This article was cowritten with my friend James Ball
Three-point lighting is the basic starting point for film and video. It can also be used well as a portrait lighting approach for photography. What’s ideally happening is that the subject is light in a way that illuminates their face (with one side more dominant) and some separation from the background. This method utilizes three light sources focused on the subject from different angles. Mastering this technique is the foundation for more advanced lighting strategies. This approach is the basis for portrait lighting, but it can be used in other situations as well.
The key is generally your most intense light and is placed 1545 degrees to the side of your subject. The main purpose of the key is to wrap the face in the appropriate quality of light based on the subjects features and the story you want to tell.
Using a broad, soft source of light like that produced by a soft box or fluorescent fixture such as a Kino-Flo is a popular choice when shooting interviews. If you have the room, a bounce key can be even more pleasing: The light is bounced off a flat surface or card and is reflected onto the subjects face to create soft light.
Ideally, you’ll determine essential information about your subject before you light the shot. You’ll want to identify important factors like skin tone and texture, hair color (or lack thereof), and wardrobe, so you can light accordingly. You’ll also need to know the color palette of your subject so you can achieve the right lighting balance.
The fill is your secondary light and is generally placed on the opposite side of the key. Its purpose is to fill in the shadows cast by the key light. To what degree you utilize your fill light is a matter of taste. Ideally, you’ll use a small lighting fixture or bounce the light off a card or flat surface. Often, you can use some reflected light off your key to produce some fill.
Selective use of fill light can have considerable impact on the mood you create. Try varying the amount of light used and look at your monitor or viewfinder after you make adjustments. The amount of falloff you use for the key (which creates shadows or transition) can really change a viewers reaction to your subjects face. This light can significantly affect the mood of the portrait you are shooting.
You’ll also need to experiment with the quality of fill light. When creating fill, you’ll almost always choose to reflect the lights off an indirect surface. Whichever surface you choose can make a big difference. Some are shiny and specular, whereas others just soften a source like butter. A shiny surface will not give you the same feel as a matte finish. Use the way different skin tones take the light as a reference point. You can also use a gold reflector to warm up your light. Just be sure to consider how reflections can affect the mood of the shot.
Backlight is the third element in three-point lighting. Its purpose is to highlight the edges of your subject, separating it from the background, which creates more of a three-dimensional look. The backlight is identical to the hair light you might use in a portrait setup. Placement of the backlight is usually behind and above your subject, but it can depend on the shape and quality of the human (or other) head.
Sometimes the backlight works best close to the floor or off to the side (it is then called a kicker). The purpose is still the same, which is to create a multidimensional feel to draw the viewers attention to a subject. The quality of this light can be as varied as the key and fill. A bald head often looks best with a bounced backlight, whereas a subject with a full head of hair can usually benefit from more of a direct treatment.
However, kickers and edge lights are not assumed for every shoot. Not every scenario requires a backlight. They just may not fit with the mood of your setup. People don’t walk around in the world with little halos around them!
But you’ll still want to separate the subject from the background to keep the viewer focused on the subject. You can accomplish this by lighting the background with the appropriate amount of contrasting shadow and highlight. In the right circumstances, this might be a more natural way to create separation. You can also do this through color variance, with warm colors making up your foreground and cooler tones receding into your background.
Putting It All Together
Once you understand three-point lighting youre well on your way to understanding the art of lighting. As photographers you probably know much of this. The new challenge you will have with videography is to maintain your three-point lighting sources throughout a moving shot, a moving subject, or multiple cameras, which can be really fun and open you up to some new challenges.
You can see the final result of combining the key, fill, and backlight on the adjacent or next page. When done correctly, the scene can be shot with multiple cameras.
A Video Walk Through
Prefer to sit back and watch? Have a look at this detailed video walk through.