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LED Uses and Types: A Crash Course

If you're thinking about getting started with LEDs for cosplay, this is a good place to start.

Plexi Cosplay's LED motorized wings for her Pride cosplay from Darksiders.
Plexi Cosplay LED motorized wings for her Pride cosplay from Darksiders.

Electronics, embroidery, couture design, LIGHTS! Cosplay has been on a fast track towards professional design levels that were typically only seen on the big screen with CGI. As we start trying to blur the lines between computer-generated graphics and real-life, cosplayers are forced to utilize techniques outside of classic armorsmithing or needlework.

A big niche in cosplay is costume and prop lighting. One way that cosplayers have achieved overall lighting or glowing parts to a costume is with LEDs. Light emitting diodes can be used in a multitude of ways to take your cosplay to the next level.

Plexi Cosplay
Credit: Plexi Cosplay

As you’d expect, there’s a bit more to LED work than simply purchasing and installing. If you know what your goal is, it can be easier to break down the process into easier-to-consume portions. Truly, as with most things cosplay-related, it’s all about how you plan.

Let’s first break it down into uses for LEDs:

1. Ethereal Appearance

Plexi Cosplay
Credit: Plexi Cosplay

Video games are notorious for giving characters an ethereal appearance by adding an internal or external glow to either the character itself or the armor. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to replicate in real life. As a cosplayer, one of the ways you can create this illusion is with directional LEDs pointed outwards from your armor pieces or diffuse LED lights within an object for an internal glow effect. This takes a ton of planning, but there are unlimited ways to aim and direct LED lights.

2. Flames

Credit: Cinderys Art

So many characters have either armor or props that appear as though they’re on fire or burning constantly. Clearly, venues don’t allow for actual flame to be used, but we can ‘fake’ the effect with a combination of directional or strip LEDs, overlays, and even smoke machines.

3. Glowing Armor/Prop

Plexi Cosplay
Credit: Plexi Cosplay

This one is slightly different from point 1 in that some armor isn’t meant to be ethereal. Instead, many movies and games have portions of costumes or props that are intentionally illuminated, like a panel. For these, carving out your armor or prop and adding a diffusion layer with an underlying set of LEDs is typically the way to go.

Plexi Cosplay
Credit: Plexi Cosplay

4. Gems

Kamui Cosplay
Credit: KamuiCosplay

This is it’s own category because of the approach. Whether it’s elves, anime, or another character with glowing gems, the technique is typically different from all of the other approaches. Perhaps the best way to create a glowing gem is through the use of resin-casting and insertion of LED diode in the resin before it sets.

Kamui Cosplay does a great tutorial on casting gems with LED lights.

Next, let’s talk about types and diffusion! There are a ton of options and ways to go about diffusing your LEDs, but if you’ve got a good grasp on your intended usage (above), then here are two popular options:

1. Directional LEDs

Plexi Cosplay
Credit: Plexi Cosplay

Not ‘diffusion’ in the traditional sense, directional LEDs begin at a point of origin (the diode) and then naturally diffuse outwards in a cone shape. These tend to have a brighter light, but the real bonus is your ability to aim and control the areas of lighting. Choose these for aiming light outwards from the body or to cast in a gem.

In the image above, directional LEDs were used to give an ethereal appearance to the transparent feathers (created with Worbla Transpart). By placing the LEDs at the base of each feather and aiming the light outwards, lighting was not only reflected off of the Worbla, but it also gave an outward overall glow.

2. LED Strips

Plexi Cosplay
Credit: Plexi Cosplay

Strip lighting is easy to acquire in a multitude of colors -- and they can even be programmed for color changes and patterns along the strip! For most cases, the idea is to place LED strip lighting in the core or base of an object and then diffuse with an overlay of transparent foam like Plastazote.

In the image above, LED strip lights were wired along the core of each feather pointing outwards. Then, plastazote (spraypainted at the tips with blue) was attached on the front and back of each feather and sealed at the edges. I also added an extra layer of diffusion - loose cotton - between the LEDs and foam.

There are endless possibilities for illuminating your cosplay and props. Once you’ve decided exactly what you want and how you want it to look, then choosing the right LED type and diffusion method can help you achieve your goal. Carve out some time to experiment, and you never know what combinations and possibilities you come up with!

About the Author
Candace Birger avatar

Candace Birger


Candace Birger is a mother, wife, full-time marketer, DecoArt ambassador, and professional cosplayer from Maryland. She began her cosplay journey in 2017 and has since earned several first-place awards including her most recent 1st place in the armor category at New York Comic Con Eastern Regional Championships. Known as PlexiCosplay, you will often find her in the cosplay competition circuits where she feels most driven and ambitious in her costume design work.