to demonstrate the scale and depth of our projection, but since we couldn’t fly our drone in the National Park, we did some location scouting over the internet to find a rental property instead. Instagram posts tagged at different listings, google maps, and sun tracker apps helped us pick a place that we thought we work well, so in the second week of September, we packed up our brightest projector and as much video gear as we could carry and headed to the airport.

Unfortunately, the runways at SFO were under construction at the time and our small regional flight was delayed for hours. We had intended to start shooting that first evening but we didn’t arrive to the location until well after midnight. When we woke up to the bright desert sun a few hours later, we knew we had picked the right spot. We had unpacked our gear and started getting some shots of the setup process when we realized that we’d left the adhesive mounts for our LFC back at the office, so we got tricky with a little movie magic, the one and only gaffe tape.

Our 12k lumen Epson L1505u was no match for the daylight, but as the sun started to dip behind the rocks, we could see that our projector was not in the ideal place. With the sunset at 6:59 PM approaching, we had to move quickly to relocate to the porch of our rental house. We put our “beamer” on top of a picnic table, and when that wasn’t tall enough to clear the railings of the patio, we borrowed some of the heftier books from inside to get a few thousand pages more elevation.

Lightform projection – Moonrise Magic Hour Joshua Tree

Moonrise Magic Hour

With magic hour beginning and the nearly-full moon rising, we started doing some tests, taking scans all the way through sunset and into dusk, creating a new project every time so we could save each result. We also brought along an LF1 with us so we could do some side-by-side comparisons, and were really pleased to see the improvements in quality that the LFC brought to the table. As the sky got darker, we set up an LED lighting panel to fill in the background where the house’s exterior lights were casting shadows or were too dim to show up on the LFC camera.

Lightform projection – Adjusting the lens shift on the Epson L1505u

Adjusting the lens shift on the Epson L1505u.

Lightform projection – Checking boulder masks with the help of a laser party light

Checking boulder masks with the help of a laser party light.

Once the glow of the sun had disappeared completely we decided on a scan to use and started to build our project. We made one surface with all of the rocks and then picked a few of the larger boulders to add some accents. For the next hour or so we built a few slides using Lightform Creator’s effects to automatically pick out the textures and outlines. Ganzfeld and Pallette Trip’s bands of lights radiated through the volume of the landscape, blending Traffic Lights, and Chromatic together made it appear as though the tectonic plates were crashing into each other again. Adding the Ripple effect and turning all the values up to the max made it look like these enormously heavy rocks were wobbling like they were made out of rubber and I felt dizzy watching them.

For the rest of the night, we flew our drone over and around the rock projections, walked through them with our Sony a7, and climbed up them so our bodies and shadows might show a sense of the scale. With our projector about 20m from the closest boulder in our scene and more than twice as far from the furthest, our effects were covering more surface area by far than either of us had seen before. At around 3 am we brewed some coffee, got some last shots, and started to pack up our gear to make our return flight a few hours later.

Lightform Projection – 30 second exposure with stars

30 second exposure with stars

Projection Mapping Fireworks with Lightform

Projection Mapping Fireworks with Lightform Creator
Projection Mapping Fireworks with Lightform Creator

Every year, Independence Day fireworks displays are cancelled due to rain, drought, and the occasional pandemic, but projection mapping fireworks can liberate your spectacle from those constraints. Perhaps the neighborhood pets don’t particularly love explosions, or maybe someone on your block has PTSD. Projected fireworks don’t produce sonic waves, or make any noise at all. Since they don’t explode, they’re also a good alternative to fireworks in places that are currently experiencing drought conditions and the elevated danger of wildfire.

Projection Mapping Fireworks – Getting Started

The main difference with setting up a projection mapping fireworks show is that you’ll need a surface to project onto. Often the most obvious choice will be a building, but your medium could be a flag, bunting, a tree canopy, or just a large sheet. The brightness of your projector will be the main factor in determining how large the scale of your spectacle can be. To map onto a modestly-sized house at night you’ll probably want at least 6k lumens of brightness, but a smaller LED projector like the LF2 still give you a decent amount of coverage for your projection mapping fireworks after dark.

If you’re going to have your projector outside, make sure to check the weather forecast ahead of time so you can protect your gear from the elements as necessary. Whether you plan to use a projector for outside lighting effects regularly or just for a few select holidays, it might be worth investing in an enclosure to shield your equipment. For temporary installations, you can set your projector up in a weatherproof tent, or make a shroud with tarps or plastic sheeting. Another alternative is to use clear plastic bins as a jury-rig enclosure, but this approach will require extra ventilation.

Working with Lightform Creator

For outdoor projections, the best time to take a scan is usually between the hour before or after sunset, but the sweet spot will vary depending on your projector’s brightness. As the sun dims, and you can clearly see the projection frame relative to the ambient lighting in the Lightform camera feed, conditions are ripe for scanning. If you are scanning in complete darkness, you may benefit from adjusting the brightness slider in scan properties to reduce noise.

Once you have your scan in Lightform Creator, you can use the selection tools to create surfaces to project onto as you like. If you’re mapping onto an entire house, this will be a more intricate step. If your projector doesn’t have that much coverage, it might not be necessary to do more than make a basic rectangle and feather the edges a bit, to avoid restricting the scale of your fireworks display.

There are a lot of different effects in Lightform Creator that will stack and blend well to create the illusion of hazy smoke diffusing bursts of colored light. The most obvious effect to start with is the generator known as fireworks. You can control the speed, light, glow, and starting position of as many light bursts as you like. If you want to experiment after you’ve added more layers, blend modes will give you more creative control over the final look. You’ll need to enable Lightform Labs from the help menu at the top of the screen to be able to blend effects and videos together. An effect like tron with the edge length and edge width set to .1-.2 can add a lot of extra sparkles of light that automatically travel along the edges of the textures in your scene.

Blending Effects and Imported Videos 

You can find plenty of fireworks assets on stock video marketplaces or the internet archive, and with .gif support in Creator there are even more opportunities. Videos with dark black backgrounds that keep the whole light burst in the frame without going off of the edges will give you the most layering flexibility. If you add more than one of these videos to your surface you’ll need to change the blend mode from normal to screen so that the black parts of the video behave like a transparent alpha channel. If you are using one of these videos as the very bottom layer, however, the “normal” blend mode will be fine.

Add a little bit more volume and texture to your project by adding more Lightform effects. The “clouds” video works very well towards the top of your asset stack in the layer panel. You can start by setting the blend mode for this asset to overlay or multiply, but you should try a few blend mode options and see what looks best to you.

You can also add more reactive effects that pick up on the texture and depth in your scene, something like ganzfeld or depth trace will work well as a base-layer underneath the rest of your assets. Set the blend mode on these base-layer effects to multiply and they will fill empty spaces with volumes of color. You can tone down the saturation and opacity as well to achieve a more subtle look, or embrace the trippy computer vision and make your projection look more futuristic than a traditional explosive firework.
Below is a video we produced using this technique.

Share Your Projection Mapped Fireworks Show

These are just a few options in Lightform Creator that you can use to produce a great projection mapped fireworks display for July 4th or other holidays and festivals. How are you using projection mapping to create fireworks with Lightform?  We’re eager to see what you create. Share a link to your projection mapped fireworks video and tell us about your project in the comments below.