3 point lighting is a cinematography technique that uses three different light sources placed at various distances and angles around a subject to properly light them for the screen. Each light source serves a different purpose in casting and correcting shadows on your subject. The three light sources used in this setup are:
The three-point lighting technique is used by many professional filmmakers, no matter the genre. Cinematographers, light designers, and other production design professionals utilize the technique in dramas, comedies, commercials, documentaries, and many other video projects. It’s important to properly light a visual storytelling project for many reasons, including to:
You can learn how to best set up these three light sources to capture your subjects and their scenery to suit your visual story.
There are standard guidelines to ensure you place each light in the setup in the right place to get the best combination of light, shadows, and depth for each shot. Here are the steps in using the three-point lighting technique to illuminate a scene:
Starting in the dark, or with as little unnatural light as possible, is the best way to gauge how much light you’re casting on your subject during the process. You can also use a light meter, which is a filmmaking and photography tool that measure how strong light is on a surface, such as a subject’s face. This tool measures lights in lumens, and you can track this number to ensure consistency as you shoot.
Place the light — which is on a stand — at an angle to the subject rather than facing them head-on, that way the light does not shine directly onto their face, creating a flat, unflattering, and shadowless look. The angle at which it’s placed from the camera depends on how intense you want the light to shine on the subject as well as the length of the shadows. Try between a 30- and 45-degree angle from the camera to achieve the look you want. Many cinematographers in the industry stick with 45 degrees.
As for how bright it should be, that also depends on the look you’re going for. You can make it as bright or dim as you need to.
The fill light is typically dimmer than the key light and mirrors the key light’s position and angle on the other side of the subject and camera. It should be the same angle from the camera and the same angle tilted to face the subject as well. If you want more subtle light to fill in the shadows created by the key light, try replacing a second light with a reflector, wall, or another flat surface that reflects light back onto the subject.
Generally the key light to fill light intensity ratio is 2:1, but might be 1.5:1 for commercials. Decreasing the light intensity can be done by diffusing, dimming, or moving the light further away.
Place this light opposite from the key light and behind a subject — but out of frame — to create a flattering “rim” of light around the subject’s outline. This allows the subject to clearly stand out from the background, promoting more three-dimensionality when filmed. In the industry, many cinematographers point the light toward the back of the subject’s neck as a simple reference marker.
You can add a fourth light to your setup to further separate your subject from their background. Place another light behind your subject but very low to the ground so the camera doesn’t capture it. Tilt the light up to illuminate a wall, a backdrop of props, the room behind the subject, the outdoor setting, or another background you want to light better.
With the flexibility of the three-point lighting technique, you can customize this standard setup to get the right composition of light and shadows that makes each frame engaging for an audience. Here are some additional tips to consider when preparing your next lighting setup:
Using the Bescore Photon LED 3-Light Kit is a good way to get started with its bi-color, flicker-free lighting system with a CRI rating of 95 and light stands and plug-in ability.
Mastering the behind-the-scene techniques can ensure every frame you shoot is dynamic and well-composed, capturing the audience’s attention. In addition, knowing how to set up industry-standard lighting, among other production tasks, can help you become a more skilled and professional filmmaker. NFI prepares you with the skills, knowledge, practical experience, and portfolio to help you find work in the industry, including film, television, and other media careers.