"You Light Up My Life." Well, okay - maybe not our entire lives. It would be pretty cool if we had back-lighting on every trip to the grocery store, but that’s not really the way it works. Rather, a lighting designer draws up and implements schemes to artistically or aesthetically light a variety of performance venues and fancy shmancy homes. The guy who lit up that concert hall? Lighting designer. The gal who made that dark, shadowy scene in that movie look so foreboding? Lighting designer. The fella who shone a light in your eyes and asked to see your driver’s license? Police officer. Not that we want to take sides, but you really shouldn’t have been driving that fast.
This job is not just figuring out where to point a bunch of lights and then physically pointing them there. Just as being a photographer isn’t just pointing and clicking a camera (it isn’t). The ability to create a specific mood or atmosphere is a learned skill, and there are always a hundred different variables that come into play when you’re trying to determine the best way to produce a desired effect. What color gel should you use, how can you best mimic natural light, how should you light a particular scene so that it is consistent with the look of the rest of the project? It’s just as much about “design” as it is about “light.”
You may be a lone wolf, or you may be a permanent employee of a lighting design or production company. In the former case, you’re relying on good word of mouth and past experience to continue to get you work; in the latter, you are salaried and you just go where the boss sends you.