What Is Three Point Lighting – Ultimate Guide For Beginners In Lighting

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Lighting is the most important element in cinematography. To capture a perfect scene for a film a perfect lighting is must. Lighting sets the mood of the scene in a film for example: Romantic, sad, drama, etc. Lighting is also used to create sense of meaning for the audience.

Cameras do not respond to light the same way a human eye does. That is why you need to know why is lighting so important in cinematography and film production overall because a perfect lighting is necessary to define a shot for a film.

As The Black Light Studios is a Filmmaking, Film Production and Cinematography niche, I will explain the Three Point Lighting Technique through a filmmaker or cinematographers perspective. So, let’s get started.

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Three Point Lighting Technique

The Three Point Lighting Technique is a technique used in cinematography, filmmaking, photography or any kind of visual media. It is a standard method of lighting a set, used majorly in filmmaking, cinematography and photography.

It is not a formula or a set standard, but rather a guide as to how and where to place your light sources so as to light your subject and scene.

The Three Point Lighting Technique is a traditional lighting method which is used for illuminating a subject in a scene with light sources from three different points. It helps to shape a subject to bring out the best and the worst of it.

The three different points of light sources used in Three Point Lighting Technique are Key Light, Fill Light and Back Light. As follows is the meaning and explanation of what are this three light source? and why or how it is used?

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Still from Peaky Blinders

1. Key Light

Key Light is the most important light a cinematographer uses because it focuses on the subject. The key light is the main source of light in a scene. The key light is a determining factor to a cinematographer’s lighting technique (or lighting design). The way a cinematographer uses the key light will determine the mood and atmosphere of the scene. The traditional placement of a key light is usually between 30o to 60o to right or left of the subject as the placement of the camera marks 0o. Most used placement of the Key Light is at a 45o angle but it really depends on what kind of output you want.

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2. Fill Light

Fill Light is used for exposing the details of the subject that falls in the shadow area of the key light. Fill light determines the shadows, contrasts and brightness of a scene. It creates depth and dimension in your scene. By using less fill, a cinematographer can create harsh shadows and more contrast and by using more fill, they can create soft shadows and a brighter shot.

3. Back Light

Back Light (also known as the kicker or rim light) is the process of illuminating the subject from the back. Back light (also known as the hair or shoulder light) helps separate the subject and the background. Sometimes, back lighting is used to give a three dimensional effect in a scene. Back light is also used to create depth and dramatic effect.

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How To Achieve A Three Point Lighting Setup

If you are a beginner, I will explain how to achieve a Three Point Lighting Setup in 4 easy steps, they are as follows:

  1. Start in the dark: Turn all of the lights off. This will help you differentiate when you turn on the three light source one by one.
  2. Turn on your Key Light: The Key Light is the determining factor to set the mood and atmosphere of a scene. Adjust the brightness to your liking. The traditional placement of a key light is usually between 30o to 60o to right or left of the subject as the placement of the camera marks 0o. I recommend start by placing the key light at 30o and keep it moving until you feel it’s perfect. You should position your key light relatively a high spot to reduce shadows on the subject face.
  3. Turn on your Fill Light: The Fill Light should be opposite to your key light but still in front of your subject. The Fill Light Should be at the face level and don not place your Fill Light and Key Light symmetrical., this will help you get rid of any remaining shadows on subject. The intensity on the Fill Light should be around half of your Key Light.
  4. Turn on your Back Light: Finally, the last step is to bring in your Back Light. Back Light will help you separate the subject and background. It can be placed anywhere behind the subject, but make sure to keep it out of the shot. You’ll want to angle it down from a high position to achieve a sharp outline on the edge of the subject.
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Once you have completed following the above steps, start shooting and once you get comfortable with using The Three Point Lighting Setup feel free to experiment with it, try changing positions or remove one source of light. Take time to experiment because lighting a scene perfectly requires trial and error.

Important Points To Remember For A Three Point Lighting Steup

  • There are times where you can use a reflector on natural lights such as bright sunlight as a Fill Light.
  • It is not necessary to use artificial man made lights in Three Point Lighting Technique, as mentioned in the previous point you can use a natural light. For Example: Sunlight, Moonlight, etc.
  • In a Three Point Lighting system usually a motivated lighting looks better. If you are a beginner always start by using motivated lighting. If you are wondering what is motivated lighting here’s a short explanation:
Motivated Lighting Example from the movie Excorcist

Motivated Lighting: Motivated lighting technique is a lighting technique where a light source is used to imitate a natural source of light (for example: moonlight). You can visit one of my previous post 12 Film Lighting Techniques Everyone On Set Should Know – Tips and Tricks to know more about it including different other lighting techniques such as Bounce Lighting, High Key and Low Key Lighting, etc.

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  • Your lighting setup helps bring dimension to your character:

Three-point lighting also helps you sculpt and shape your subject to bring out the best or worst of them. For example, placing a soft key light slightly off center with a 2:1 fill ratio creates a soft flattering look that also tends to hide blemishes in the skin when your subjects are people. The light wraps around curves and contours and accentuates them. Moving the key further out and making it a harder light brings out the shape and structure of something more, while also giving the illusion of strength, or something solid.

If you are wondering What is Fill Ratio? Here is a short explanation:

This is simply the ratio between the brightness of the key and the fill light. A 2:1 fill means that the key light is twice as bright as the fill.

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  • It is also not necessary to use motivated lighting. If you are between intermediate level or experienced or just got comfortable using Three Point Lighting Technique you can experiment or if you want to create an emotion you can setup the light source in Three Point Lighting Technique according to your wish in order to achieve your desired output. You don’t have to stick to the rules as you grow your skills.
  • There are other kinds of lighting placements, you might hear some of the names such as rim light, side light, eye light, catch light, a slash or kicker light, to name but a few. These are specific lighting styles and enhance or modify the three-point lighting system.
  • Whether your light is a fill, back light or the key, its position and direction relative to the scene will determine how well you can sell the shot as ‘natural’ but again it is not necessary to stick to the rule if you have good skills.
  • Four point lighting: It is a lighting technique which cinematographers used for drawing attention to the background. In this technique additional background light is needed from a three point lighting technique. You can use this technique if you want to draw audience attention to the background in your scene.
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