Lighting technicians set up and operate lighting equipment in television and film. They work across all types of programmes and may cover productions inside studios or outside on location.

The lighting team's work is crucial, as lighting creates the right atmosphere to set the scene and evoke an audience's response.

The work demands high-level technical and creative skills in order to follow instructions that ensure the desired production lighting is achieved. Lighting technicians generally have to carry out heavy lifting and may need to work at heights to make sure the lights are in the correct position.

While setting up lights, changing them over during production and running cables, lighting technicians must always be conscious of health and safety requirements.

Responsibilities

Tasks vary according to the type of production and the level of experience, but in general they may include:

  • establishing lighting requirements;
  • liaising with the lighting director and/or other staff to interpret their creative vision into the lighting design;
  • plotting the lighting;
  • assembling all the lighting and filter equipment needed;
  • ensuring all lighting equipment is in working order and organising any necessary scaffolding and cranes;
  • conducting risk assessments for health and safety purposes;
  • pre-rigging the lighting and ensuring all cables and wires are safely concealed;
  • loading automated colour change systems;
  • checking the focusing of lighting at rehearsals;
  • operating and maintaining equipment during the shoot;
  • changing lighting between shots, as necessary;
  • programming and operating lighting consoles;
  • de-rigging all equipment at the end of the broadcast or production and ensuring it is safely transported away from the location and/or stored;
  • working as part of a large crew, especially on feature films;
  • reviewing footage shots with the director;
  • liaising with the floor manager, producer and sound technician throughout the project.

With experience or working at a more senior level, the work may also involve:

  • managing the lighting budget and advising on the purchase/hire of suitable equipment;
  • deciding on the lighting crew numbers and equipment needed and then employing the crew and hiring the equipment;
  • coordinating the equipment and the technical crew and training other crew members as required;
  • visiting and assessing locations for technical purposes.

Salary

Salaries vary greatly depending upon the type of production and your level of experience. They tend to be upward of £25,000, 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 will be working on.

The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) recommends that the standard day rate for lighting technicians in television is £240. This is for a ten-hour day plus a one-hour unpaid lunch break. The overtime rate is £35 for each additional hour.

Freelance rates for feature films with budgets below £5million, as recommended by BECTU, are £255 per day. Rates for films with larger budgets are £275 per day.

Full information on the different freelance rates is available from Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU).

Freelance work may be more highly paid than employment as a member of staff, but work is likely to be irregular.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Hours are invariably long and unsocial. A standard day for television work is ten hours plus one hour for lunch, e.g. 8am to 7pm. The working day will typically start between 7am and 10am. Some days require you to work well into the night.

What to expect

  • 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.
  • A great deal of heavy lifting is required and working at heights is common, for example on walkways above the studio floor, on ladders, scaffolding or on cranes.
  • Protective clothing, including hard hats, safety boots and overalls, is often required to meet health and safety requirements.
  • Most employment is in London and the South East because that is where broadcast production is concentrated, but regional employment, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and other areas is possible. An increasing number of production companies are settling in the North West, particularly Manchester and Liverpool, and the BBC recently relocated many of its London services to Salford.
  • Working freelance impacts on your ability to plan holidays in advance, take career breaks, and undergo training. Some technicians find freelance work stressful due to the uncertainty of finding work and an irregular income.
  • Long periods away from home on location are common.
  • Stress can be high at more senior levels as mistakes are expensive and your career may depend on your technical and creative abilities.

Qualifications

A degree is not necessary for this role but subjects such as electrical engineering or physics may be useful for the technical side.

There are specialist degree and foundation degree courses that may be particularly useful, including:

  • lighting design;
  • lighting technology;
  • sound, light and live event technology;
  • theatre arts, lighting and sound operation.

Most new entrants are qualified electricians who have obtained skills through vocational-training courses such as those offered by:

They then continue to gain practical experience in production lighting after their studies.

Skills

Candidates need to show evidence of:

  • excellent colour vision;
  • good technical knowledge;
  • attention to detail;
  • creative flair;
  • the ability to work as part of a team;
  • effective communication skills;
  • problem-solving ability;
  • patience and sensitivity to the needs of actors and other professionals on set;
  • awareness of health and safety issues at all times;
  • a good level of physical fitness.

To be successful at freelance work, you must have good networking skills, be willing and able to deal with financial matters, such as tax and invoicing, and be customer focused.

Work experience

It is absolutely vital to gain relevant pre-entry experience, either paid or voluntary. This can include getting a job as a technician to begin with to allow you to build up practical experience. There may be useful opportunities at university or college, such as working on a student film project.

You can try joining amateur dramatic companies or drama societies at university or college as an understanding of lighting for the stage will give you a good grounding in the technical aspects of the job.

The BBC runs work experience schemes that involve working in studios, allowing trainees to gain experience with lighting. It is also worth seeking out amateur video makers and postgraduate film students and offering to help light their projects.

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

Relevant short courses that will develop your skills and show your interest in the work are run by Creative Skillset: The Sector Skills Council for the Creative Industries.

Employers

Jobs are available with the major television production companies such as:

  • the BBC;
  • ITV;
  • Channel 4;
  • Channel 5.

A vast number of independent production companies ('indies') and satellite and digital companies also provide vacancies. However, opportunities are infrequent and very competitive.

The vast majority of lighting technicians work on a freelance basis both within television and film. The UK film industry has some highly successful independent companies operating in the feature film and video markets, which regularly use freelancers.

It is sometimes possible to find entry-level jobs with lighting equipment hire companies.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist directories are available and provide contacts useful for making speculative applications for freelance work. They include:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Most developmental training takes place once you are in the job. Lighting skills are usually developed through observing, questioning and working under the supervision of an experienced lighting technician.

You will generally operate under the supervision of a lighting director in television, or a gaffer or director of photography in film, high-budget television dramas and commercials.

The gaffer is the head of the electrical team, whereas the director of photography acts as their creative supervisor while being based in a different department.

If you are working as a freelance-lighting technician, bear in mind that you will have to cover the cost and time of attending courses yourself. For this reason it can be worth trying to start your career in a non-freelance capacity or, if you are a freelancer, make the most of any opportunities you have to learn from more experienced colleagues.

There are a variety of specialist courses relating to lighting design and technical lighting, search for these at Creative Skillset Courses Directory.

Professional organisations, such as the Society of Television Lighting and Design, offer their members opportunities for professional updates through events such as talks, visits and exhibitions, and articles in their magazine.

Lighting technicians 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.

Career prospects

Depending on what experience you have gained and how you have developed your skills, progression within film or TV may lead to roles such as senior electrician (also known as 'best boy') or chief electrician (rigging gaffer or gaffer).

Typically, with over ten years' experience you could progress to lighting director in film or broadcasting or, with further qualifications, you could become a lighting cameraperson, lighting designer or director of photography.

The role of lighting director requires a mixture of technical and creative experience. A lighting director plans all aspects of lighting a production and needs to understand the on-screen effect that the director intends.

Progression is frequently faster within lighting design roles in theatre, events, festivals or live shows. Techniques in these areas may be different to what you are used to in television and film so you may need to undertake further training to move across.

Most lighting technicians 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.

Film, high-budget productions in television drama, commercials and music videos are considered the most prestigious work and are also the best paid. Corporate video is another popular field.

Specialist lighting equipment hire companies often employ freelance lighting personnel and it may be possible to move into permanent management roles with them.

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

Freelance technicians are sometimes able to supplement their income by training others, working for recognised course providers. Other freelance technicians offer their services to the photographic industry in addition to broadcasting, film and video.

A move into a broadcast-engineering role opens up a broader range of career options, but it would depend on you having the right mix of experience, skills and qualifications.