Three-Point Lighting Explained

3-point video lighting

Regardless of whether you are filming or taking photographs, lighting makes a big difference in the quality of the images. Many different methods of lighting are used to ensure the best images are achieved. One of the most common lighting methods used for visual media is the three-point lighting system. The following is an overview of this system, why it is used, who uses it, and what role each of the lights plays in this lighting method.


What is Three-Point Lighting and Why Is It Used?

Three-point lighting is a simple but effective lighting technique that involves using three lights to illuminate the scene and subject from three different angles. There are two main reasons why this method is used. The first is that it illuminates the subject properly so that it is seen properly in the camera view. Second, the use of three lights prevents deep shadows from appearing around the subject and in the camera view. It gives the person behind the camera full control of the subject’s illumination.

Who Uses Three Point Lighting?

Anyone who works in any form of visual media will use three-point lighting as one of their main lighting methods. This method is used in cinematography, videography, theatre, still photography, and computer-generated imagery.

The Role of the Three Lights in Three-Point Lighting

the three lights in 3- point lightingThe three lights used in the three-point lighting system are the key light, the fill light, and the backlight. Each of these lights plays a different role in the illumination of the subject. It is important to understand the different roles that these lights play so that you can achieve the best effects when implementing this lighting method.

Key Light

This light is the one that has the most influence on the scene and subject. When setting up your three-point lighting, the key light is the first one to set up and it is vital that it is in the right position. Usually, it is placed to the right of the camera at an angle of around 45 degrees. However, you may need to adjust this angle as it depends on the scene you are filming or photographing. Try different positions and angles until you get the best illumination possible. Most of the light is emitted from the key light, so it is possible you will need higher intensity from this light.

Fill Light

The purpose of the fill light is to eliminate dark shadows. Therefore, the position of this light depends entirely on the position and size of the shadows in the shot. You need to position the fill light in a place where it illuminates the dark spots on a subject. Another important point to note about this light is that the key light is always the brightest light, so the fill light is never as bright. Having the intensity of the fill light too high is a common mistake. The result of having the intensity too high is the subject being blown out. The aim is to get the intensity just bright enough to illuminate the parts of the subject that the key light is not reaching.

Back Light

The backlight is also known as the rim, hair, or shoulder light, so you might come across any of these terms if you work in visual media or you are studying this subject. This should create a slight outline of light around the subject and should not give any frontal illumination. In most cases, the backlight is placed directly behind the subject or central to the scene. However, the positions of the other lights can impact on the effect of the backlight, so feel free to play around with the position and angle of the backlight to get the right lighting effect.

Experimenting with Three-Point Lighting

If you are new to the three-pointing lighting method, it is important that you experiment with the angles and positions of the lights as this will give you a greater understanding of how the lights interact with each other, what works well, what to avoid, and the effects that you can create when using this method.

Using Reflectors with the Three-Point Lighting System

reflectorsA method used by some photographers and cinematographers is to replace the fill light with a reflector. Common reflectors used include a mounted piece of white cardstock or a white-painted wall. The reflector reflects the light from the key light back towards the subject when angled correctly. It can create a subtler, softer light than a lamp, while still eliminating shadows. This is an effect that some photographers prefer.

The Bottom Line

Three-point lighting is one of the most common lighting methods used for visual media, and it is also one of the simplest techniques to use. Three lights are used to light the scene and subject from different angles, and it can take some experimentation to get the positions just right to illuminate the subject in the way you want. It is possible to create a subtler effect by replacing the fill light with a reflective surface.

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