Three-point lighting the easy answer to a myriad of questions. It’s very adaptable, doesn’t necessarily requires three lights, and luckily, it’s not terribly difficult to learn. Let’s look at how you can set up great studio lighting with just three lamps.
The key is your main light, usually placed 45 degrees from your subject and aimed down. This, as the name suggests, is the primary light, it provides the bulk of the illumination on your subject. You place this light about 45 degrees to the subject’s right or left and about 45 degrees above, aimed straight at the face. The 45-degree angle isn’t written in stone — it’s simply a starting point. Feel free to adjust it later if necessary.
Also, don’t think that because it’s providing most of the light, it needs to be extremely bright. Check to make sure that you haven’t burned out your whites. You should get strong shadows and a good tonal range. If your key light is too bright, you need to move it back, cut down on the amount of light it’s emitting or stop down your camera’s aperture (paywall).
The fill is there to make sure the shadows from the key light aren’t too dark. The fill light is usually about only about a quarter as bright as your key light — about two stops dimmer. You place it on the opposite side from the key light, at about the height of the camera.
There may be a temptation to put it at the same angle as the key — after all, we like symmetry — but don’t do that. One thing we’re trying to do here is use shadowing to make the two sides of the face look different, so try your fill light at an angle of 15 or 25 degrees, and adjust it to suit your aesthetic.
The back light (sometimes called the “kicker”, which sounds a little cooler if you’re on the set: “Jim, get me a kicker back here”) is aimed at your subject’s head and shoulder from behind and above, also at about a 45-degree angle. It gives your subject a bit of a glow and provides separation between the subject and whatever’s behind them. This is often called a “defining edge.”
If you have a nice background you can also aim the back light at that. This works particularly well if the background is textured — like draped fabric — and you aim your light at it obliquely.
This is common in interviews done at a location chosen for the subject’s convenience rather than its scenic beauty — a backdrop can be quickly thrown up in a warehouse or a garage and three-point lighting magically transforms it into a studio in a matter of minutes. Studio lighting is what makes a studio.
The rationale for the back light becomes most apparent when shooting a dark-haired person against a dark background. Without a back light, the hair vanishes into the background and you’re left with a floating face.
In the end, your lighting set up should look something like this:
What kind of lights to get
The minimum number of lights that you need to do three-point lighting is … one. You can actually do three-point lighting with a single light, by using the sun and a reflector as your key and fill. But for all practical purposes, a three-point lighting kit should have at least two lights and a reflector.
Use key and back lights with a reflector for the fill. Reflectors can range from a $300 Photoflex kit with gold and silver collapsible fabric disk reflectors, a diffuser, and an adjustable stand to hold it properly to your cousin Leon, holding a copy of Led Zeppelin IV wrapped in tin foil or a folded bit of foam core with coffee stains on it.
A three-light kit can go from $150 up to several thousand dollars. (See our video lighting buyers guide for specific recommendations.) Some come with hard-shell traveling cases, diffusers, softboxes, etc., and others are much more basic. Get lights that fit your budget, but also take into consideration that you want a kit that will grow with you.
Many times it’s better to get one good light than three you’ll outgrow in a year. Is it easy to get accessories for them? Do they hold their resale value? Other factors to take into consideration are size and portability — remember you’ll be carting them around and setting them up.
Modifying your light
Once you have the basics down, you’ll need to decide whether you want your light to be harsh or diffused? Lighting styles change. Often when looking at interviews from the 1970’s you’ll see three-point lighting done with very bright, undiffused lights. This hard lighting style accentuated shine on people’s faces and cast sharp, unflattering shadows. More recently, the trend has been to use relatively soft key and fill lights that can be behind an umbrella or a softbox.
Whichever style you choose, you’ll likely need some kind of modifier to get there. To learn more about controlling light with modifiers, read How to Control the Quality of Your Light.
Is three-point lighting the best lighting?
Why do we always talk about three-point lighting? What’s so great about it? Well, the truth is, it’s not so great, and it’s not the best or most creative lighting setup for any given situation. But the reason that you need to know it is that it’s a starting point, and it’s almost always good enough.
Imagine you’re a photojournalist, sent on assignment to videotape an interview with a famous scientist. You show up in her lab only to discover she has 20 just minutes before she needs to be on a plane to Florida to tag sand fleas. What do you do? Three-point lighting. Because you’ve practiced, you know you can set it up in your sleep.
On assignments where you have more time, you can build on this to find the best, most creative lighting solution. It’s an essential part of any videographer’s visual vocabulary.
Practice setting three-point lighting in different rooms of your house. Work with the benefits and drawbacks of each location. Do a setup that involves window light, and then do one in a room without windows. Try three point lighting on objects as well as people. How does the light differ when used on something smooth, like a basketball, or made up of complex lines, like a bicycle?
Deconstruct lighting when watching television. Look for three-point lighting — particularly in interviews — and follow the shadows back to the source. Are the lights above or parallel to the subject? How often is natural light a component? Pay special attention to the kicker. How bright is it? Is there good definition between the subject and the background?
Share your results and observations in the forums.