While many lighting technicians are qualified electricians, anyone with pre-entry work experience, creative flair and technical knowledge can work in this profession
Lighting technicians 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 a scene and evoke an audience's response.
You'll usually work in a team, as technicians generally have to carry out heavy lifting and may need to work at heights to correctly position the lighting. While setting up lights, changing them over during production and running cables, you must always be conscious of health and safety requirements.
The work demands high-level technical and creative skills to follow instructions that ensure the desired production lighting is achieved.
As a lighting technician, you'll typically need to:
- set up lighting equipment
- assemble all the lighting and filter equipment needed
- ensure all lighting equipment is in working order and carry out tests
- organise any necessary scaffolding and cranes
- position and plot lighting
- pre-rig lighting, ensuring all cables and wires are safely concealed
- load automated colour change systems
- check the focusing of lighting at rehearsals
- operate and maintain equipment during the shoot
- change lighting between shots, as necessary
- programme and operate lighting consoles
- de-rig all equipment at the end of the broadcast or production and ensure it's safely transported away from the location and/or stored
- work as part of a large crew, especially on feature films
- liaise with and work under the direction of the gaffer (who oversees electricals) and best boy (who assists the gaffer) throughout the project.
In more senior roles, you'll also need to:
- visit and assess locations for technical purposes
- attend production meetings to establish lighting requirements
- liaise with the director of photography and other staff to interpret their creative vision into the lighting design
- liaise with other departments, such as sound and camera, as well as with the floor manager and producer
- review footage shots with the director
- manage the lighting budget and advise on the purchase/hire of suitable equipment
- decide on the lighting crew numbers and equipment needed and then employ the crew and hire the equipment
- coordinate the equipment and the technical crew and train other crew members as required
- conduct risk assessments and oversee health and safety in relation to lighting.
Salaries vary greatly depending upon the type of production and your level of experience. The average salary for employed lighting technicians is around £26,000 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.
- The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) recommends that the standard day rate for lighting technicians in television drama is £247.50. This is for a ten-hour day, plus a one-hour unpaid lunch break with paid overtime for each additional hour.
- If you are working as a lighting technician on a commercial, BECTU recommends a daily rate of £361.00 for a ten-hour day.
- On major motion pictures, BECTU recommends a rate for lighting (shooting) technicians of £339.40 per day and for lighting (rigging) technicians of £292.60 per day.
For more detailed information on rates of pay, see BECTU - Rates.
Freelance work may be better paid than employment as a member of staff, but work is likely to be more irregular.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
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.
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.
- 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 places on walkways above the studio floor, on ladders, scaffolding or cranes.
- Protective clothing, including hard hats, safety boots and overalls, is often required to meet health and safety requirements.
- Broadcast production is largely concentrated in London and the South East, but there are also opportunities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. An increasing number of production companies are setting up in the North West, particularly Manchester and Liverpool, and the BBC has relocated many of its London services to Salford.
- Long periods away from home on location are common - sometimes abroad, depending on the production.
Although you don't need a degree to become a lighting technician, 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 in electrical installation through vocational training courses such as those offered by City & Guilds and EAL. They then continue to gain practical experience in production lighting after their studies. You can also train to become an electrician via an apprenticeship.
You'll need to have:
- technical knowledge and lighting skills
- manual dexterity and a good level of physical fitness
- the ability to work well under pressure and to deadlines
- time management and organisational skills
- the ability to work as part of a team
- effective communication skills
- attention to detail
- creative flair
- problem-solving ability
- IT and numeracy skills
- understanding of health and safety legislation and procedures.
You'll also usually need a clean driving licence.
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.
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.
Many lighting technicians 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 direct to find out about opportunities.
You can find details of specialist lighting companies by reading the credits on films and TV programmes, and by researching companies in directories such as:
It's sometimes possible to find entry-level jobs with lighting equipment hire companies.
Look for job vacancies at:
The majority of training is carried out on the job. 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. Look for Tick Courses that have been endorsed by ScreenSkills as offering industry-relevant teaching.
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.
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.
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 from the camera department.
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.
Some lighting technicians 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 technician, 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.