What is the Average 3D Lighting Artist Salary? (2022)

by | Last updated Apr 25, 2022

Wonder how much a 3D lighting artist makes in a year? And if it’s possible to earn more than the average 3D lighting artist salary? 

A creative job becomes more fun when you are compensated for your hard work. Just like for any job, a 3D lighting artist salary varies greatly — it will depend on your experience, skills, and in most cases, the location. Some cities pay more for 3D lighting artist jobs than others, with California and New York being the most lucrative in the 3D animation and lighting industry. 

So how much are you expected to make in the 3D animation industry as a lighter? Check out this guide to find out!


What does a 3D lighting artist do? 

First, let’s look at what a 3D lighting artist actually does.

In animation, 3D lighting sets the mood, tone, and atmosphere of the scene. Light and shadows are applied in a computer-generated 3D environment to give the scene its final look. 

As a lighting artist, you use your technical and artistic skills. You know how to choose different lighting combinations to highlight specific areas of the scene and elicit the right emotion. You’ll create color keys to select the best color hues in a scene and shaders to apply special effects like sheen on wet surfaces or reflections. 

While 3D lighting is a creative job, it’s highly technical because it marries animation with science to make the lighting as realistic as possible. You should be well-versed in various 3D animation software programs like Maya, Houdini, Cinema 4D, Autodesk 3DS Max, Blender, Lightwave 3D, and ZBrush. 

Lighting artists are employed by animation studios, advertising agencies, web design companies for filmmaking, commercials, game development, CGI and VFX, visual development, marketing, and architectural visualizations. 

In terms of career prospects, opportunities depend primarily on your education and skills. Some job titles include: 

  • 3D Lighting Artist
  • Texturing and Shading Artist
  • Modeling Artist
  • Layout Artist
  • Character Rigger
  • Effects Animator
  • Color Key Artist
  • Compositing Artist
  • Lighting TD
  • Animation director

While some artists get into animation and 3D lighting by earning a degree, you can also take related fields like architecture, engineering, interior design, theater technology, or photography and then take a course on 3D lighting. 

How much do 3D artists earn? 

3D lighting artists can work in various fields and the amount that 3D artists make depends on their skill set, specialization, and experience. The national average for a 3D digital artist in the United States is $74,276. An entry-level 3D artist with less than a year of experience makes an average of $42,674. This rate includes bonuses, tips, and overtime pay. Those with 1-4 years of experience make about $50,959 on average. 3D artists with 5 to 9 years experience earn $60,985 or more, while experienced 3D artists with 10-19 years make $70,044 and above.

The highest paying jobs in the 3D and animation field are: Environment artists, Animation artists, and 3D game artists. Senior environment artists make an average of $89,634, while senior game artists earn $87,908 per year. Experienced 3D game artists earn an average of $87,890, while senior 3D animation artists make $86,218 every year. 

Of course, a 3D lighting artist’s salary also depends on the location. Cities, where lighting artists are high in demand, tend to pay more such as Reno, Seattle, Berkeley, Salt Lake City, Portland, and New York.

And note that these salaries are the average. Once you have experience, you can make multiple six-figures a year. 

How much do lighting animators make?

3D lighting is a rewarding and fun career; that’s why it’s highly coveted. Lighting artists are always high in demand, and the salary will depend on your experience, skills, and location. Big studios pay top dollars for lighting artists. Apart from the higher than average pay, established animation companies also provide a host of perks like traveling, and bonuses. 

So what’s the average 3D lighting artist salary, and is it possible to earn six figures as a lighter? 

According to PayScale.com, the average salary for lighters is $91,889. Entry-level 3D lighters make about $68,250 per year while experienced light artists earn an average of $155,000 each year. 

The average salary for lighting artists with 1 to 4 years of experience is $42,000, but the average senior lighting artist salary for people with 10-19 years of experience is about $125,000. As you gain more experience, you can accept more lighting jobs and earn more.

For instance, Dreamworks light artists earn about $113,305, while Disney lighting artists earn about $102,752 as hourly contractors. 

How much do video game lighting artists make?

In game development, there are several areas of specialization, such as character design, animation, special effects, lighting, modeling, and architecture and landscapes. The average salary of a game artist ranges from $42,000 to $80,000, depending on the experience and skills. 

According to GlassDoor.com, Meta Lighting artists make about $94,132 a year, while PlayStation lighting artists make an average of $77,948. EA Games lighting artists earn about  $75,000 to $122,000 per year, and senior Microsoft lighting artists make a whopping $135,000 to $144,000 per year. 

How much do other types of 3D lighting artists make?

3D lighting artists work in various fields like TV series, commercials, and so on. A lighting designer makes about  $33,000 to $60,174 per year. Lighting designers make about $80,863, while senior lighting artists earn about $60,174. A lead lighting artist makes an average of $129,595, according to GlassDoor.com. On the other hand, lighting directors make about $59,996 to $94,115 per year. 

Architectural lighting artists earn an average of $40,300 to $113,526, according to Comparably.com. Those with 1 to 5 years of experience make about $50,000 and $60,000. Experienced architectural lighting designers earn as much as $113,526. As of January 27, 2022, a TV lighting designer makes about $56,500.

How to become a 3D lighting artist 

You can become a 3D lighting artist by earning a bachelor’s degree or taking an online course. Not a lot of colleges offer a 3D lighting degree. You’ll need to take a 4-year course in related fields to earn a bachelor’s degree such as Photography, Graphic Design, or Computer Animation. 

Earn a degree

Going to school can be pretty expensive and time-intensive. For example, a bachelor’s degree in Computer Animation costs about  $40,000 per year, and to qualify for the master’s level program, you’ll need at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA. Because you’ll take full classes, you might not have enough time to take freelancing jobs and earn a decent 3D lighting artist salary while earning your degree.

Take an online course

You can become a lighting artist by taking an online course. This is an excellent strategy for anyone who wants to learn at their own pace, save time, and squeeze in some freelancing jobs in between. 

Enrolling in our online lighting workshops lets you hone your skills, train your creative eye, learn industry-standard software programs while having access to industry professionals through our mentoring programs. 

Thinking about signing up for our 3D lighting workshops? Learn more about our online courses here:

Lighting for Animation Course Bundle
Character Lighting for Animated Films

If you are thinking about signing up for our lighting courses, we highly suggest enrolling in one of our tech courses for well-rounded learning. We also offer technical workshops to help you specialize in industry-standard 3D lighting software applications. These computer programs are a must, especially if you want to earn more than the average 3D lighting artist salary. 

All of our AAA lighting courses complement our tech courses:

Arnold Workshop
Katana Workshop
Redshift Workshop
Unreal Workshop
Octane Workshop

Build a portfolio

Artists constantly need materials to fine-tune and demonstrate their skills. This goes especially for aspiring lighters who are just getting their start. There are loads of free characters to light online, but not all are high in quality. 

To build an impressive portfolio and create a standout demo reel to get hiring managers’ attention, you need high-quality assets. We can help you with that too! 

When you sign up for our Ultimate Lighting Bundle, you’ll get access to our asset library, where you can choose high-quality assets to practice on and add to your demo reel. You can also check out the AAA Marketplace to purchase characters, objects, and environments to light and add to your demo reel. 

We also suggest reading our book, Lighting For Animation: The Art of Visual Storytelling, which you can download here to familiarize yourself with the subject, as well as getting our free guide for creating a standout demo reel. 

Can you become a lighting artist on your own? 

It’s possible to learn 3D lighting on your own, and there are some self-taught professional lighting artists out there. Still, for the most part, the free resources are not enough to provide an in-depth understanding of the many artistic principles and technical know-how required to enjoy a higher-than-average 3D lighting artist salary. This goes especially for artists who are just getting into the 3D lighting and animation industry.

It will take years to master various 3D animation software programs so learning on your own is not something we recommend. Even self-taught professionals take online courses to learn different 3D lighting techniques and have a background in digital lighting and graphic design before they become light artists.

You have to invest in quality learning to become a professional lighting artist. We’ve discussed the step-by-step guide on becoming a 3D lighting artist in greater detail in this blog post

Start sending your application

After completing your training, creating a portfolio, and building a killer demo reel, you can start sending your application to various studios and agencies. 

You can check out professional networking sites like LinkedIn to look for vacancies, connect with hiring managers, and even follow animation studios in hopes of landing a job. You can also attend conferences, job fairs or seek online groups for artists to widen your network. Once you’ve sent your application, it’s just a matter of waiting for their call, following up on your application, and practicing for the interview.

Signing up for our Ultimate Lighting Bundle gives you access to our artist community. Our private group consists of industry pros and fellow artists who are, just like you, getting started in 3D lighting. Through our group, you can showcase your shots and get professional feedback. By improving your craft, you have more chances of acing an interview and getting your foot in the door. 

As you gain more experience, continue updating your portfolio and taking freelance jobs. This way, you can earn more than the average 3D lighting artist salary while also honing your skills and being more competitive in a very cut throat industry. Updating your 3D lighting artist portfolio with your best work will lead to exciting projects and better pay. 

Over to you!

Digital lighting has many areas of expertise, so that 3D lighting artist salary will vary depending on the role, experiences, and skillset. But, no matter what industry you find yourself in, there’s no doubt that being a 3D lighting artist pays well!

Since it is lucrative and high in demand, competition is stiff in the lighting and animation industry. That’s why it’s crucial to invest in quality learning to earn a decent 3D lighting artist salary. Thankfully, our online courses make it possible to become a lighter in a year or less — even without prior experience in 3D lighting or animation. 

Get your free guide:

Three Expert Insider Secrets for a Successful Demo Reel.



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