What is the job of a lighting designer?

Written by david w. berner
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What is the job of a lighting designer?
Lighting designers help create a production's overall visual appearance. (projecteur image by photlook from Fotolia.com)

In the world of the theatre, a lighting designer works closely with the director and set designer to create the overall look of a production. He is in charge of all aspects of lighting the production, including scene-by-scene changes. The lighting designer must also consider the script (if applicable) of the performance to match the director's interpretation of the work and at the same time consider issues of safety and cost. Outside the theatre, a lightning designer can be found working on movie sets, popular, symphonic or rock n' roll music tours, art or museum installations and at large corporate or civic celebrations.

The Nature of the Work

The lighting designer works with the production director in the interpretation of a performance, then decides specifically how light will be used throughout the production to enhance that interpretation. The work requires experience with artistic evaluation along with the technical knowledge and skills to produce illumination that is appropriate for the performance. This work begins in the production's planning stages, long before actors, dancers or musicians take the stage. The lighting designer may also work as a technical director during the performance itself to ensure lighting cues and changes are made properly.


Many college and universities with extensive drama or theatre programs have courses on lighting design, and several have degrees specific to performance lighting. A few also have graduate level programs (Masters of Fine Arts) in lighting design and direction. And although these courses and programs can prove to be invaluable, few production companies or theatres are necessarily looking for specific degrees or study. Some lighting designers have come out of more general communications or theatre programs and have learnt their craft through experience.


In all the performance arts, including the technical side, experience is a key factor to success. Production and theatre companies hiring lighting designers are looking for candidates who have experience in the industry as a lighting designer or director in other productions, or as a lighting or technical assistant. Those new to the field must have, at the minimum, a understanding and experience being involved with performances of any kind--school plays, community theatre or lighting a music group. The more productions the candidate has worked on, the better.


A lighting designer's salary is dependent on location and experience, and partially based on the duration of the production or performance. Most lighting designers sign a contractual agreement with the producer of the show or tour based on where, when and how often the performance takes place. If the show is a Broadway production or the tour of a well-known star or performer, lighting designers are usually far more experienced and earn more than designers of smaller local theatre productions or the performances of lesser-known acts.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Labor Department, technical jobs like that of a lighting designer in theatre, film and music performance are expected to grow through the year 2018. However, work in the entertainment industry is highly competitive, especially positions with Broadway or professional travelling shows. And despite increasing numbers of people attempting to enter the field of technical or artistic design in the entertainment industry, many will leave due to its highly competitive nature and the low earnings potential for the inexperienced designer who is working outside the major entertainment centres of New York or Los Angeles.

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