There are no fixed paths with regards to becoming a lighting designer; however, you will need tenacity, highly technical knowledge and creative skills.
Before you can step foot into lighting design, whether through an apprenticeship, university course or job you must have a portfolio of your previous work. This shows you have gained the relevant work experience and proves that you want to pursue it as a career rather than just being a fleeting idea. Work experience can come in many forms; help out with lighting in school productions, local amateur theatre or work for free for a band. Take pictures of your work and include the best examples. Show your passion for lighting by doing research and name lighting designers who inspire you. If you’ve been to a concert or play, critically assess the lighting and think how you would improve it, which would make a good discussion point at an interview.
Enrolling on an apprenticeship course which is vocational-based will offer practical experience and a salary. Depending on the course, you can be trained as a lighting technician assistant and train with the technical production crew. The important entry requirement is that you are 16 years and over and not in full-time education. It is most likely you will require a portfolio to demonstrate your commitment to the apprenticeship.
If you want to gain a more theoretical knowledge on lighting design, enrolling onto a university course may be more suitable. Courses will vary but you will mainly learn the technical aspects of the process as well as different techniques used in lighting.
An alternative to formal training and qualifications is obtaining a job with your local theatre or in companies in the entertainment industry; whether you are sweeping the stage or a follow spot operator for a pantomime, consider it a valuable learning process to climb up the career ladder. In the end, as mentioned above, work experience and evidence of your work is essential to becoming a lighting designer.
A lighting designer is given work based on recommendations from previous jobs so after you qualify you must continue learning and look for areas where you can improve. Seeking an assistant role with the best lighting designer will show you how great lighting is produced and gives you ideas to develop on. Create opportunities for yourself by building their trust and confidence in you and you will be more likely to be given greater responsibilities. Also during your free time, offer to do lighting on your own account with friends or new contacts; you can refine your skills and you will have more freedom to experiment with different techniques.
However it is difficult to earn a living solely as a lighting designer. Competition for work is rife with more lighting designers than productions available. It is best to gain skills in technical work too to supplement your income. Realise that success as a lighting designer is not from a constant stream of work which may only be possible for a lucky few, but success is in the admiration for your creation of an ambience and effects music fans and theatre goers will remember.