Lighting Designer

 12 July 2012

Lighting designers plan the lighting for live events.

Lighting for live music makes use of lasers, strobes, spots, LED clusters and video screens.
Lighting for live music makes use of lasers, strobes, spots, LED clusters and video screens.

What is the job like?

Lighting designers usually work as part of a team with lighting technicians and other staff including the artistic director, production manager and sound engineers.

Lighting for live music, particularly in the popular sector has become increasingly complex, and makes use of lasers, strobes, spots, LED clusters and video screens.

Pyrotechnics (fireworks) may be the work of the lighting team, but for larger events a specialist pyrotechnician may be employed.

Large concerts often make use of large video screens positioned behind the artists, showing either the artists or other patterns and images. These images are integrated into the lighting design of the show.

As a lighting designer you will:

  • Discuss and develop ideas with the artistic director
  • Design the lighting using specialist computer assisted design (CAD) software, paying attention to health and safety requirements
  • Write a ‘Lighting Plot’, or script, with exact timings for the event’s lighting
  • Manage the set-up of lighting systems, working alongside lighting technicians
  • Programme lighting consoles and control platforms (with technicians)
  • Attend technical rehearsals to ensure everything happens at the right time
  • Ensure that the lighting is cost effective and, increasingly, energy efficient.

The work is normally freelance, and many lighting designers also work as technicians during periods when design work is unavailable.

The most senior lighting designers are mostly office-based and will only visit the stage once it has been rigged.

Lighting designers may travel around the UK or overseas whilst on tour. The working hours are irregular with frequent evening and weekend work. 

How do I get into lighting design?

Lighting designers need a combination of creative ability and technical skills. You also need to be a good communicator and able to work under pressure to tight deadlines. Excellent colour vision is essential.

Lighting for live music makes use of lasers, strobes, spots, LED clusters and video screens.

This is a very popular career so it is important that you gain as much experience as you can of lighting work to add to your CV.

Offer to help with the lighting for school productions or find out if there is a local theatre who would welcome backstage help. You might have to start as a stage-hand before assisting the lighting crew.

Some people become lighting designers after working as a lighting technician or theatre electrician. Others undertake degree courses in technical theatre or lighting design, although even with a degree you will need to gain lots of experience first, probably at technician level.

Another way into this work might be by starting as an assistant at a lighting hire company as they are often involved in productions, and you might be able to get a foot in the door this way.

Jobs in this field are rarely advertised – success is all about networking and making contacts.

What training and qualifications do I need?

School subjects that are relevant for lighting design include art and design, physics, electronics and drama/theatre studies.

Apprenticeships for trainee lighting assistants and technicians may be available – the experience and qualifications you gain would be valuable if you want to move into lighting design later on. Visit the creative apprenticeship website for opportunities.

Academic entry qualifications for apprenticeships can vary, although most employers look for a good standard of English, maths and science at GCSE level as a minimum, often at grade C or above.

If you plan to go to college or university rather than taking an apprenticeship there are many options open to you.

College courses include:

  • BTEC Level 2 Diploma in Performing Arts
    Entry with two GCSEs (A-D)
  • BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Performing Arts (Technical Theatre)
    Entry with four GCSEs (A-C)
  • HND – e.g. Technical Theatre
    Entry with at least one A level plus three GCSE (A-C) passes or equivalent, such as BTEC National Diploma.

You could also consider a college course in electrical/electronic engineering or a course for electricians and gain theatre or live music experience on a voluntary basis.

Consider degrees in Lighting Design and Technology, Theatre Lighting Design and Technical Theatre and Practice. The minimum entry requirements are usually 2 A levels or equivalent such as a BTEC National Diploma. Some degree courses ask for 3 A levels (at certain grades) or a merit or distinction at BTEC National level. As well as academic qualifications, you need to be able to demonstrate a genuine interest in the subject, which is where your voluntary experience comes in!

Research the courses carefully – some are broader and including other areas such as architectural lighting as well as lighting for live events. You may also have the opportunity to qualify as an electrician, something that will be a great advantage when you are looking for work.

Several organisations offer training to lighting designers employed in the industry.

What can I earn?

Lighting designers are often recruited on a freelance basis by a live events production company. If you are freelance you must pay your own liability insurance, which is essential in this job.

Lighting technicians/designers at the start of their career can expect to earn around £150 a day as a minimum, rising to £225 with more experience. Rates may be higher in London.

There are only a handful of top lighting designers who are very much in demand for prestigious events, whose earnings reflect their experience. They might charge a fee of £5000 to design the lighting for a tour.

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