Three-point lighting is basically a method or a type of lighting setup where you have three distinct light source positions to illuminate a subject in a scene.
It is not a formula or a set standard, but rather a guide as to how and where to place your light sources so as to light your subject and scene.
The placement of your lights in this lighting setup helps create different moods for your image.
We’ll get into this in more detail as we describe the different lights in the setup. You have three distinct lights or light positions:
- The Key Light – This is the primary and brightest light source in the three-point lighting setup. It gives a scene its overall exposure. Cinematographers typically position this main light slightly off to the side of the camera and the front of the subject, on a light stand at a 45-degree angle to the camera, which creates shadows on the opposite side of the subject’s face, giving it dimension and depth. The primary light creates the mood of a scene. Depending upon its position and the supplemental lights used in the overall lighting, it can create a high-key image (evenly, softly lit and atmospherically upbeat) or a low-key image (high contrasts, deep shadows, and very moody).
- The Fill Light – Mirroring the key light on the opposite side of the camera, the fill light literally fills in the shadows that the key light creates on a subject, bringing out details in the darkness. Typically, this secondary light is less bright than the key, and cinematographers control the overall feel of their shots based on how much they dim or lighten the fill light. A dim fill light, where the fill ration is high, creates a high-contrast, film-noir type of shadow, while a brighter light with a lower, more balanced ratio gives the subject a more even look. The second light isn’t always a light: it can be a reflector, a bounce card, a wall, or anything that bounces back some light onto the subject to fill in the shadows. Together with the key light, the fill light determines the mood of a scene.
- The Backlight – The third source in this lighting technique, the backlight (also known as the “rim light” or “hair light”) shines on a subject from behind, completing the light setup. This creates a rim of light or outline around their head that pushes the subject away from the background and gives a sense of depth. Typically, cinematographers position the backlight directly behind the subject or high enough to be out of frame, opposite the key light, and pointing at the back of the subject’s neck.
If you have a fourth light, you could use it to light the background of the entire scene.
How Is Three-Point Lighting Used?
There is no set formula for how three-point lighting is used. This often depends on the scene, the subject matter, and the overall mood that a cinematographer or photographer wants to evoke.
Three-point lighting is not a fixed standard or a formula, but rather a guide on light position and placement.Three-point lighting is fundamentally a way of expressing where to place your lights for cinematography.
Unfortunately, over time, people have started using it like a formula, without understanding why it is used in the first place.
How to achieve a three-point lighting setup?
The standard three-point setup typically has the key and the fill light set up at about 45 degrees to either side of the subject with the camera in between them.
The backlight is then be placed opposite the key light just outside the frame to create separation since that side of the frame would be darker.
Once you grasp the general concept of this lighting setup, you can play around with it, as well as other lighting techniques, to create different effects in your videos.
A few things to note –
1. There are other kinds of light placements too:
Some of the names you’ll hear are rim light, side light, eye light, catch light, a slash or kicker light, to name but a few. These are specific lighting styles and enhance or modify the three-point lighting system.
2. Your lighting setup helps bring dimension to your character:
Three-point lighting also helps you sculpt and shape your subject to bring out the best or worst of them.
3. Your light needs to be motivated:
When you’re thinking about where the source of light in a scene is coming from, it needs to make sense. This is often referred to as the “motivation” of your light source.
Why do we use three-point lighting?
We use three-point lighting because it comes from the real world – our sun.We have to be lit by at least one light, the light that gives us exposure – that’s our key light. No surprises there.
While we move around, we’re hit by various sources of light – secondary sources due but not limited to the following:
1. The sun bouncing through or refracting through different materials
2. Artificial light from man-made sources
3. Reflective or refractive light from man-made sources (like passing through a curtain, umbrella, etc.)
Finally, when we turn our subjects’ backs to the sun, it hits us from behind, and this is backlight. We see this at sunset and sunrise. Backlight causes a rim of light behind the subject, cutting it out from the background. Also, it lights up hair differently.
Final Conclusion or Tips –
Whether your light is a fill, back light or the key, its position and direction relative to the scene will determine how well you can sell the shot as ‘natural’.But again remember, it’s not set in stone. The important thing is to understand what three-point lighting is, how to motivate your lights, and then turn everything upside down to create striking visuals.
Now I know that I said the source of light needs to make sense, but when your motivation isn’t the natural look of things but the emotion of the scene, things change a little. You can place the lights wherever you feel and shape the scene and subject as you see fit to communicate a specific emotion.
You’re not entirely bound by the fact that the light placement needs to be motivated by real life. You can create and enhance emotions just by how you place the lights while still maintaining a three-point light setup.If you’re a beginner, what I recommend is that you first stick to the basics of the three-point lighting system. Once you’re comfortable with it, then start to break up the rules.
Range of lights are now available on rent with Paxton Equipments.