Light Source: Three-point Lighting for Multiple Talent

In past columns we have explored the many ways to use lighting to enhance video productions. We have discussed three-point lighting and the various elements that make up good lighting. Most of these columns focused on lighting for one talent. However, what do you do if you are lighting a scene with more than one person? Can you still use three-point lighting? How do you set it up and what questions do you have to ask yourself when preparing a lighting scheme?
In this column, we will look at the various components of three-point lighting for multiple talent. We will also discuss different lighting placement and describe how to set the lights for various scenarios.

Setting the Stage

As with any lighting assignment, you must begin your plan by discussing with the director the needs of the video shoot. If you are a one-man-band wearing the director’s hat as well as that of every other crewmember, you still need to ask some very important questions. First, where will the camera be in relation to the talent? Are you shooting outdoors or indoors? If outdoors, how will the sun effect the shot? If indoors, is there a window or door that has sunlight filtering through it? Will the talent be moving? Is it day or night? What mood are you trying to achieve?
Every time you pick up a lighting instrument, you need to be asking yourself these questions. When you have the answers to all of these questions, you are ready to begin designing the lighting scheme. Keep in mind, that although you will be lighting more than one talent, you still use the basic components of three-point lighting, the key light, fill light and back light.

Three-point Basics

Three-point lighting, as its name implies, uses three lights: the key light, fill light and back light. The key light is your main light source. It is usually the most intense and direct light shining on your talent. You use the fill light to fill in the shadows created by the key light. This light source helps establish the mood and add dimension. The primary function of the back light is to separate the talent from the background. By lighting the back of the talent’s head and shoulders, the resulting rim of light helps establish that the talent is some distance from the background.

Multi-purposing Your Lights

When lighting for more than one talent, you first must establish where the camera (or cameras) will be for each of the talent (see Figure 1). If you are shooting two people and have your camera focused on both (camera 1); you can use basic three-point lighting with the key and the fill at equal intensities. If you are shooting two or more people from various angles, you need to plan the lighting for each of the camera angles. However, do not despair, you don’t have to change the lighting every time you move the camera. If you carefully plot out your camera shots, you can use the same lighting setup for all of your shots with very little if any changes.
If your two subjects are standing or sitting together talking, you have five shots from which to choose. A single shot of each subject, a front two-shot, and over-the-shoulder shots of each subject. You can light all of these shots using the same setup. We’ll call the talent to the left of the camera, Talent 1, and to the right, Talent 2.
With your camera at the six o’clock position, place Talent 1’s key light as you would for a standard three-point setup; 35-45 degrees up from the talents face, with the light between the four and five o’clock positions. Next, set the fill between the seven and eight o’clock positions. The spill from Talent 1’s key light becomes Talent 2’s fill light. And Talent 1’s fill light acts as the key light for Talent 2. You now have two lights set up to perform the functions of both the key and fill. For the back light, if you only have one light, you could place it directly opposite the camera, yet high enough so that you don’t create lens flare. However, this setup looks best if you can place a back light opposite each talent’s key light.

Don’t Cry Over Spilled Light

Now that you know the basic setup for lighting two people, what are some ways you can control the look of the lighting? As we mentioned before, you must determine the kind of mood you are trying to create with your lights. If you were doing something very dramatic, you would want to reduce the amount of fill light on your talent’s face by diffusing the spill from the other talent’s key and back lights. You can do this by clipping diffusion material over the half of the light that serves as fill (See Figure 2).
Experiment with your shots and view the results in a monitor until you get the look you are after.
If you are doing an interview, you should be concerned with the softness of the lights. Remember, the larger the light, the softer the beam. If you want to give your talent a soft, even light that will smooth out wrinkles and complexion problems, use softboxes for your two key lights. A softbox is a large box that spreads and softens a light source, creating very soft shadows. If you don’t have a softbox, you can soften your light with diffusion. You can keep light from back light lamps from spilling onto the other talent by setting up flags (See Figure 2). Flags are typically pieces of cardboard painted black, positioned to block light.

Let the Sun Shine

You can also use the sun as a light source in this setup. Place your subjects so that they are standing with their backs toward the sun, this provides a very strong back light. Reflect light off white bounce cards from both the right and the left of the camera. You may need to place a flag above the lens of the camera to prevent lens flare. If you don’t get enough light on the talent’s face, move your reflectors closer, or switch to silver or gold reflectors (See Figure 3).
If you are shooting a narrative piece and your talent is moving, you can still use a basic three-point lighting set-up. Every source of light must have an obvious source. Is it a table lamp, a top light or light streaming in a window? You just have to keep in mind that for every camera position, you need some kind of fill light (unless the scene is in a really dark room), a back light and a key light that is consistent between shots. You might find it helpful to draw the floor plan of the location on a piece of heavy white paper. Then, using clear acetate sheets, plot out each camera setup and your lighting for each camera. By looking at this visual aid, you will be able to see if the light is realistically coming from the same spot in every shot. Lamps usually don’t magically move around a room, but if you’re not careful when shooting from multiple angles, it might look as if they do.
Finally, experiment. By using the basics of three point lighting and an active imagination, you should be able to achieve some very interesting and dramatic results.

Robert G. Nulph is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches video production courses at the college level.

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