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Job Description: Lighting Designer 

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The lighting designer coordinates heavily with the director and artistic director to determine what sort of lighting-related visuals will craft the desired result on stage. This can include anything from deciding what sort of lighting will create a particular mood, steer the audience’s attention correctly, or create the right kind of special effects.

A lighting designer is part technician, part artist. Their medium is lighting and they are highly skilled in a variety of fixtures and techniques. They also know which lighting approaches will yield specific results, ensuring they can use the available lighting tech to achieve certain outcomes.

It is important to note that lighting designers aren’t limited to the stage. Television and movie productions also make use of lighting designers, giving them access to critical expertise when lighting various scenes.

Job Description and Benefits

Lighting designers design and plan lighting and electrical systems. They work in collaboration with a variety of professionals, including interior designers, engineers and architects. The lighting design can be for residential, commercial or industrial spaces.

A lighting designer usually works under limited supervision but as a member of a collaborative team. They usually work for lighting companies, architecture or interior design firms and service clients, but sometimes they work for a large venue and are in charge of designing lighting for the venue’s events.

During a production’s preparation, lighting designers have specific responsibilities. While the exact nature of the duties can vary depending on the production involved, certain activities and tasks that are common for most jobs.

A list of typical lighting designer main responsibilities includes:-

  • Coordinate with director and artistic director to understand the production’s goals and their overall vision
  • Create lighting design plans to achieve the desired result
  • Write lighting plots to outline when lighting changes occur and how the lighting changes are executed
  • Monitor energy use to ensure the production stays within budget
  • Make strategic lighting-oriented purchases that align with the budget and production’s needs
  • Attend dress and technical rehearsals to ensure lighting choices are correct, making adjustments as needed
  • Oversee lighting during the production’s run

Lighting designers can also have additional responsibilities. For example, with a smaller production, the lighting designer may also serve as a lighting technician, operating various lighting technologies during rehearsals and shows. For larger productions, the lighting designer may also supervise a team of lighting professionals, giving them extra management duties.

Additionally, the needs may be slightly different for television and movie lighting designer jobs than they are for stage productions. Television and movie productions have requirements that don’t always mimic the goals of stage productions. However, many of the main responsibilities do remain similar, often mirroring those listed above.

A lighting designer should have:

  • Experience with various lighting tools (fixtures, riggings, dimmers, gels, etc.)
  • Experience with lighting consoles
  • Theatrical and stage design experience 
  • A creative mind
  • Strong leadership, communication and collaboration skills
  • A keen attention-to-detail
  • Technical skills
  • The ability to work under pressure to tight deadlines
  • Excellent colour vision

Additional skills may also be necessary depending on the role, though the ones above are almost universally required. As a result, they can serve as a solid baseline for what a lighting designer should bring to the table.

What is the work like?

In order to design the lighting in a given space, a lighting designer performs many different tasks:-

Visit Project Sites - In order to effectively design lighting systems for a given site, the Lighting Designer must travel to the site to assess and analyse it. They also communicate extensively with the customer while there to identify their desires and needs. A team of electrical engineers will typically travel with them to survey the site.

Design Lighting - After adequately assessing a project site, the Lighting Designer designs a lighting plan for the site according to customer specifications, the assessment of the site itself and safety concerns including state and local energy and building codes. During the design process, they act as a liaison between the client and engineering departments, balancing client desires and aesthetics with practical concerns.

Manage Budget - A Lighting Designer must pay attention to the budget of their project. Usually, they are working within the financial constraints of their client, so they need to make sure as they are designing a lighting system that it remains within the client’s budget. They collect all receipts for expenses in order to track the budget.

Install Lighting - Once their designs are approved, the Lighting Designer joins a team of people to go back to the site and install the lighting and electrical systems they’ve designed. They hang and focus all lighting devices and install proper electrical lines to power the lighting system.

The precise skills a lighting designer needs in order to thrive in a job can vary depending on a production’s needs. However, certain skill requirements are fairly common.

Hours and Environment

Many lighting designers work on a freelance basis both within television and film. Jobs are generally available with specialist lighting companies and you'll typically need to contact them directly to find out about opportunities.

Hours are invariably long and unsocial. A standard day for television work is ten hours, plus one hour for lunch. Your working day will typically start between 7am and 10am. Some days you'll be required to work well into the night.

Work settings vary. You might be filming in a television studio (which may be hot and crowded), on a film set, on location in buildings not designed for an influx of high-tech lighting equipment or on outside broadcasts, where you may have to deal with adverse weather conditions. 

The work can be physically demanding as you'll be lifting and carrying equipment. You'll also need a good head for heights as work often takes place on walkways above the studio floor, on ladders, scaffolding or cranes. Long periods away from home on location are also common - sometimes abroad, depending on the production.

Salary and other benefits

Salaries for lighting designer jobs vary greatly depending upon the type of production and your level of experience. The average salary for an employed lighting designer is around £36,920 per year, but you may need to start on a lower salary in order to secure work and gain experience.

Most lighting work is done on a freelance basis, so you must expect to negotiate rates according to your experience and the type of production you'll be working on.

Starting pay/salary: from £100 a day

Experienced pay/salary: up to £225 a day

Skills and Personal Qualities

Lighting designers are knowledgeable and experienced professionals who know how to deal with the intricacies of designing and installing electrical systems. They are organised multitaskers who can juggle multiple clients at once. Both analytical and creative, successful lighting designers solve problems while also designing lighting systems that meet the aesthetic and design needs of their clients.

Lighting designers need a comprehensive skill set to ensure they can handle the responsibilities of the job. Usually, their base-level expertise is acquired through formal education. For instance, many lighting designers study lighting design, technical theatre, media, photography, electronics, and similar subjects in college. However, some learn many of their essential skills on the job, working their way up into a lighting designer position after starting in an entry-level technical stage role.

Interests

It is important for lighting designers to have an interest in:

  • The theatre
  • Film and television
  • The latest trends in lighting technology
  • Lighting hardware and software

Getting in

Generally speaking, lighting designer isn’t an entry-level position. Instead, it’s one that most professionals work into, even if they have a degree focused on lighting design. In some cases, professionals start in crew roles, moving up into assistant stage or assistant production manager positions to gain relevant experience. Then, they may transition into lighting technician jobs, allowing them to then move up into a lighting designer role.

However, that’s just a typical approach. Some lighting designers do take different career paths. As long as the proper skills are developed along the way, other options are completely viable. Ultimately, it’s the expertise and capabilities that matter, ensuring that the lighting designer can fulfil the job requirements and help the production succeed.

Entry for young people

Employers typically want lighting designers with the following core skills:-

  • Having a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture, Electrical Engineering, or s related field
  • Possessing experience in lighting/electrical services
  • Demonstrating proficiency in AutoCAD and Revit
  • Being proficient in Microsoft Office
  • Showing an understanding of lighting design

School subjects that are relevant for lighting design are:

  • Drama and theatre studies
  • Art and design
  • Electronics
  • Physics
  • Photography
  • Media studies

Entry for adults

Relevant pre-entry experience, either paid or voluntary, is essential. Look for experience with a specialist lighting company or lighting equipment hire company, for example. Try searching for film and TV companies you could approach for work experience using listings such as Pact - Find a Member or The Knowledge.

Opportunities may also be available with regional screen agencies, or it may be possible to get work experience with a professional lighting director.

While at university or college, try working on a student or community film project. You could also join amateur dramatic companies or drama societies to help with the lighting, as gaining an understanding of lighting for the stage will give you a good grounding in the technical aspects of the job. It's also worth seeking out amateur video makers and postgraduate film students and offering to help light their projects.

Work experience schemes are run by large broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. There may be opportunities to work in studios, allowing you to gain experience with lighting.

Training

The majority of training for lightning designer jobs is carried out on the job itself. Lighting skills are usually developed through observing, questioning and working under the supervision of an experienced lighting technician.

You'll need to take responsibility for your own professional development throughout your career. If you're working as a freelance technician, you'll have to cover the cost and time of attending courses yourself. Make the most of any opportunities to learn from more experienced colleagues.

Specialist courses are available in areas such as lighting design, technical lighting and safe working with lights and cameras. Membership of professional organisations such as the Society of Television Lighting and Design provides an opportunity to keep up to date with developments in the industry.

The best lighting designers tend to be naturally inclined towards experimenting with new techniques (often in their own time). This can result in ad hoc training and the benefits may be shared among immediate colleagues and contacts. This shows how important it is to build up a good network of contacts.

Getting On

Your career prospects will depend to a large extent on your skills, experience and contacts within the industry. Progression within film or TV may lead to roles such as best boy (or senior electrician) or gaffer (also known as the chief electrician).

On a film or high-end TV drama, the lighting department is run by the director of photography. There may be occasional opportunities for senior staff in lighting to move into this role, but it's more likely to be filled by the camera department.

Most lighting designers eventually specialise in a particular type of work because of the specific demands and knowledge required for different types of productions. In television, for example, you might specialise in live shows or outside broadcasts.

Some lighting designers move into sound operations or combine sound and lighting expertise, while others move into special effects or production design.

If you're working as a freelance lighting designer, you may be able to supplement your income by training others, working for recognised course providers. Or you could offer your services to the photographic industry in addition to broadcasting, film and video.

Further Reading

Colour & Light: Navigating Colour Mixing in the Midst of an LED Revolution by Clifton Taylor - Colour & Light is an essential practical guide to how colour works in light. Written from the perspective of a theatrical lighting designer, it discusses how to see colour, how to construct effective lighting palettes, and how to make use of both colour filters and colour-mixing LED fixtures to create compositions that work well with scenery and costumes to tell compelling stories.

On Being a Lighting Designer by Graham Walne - Graham Walne’s latest book chronicles the processes which a lighting designer goes through to deliver a design. The book covers engagement, relationships, discipline, skill, knowledge and deliverables, and includes anecdotes from the author s own considerable experience as a lighting designer across three continents.

Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life by Richard Pilbrow - Set to become the new bible of stage lighting - hugely comprehensive, illustrated on every spread - by one of the most respected lighting designers in the world With 450 black and white half tones, 60 colour photos and innumerable diagrams, lighting plots etc, the book covers the complete history, theory and - above all - practice of lighting design.

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