Three-point lighting has become the mainstay of video lighting. But if you want to add a bit of dramatic lighting, consider moving the fill to the key side, and see what you get.
The whole reason to introduce lighting into your video project is that the existing lighting you’re working with is not sufficient to give you the results you want.
When the existing lighting is less than ideal, the results are also less than ideal. We talk a lot about three-point lighting. Just what is it, and why should I care? If you’re reading this, then you already care about your lighting. You know what good images look like. Everything jumps out, everyone looks good.
The Basics of Three-Point Lighting
Over the years, photography or video lighting has evolved from basic on-camera lighting, where the light on your camera is all you have, to complex multi-light setups including fiber optic systems that enable the videographer to capture intricate details while simultaneously rack focusing the camera lens and rotating set. But some lighting styles continue to be the backbone of our industry. Simple yet effective “three-point lighting” has become the mainstay of video lighting, because it is so easy to implement and delivers predictable results. All you really need are three light sources, and one of those can be a simple reflector, yet the results can be as classic as a traditional portrait or as dramatic as an editorial image you’d find in a documentary. You can even use the techniques in traditional three-point lighting for product shots and entire room set productions. All you have to do is gain a basic understanding of the principles involved and how to interpret and apply them.
Three-point lighting consists of a key light, a fill light and a rim or hair light. Each one performs a different function. The key light is the light that defines the look or feel of the set. It creates mood. So, if you want a classic Hollywood look, then you want a pretty direct, unmodified light source such as a raw light, spotlight or fresnel at some distance from your subject. If you want a soft, flattering look, then a softer key light is in order, such as a small umbrella or softbox. The fill light determines how well defined the shadow details are and also helps to create mood for your image. The fill can be moved about the set to produce several different effects, as we shall soon see.
If you want enough shadow detail to show some texture but not so much as to soften an otherwise dramatic look, you could use a large reflector set at a distance so that it reflects back just enough light to give you the look you want. Or you could use a modifier such as a large umbrella, scrim or softbox and set the power of the light to achieve just the right look. But remember that light modifier can reflect back light just like your reflector does. The point of a good fill light is to not overpower the key light; you want to control the shadows, not eliminate them.
The hair light creates a wraparound rim of light emanating from above and behind the set. This is what makes your subject stand out from the background. It isn’t always necessary to have a hair light, but for the purposes of this article, we have included one.
Following the Three-Point Lighting Rules
In the first picture (Figure A), the child is lit with a 16″ softbox for the key light in a traditional position just to the right and above the subject. The small softbox creates a full shadow across his face, thus producing nice depth and texture without producing harsh “edge shadows.” The fill, also in a traditional place on the set, softens and fills in the shadows and produces an overall feeling of natural light. Here the fill light is a 4′ softbox placed to the left of the boy and just above him. With the hair light coming from above and behind, the set looks like there is some natural sunlight involved here. The hair light is a simple raw light with a 45-degree reflector. Barn doors are attached, to control any falloff that might spill over into the lens and create flare or onto the background and produce silly streaks of light. Overall it’s a soft, flattering lighting style that reflects a calm mood, perfect for a natural-looking portrait setting.
Advanced Fill for Key Setup
The next picture, which demonstrates a “fill from the key light” approach (Figure B), was taken with the key in the same place as figure A, but the fill light was moved over to the same side of the key light, thus producing much less fill and deeper shadows on the left side of the face. What’s happening here is the fill light is softening the key light while maintaining strong contrasty shadows on the opposite side of the key light.
As you can see, fill from the key lighting isn’t always quite as flattering as the more traditional style, but, as exemplified in the third photo (Figure C), fill from the key does have its place. Here little has changed except moving the key and fill just a bit farther over to the boy’s right. His expression has also changed; he’s much more animated, and that gives the image a more spontaneous feeling, which would be perfect for a contrasty editorial look.
So, if you are trying to produce a flattering lighting style for your subject, you can see here just why traditional three-point lighting has become the standard of the industry; it’s easy to set up and the flattering results are predictable and repeatable. If you are looking for something different, perhaps a little edgy, but you still want the subject to look good, you might try mixing it up a bit and use a “fill from the key” approach to your lighting and put the fill light on the same side of the key light. But remember: your results may vary, so shoot plenty of material, so you have a good selection to edit from.
Terry O’Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.