Three lighting sources are all you need to create a basic 3-point lighting set-up. If each light is identical, no worries: there are ways to diffuse that situation. For these setups we’re using some cheap aluminum clamp lights you can pick up at the hardware store for under ten dollars a piece. But before we get too deep into specifics of what the lights and modifiers, let’s review the fundamentals of three-point lighting.
For these setups we’re using some cheap aluminum clamp lights you can pick up at the hardware store for under ten dollars a piece.
Depending on your scene, your three-point lighting setup may vary. But here are a few general guidelines:
The 3-point lighting setup used for the following pictures.
The key light.
Usually this light is positioned off to one side of your subject. It will illuminate a majority of your subject with the exception of some harsh, shadowy lines. If those lines fit the mood of your scene, you can move on to your back light. If not, get another lamp ready.
Just a key light with a snoot.
The fill light.
Your fill light should be placed opposite of, and more diffused than, your key light. This will fill in those harsh shadows without creating more, and it will also keep the focus on the side that you initially lit. You can also use a reflector if another lamp is too bright. If that’s the case, grab some cardboard and tin foil, or a white T-shirt, and reflect the light coming from the key back onto your subject. A computer screen, fireplace, candle, or lighter can serve as a good fill light — if it is already part of the scene. If you have a tablet handy, you could use that as your fill light: Just load up a blank page and vary the brightness on the screen. Try different colors for different tones.
Just a fill light, diffused via coffee filter
Key light with snoot, and fill light through coffee filter.
An often over-looked component of a good lighting setup, the backlight is essential for filling in your shot with background imagery. You can use it to pick out actors or objects behind your subject to create more depth in your shot, or you can use it to cast a silhouette against your lens. The backlight can typically go anywhere in the background, so play around with this one as much as the others, if not more.
Just a low backlight.
Key light with snoot and low backlight.
All three lights used: key with snoot, diffused fill via coffee filter, and low backlight.
So those are your basic lights. Of course, you can — and should — play with the intensity of your lamps by shooting through a variety of filters. If you don’t like the shadows created by your fill light, try shooting through a more dense filter, then try positioning your fill light higher or lower than your key light, and adjust your backlight to lose the shadows. Since you’re on a budget, try shooting through wax paper, coffee filters, cheese cloth, wire mesh, a T-shirt, or an empty milk carton. Use binder clips or clothespins to fix these objects to your lamp, and make sure the bulb is not touching your filter, as these lamps get hot very quickly.
This is where your wire hanger comes in handy.
You will want to bend your hanger to create a halo that can attach to the front of your lamp.
Make sure it also allows heat to escape from the gap between your light fixture and filter.
Use clothespins or large binder clips to fix the hanger to the light’s housing. Now your lamp is ready for your filter or gel of choice.
So your intensity is good, but the light is spilling all over your scene and catching things that just don’t go in your shot. A snoot can help with that.
A snoot is a conical shaped instrument that attaches itself to the end of a light. The light floods one end of the cone and shines through a hole at the other side. The hardware store lamps shown here have removable sockets, which means a snoot is always a few binder clips away.
Remove socket from lamp; invert housing and fasten together using binder clips.
But if your sockets don’t come off, don’t worry: you can create a custom-fit snoot yourself using some tin foil, and maybe a 2-liter bottle from the recycling.
Take a length of tin foil — pi times the diameter of your lamp, to be exact — and wrap it around the metal housing of the light. Leave a consistent edge at the end of the housing, where the socket is. This will serve as your hole at the end.
Carefully unwrap the foil from the housing, making sure not to tear it or warp the shape. Flip the foil 180 degrees, and wrap the wider edge around your lamp.
Viola! A DIY snoot. You can try using the top of a 2-liter or 3-liter bottle for a more consistent end shape.
With all three of these lights secured in the proper place, and their intensities and directions set, your scene will look much more natural — or at least more professional, depending on the mood you’re trying to achieve. Just remember: After you’ve turned them off, allow your lamps to cool before adjusting them for your next shot.
Anthony M. Renteria is a digital media artist and freelance writer.