Some folks consider it a tired cliche, but it's important to know how to set 3-point lighting, so you can work within or without this classic lighting style.
We are often told, "you have to know the rules before you can break them!" In the case of lighting, the rule for good lighting involves the use of three-point lighting. In this column, we will provide pictures and diagrams that will give you the rules you need to produce good lighting in simple situations. Once you master three-point lighting, you will be ready to move on to creating realistic quality lighting for your video productions.
Key, Fill, and Back
The key light is the main source of light in a scene. You place the key light in front or to the side of the subject, depending on the situation. The more dramatic the light needs, the further to the side you should place the light. Usually you place the key light at a 45-degree angle above the subject and 45-degrees to her side (see Figure 1). If the light is correctly placed, it will create a shadow that pleasantly slants down the side of the subject's neck as well as the side of her nose, giving her a three dimensional look (see photo A).
High Key Versus Low Key
If the fill light approaches the intensity of the key light, the contrast is reduced and is often called High Key Lighting (see photo E). You would use this type of lighting if you did not need to create a dramatic mood or just wanted a low contrast scene.
Hard Versus Soft Light
The quality of light can be either hard or soft. Hard lighting comes from small lighting instruments that create hard-edged shadows. You can create soft light by making your lights bigger by diffusing their light with large silks, umbrellas, or softboxes. You would use hard light to create intense dramatic lighting with sharp-edged shadows. However, if you want your subject to look soft and smooth, use a soft light setup. Note the softer look in photo G versus the harder look of photo A.
Mastering It All
Whatever your lighting situation, always ask yourself, "What are the quality and position of the main light source?" Place your key light so that it best approximates the look of that major light source. The fill determines the level of the ambient light in the scene and the back light, which is as intense as the key light, completes the setup.
Now you know the rules... you are now ready to break them.
Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D. is a college instructor of video and film production and is an independent director.