Poorly lit scenes can leave your project looking flat and lifeless. But if you can get the lighting right, it will help establish a tone, and bring the depth and texture to your footage. In this segment, we talk about the basics of 3 and 4-point lighting including key lights, fill lights, backlights and set lights. Plus, some insight into hard light and soft light, and high key and low key lighting styles. Knowing the fundamentals of basic lighting setups can help breathe life into bland scene.
Poorly lit scenes can leave your project looking flat and lifeless. But if you can get the lighting right, it will help establish a tone, and bring the depth and texture to your footage.
In this segment, we talk about the basics of 3 and 4 point lighting including key lights, fill lights, backlights, and set lights. Plus we tell you what you need to know about hard light and soft light, and high key and low key lighting styles.
Knowing the fundamentals of basic lighting setups can help breathe life into bland scenes, and help your footage sell your story better.
Before we start setting up lights, it’s important to understand the difference between hard and soft light.
This is an example of a hard light source. A hard light typically comes from a bare bulb or focused spotlight. The sharp, dark shadows it creates can give your scene an intense, gritty tone. It will also highlight imperfections and textures.
This is an example of a soft light source. A soft light is typically diffused with material that scatters the light. The smoother, more transparent shadows that wrap around the subject can give your scene a more serene positive tone, and will help hide imperfections and smooth out textures.
Now let’s talk about the 3 point lighting. As you’d expect, this involves 3 different lights. The key, the fill, and the backlight. The first light you want to set up is called the key light.
The key light will be the brightest light in your scene, and is the light that is casting your primary shadows. The key light position helps define what the primary motivated light source is in your scene, and can be a hard light or a soft light.
Using a typical interview setup as an example, the key light is placed about 45 degrees off axis from the camera and set to a height that gives it a 45 degr ee angle to the subject. This position is ideal because it’s high enough to prevent heavy shadows on your subject’s cheek, as well as your background
These two shots both have a hard key light, the one on the left has the standard 45 degree placement, but the one on the right was placed closer to eye level and more toward the side of our subject. Notice how the shadows fall horizontally across the face, rather than at an angle.
Both of these shots had key lights placed at the 45 degree positions, the only difference is that one is a hard light, and the other is a soft light. Notice that because the hard light is more directional, less light falls on the background.
For our setup, we wanted the soft look with minimal spill on our background. To accomplish this, we used a 90 degree honeycomb grid over our soft light.
Now that we’ve got our key light properly placed, let’s add our fill light.
The fill light is used to control the shadows created by your key light, and is typically a soft light, or a hard light being bounced off of a piece of foamcore board. The fill light by definition is always less intense than your key light.
A fill light is typically placed close to the camera near the eye level of your subject on the opposite side of the key light. This position helps prevent the fill light from casting unwanted shadows.
If this placement casts your subject’s shadow on the background, you have a few options. You can diffuse the light more, move the light closer to your subject, or move the lights and subject further away from the background.
Before we move on we need to discuss another important concept. Lighting Ratio.
The lighting ratio is the difference in intensity between your key light and your fill light. When the difference between the key and fill light is small, it’s referred to as high key lighting. In ratio terms this might be 2 to 1. Meaning your key light is twice as intense as your fill light.
In this example, notice how most of the shadows created by the key light are counteracted by our fill light. You’ll commonly see this style of lighting used in sitcoms and soap operas.
Here’s the shot with the key light turned off. This gives you a clear picture of what your fill light is doing.
Even with high key lighting, you want to make sure to leave some shadows from your key light to keep some sense of depth.
When there’s a big difference in intensity between your key light and fill light, it’s called low key lighting. In ratio terms this might be 9 to 1, meaning that the key light is 9 times as intense as the fill light.
In this example, notice how most of the shadows created by the key light are left intact, resulting in a more intense, moody feel. You’ll see this style used in dramas and of course the most extreme version of this is found in the film noire style.
Here’s the shot with the key light turned off. This gives you a clear picture of how much light our fill is casting for low key lighting.
For more on creating the film noire look and high and low key lighting, you can check out the link in the description.
The third light in the 3 point lighting setup is called the backlight.
The backlight separates your subject from the background, and helps to define the 3rd dimension with shape and depth. A backlight is generally a hard light, which allows you to focus it and highlight contours of your subject by creating a thin light outline.
A standard backlight is placed directly behind your subject at a 45 degree angle.
Here’s our shot with the key, fill and backlight turned on. Notice how we have highlights at the edge of the shoulders and head. This helps separate our subject from the background.
Here’s the shot with only the backlight turned on. Notice how we’re not getting any light spill along the front of our subject.
Placing the backlight at a lower angle can cause the light to show in the shot, or cause lens flares. Now if you think the flare works for your project, you can intentionally create this look.
Placing your backlight at a higher angle can cast new downward shadows on your subject, and should be avoided.
Since you can’t just set a light stand behind your subject, you’ll need to mount the backlight using a boom arm on a c-stand, or a drop ceiling scissor clamp.
If you use a boom arm, be sure to add a sandbag or counterweight to prevent your light from tipping over.
Because your backlight is only creating a thin outline on the edges of your subject, you can dim the lights if necessary, as the color temperature shift won’t affect your skin tone. For a great article on color temperature and lighting, click on the link in the description, or if you’re a plus member, check out the gels and diffusion link for a video tutorial.
While many people use the term backlight, hairlight, rim light and kicker interchangeably, each of these terms refers to different light placement.
A hairlight is used to illuminate your subject’s hair, and is typically achieved by using a lower intensity light with a snoot or narrow barn door opening.
Here’s our shot with and without the hairlight. The hairlight works well in combination with our backlight to give our subject depth and highlights.
And here’s the shot with just the hairlight on. You can see it’s a subtle light, but it helps the overall look.
Rim lights, sometimes referred to as edge lights or side lights are placed just in front of your subject on one or both sides. This can be used if there’s no way to mount your backlight behind your subject.
Here’s our shot with just the rim lights. It’s still mainly casting light on the edges of our subject
Finally a kicker is placed around the same height as your subject and a little off to one side. This provides a more intense highlight on that side of your subject for a more dramatic effect.
Here you can really see how one side is catching more light, and we’re letting some of it fall onto our subject’s face.
Though it’s commonly referred to as three point lighting, a fourth light can be used to help illuminate the rest of the scene.
The background or set light is used to illuminate the walls of a set. In a small area, This light may not be necessary as the other lights in your setup may already provide enough light on your background.
You can use a hard light and cucoloris or cookie. This will produce pools of shadow and highlights that give your background more interest.
Here’s our setup with only our set light turned on. Notice the subtle pools of light and shadows on the brick background.
You can also add a colored gel to a backlight to add a pop of color, or help set the tone for an interview.
So now we tie it all together, and here’s a look behind the scenes of our 4 point lighting setup.
Now we can turn on our lights one at a time. This is just the key light... the fill light... the backlight... and the set light. Together, they form a well lit scene that has nice depth and sets the tone we want.
The basics of 3 point lighting are the foundation to creating great lighting setups. Whether it’s narrative material, interviews or product shots, you’ll see it used in nearly every professional project. So take your time, and tweak your lighting until it works to enhance your next shot. Thanks for watching.