Everything You Need to Know About the 3-Point Lighting Setup


3-point lighting is one of the basic setups for videos as it produces natural, even light that is easy to manage
Make sure that all of the lights in your setup are set to the same color temperature
Moving your lights closer to your subject will make the light softer while taking lights further away makes light harder
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One of the standard lighting setups that every photographer, filmmaker and creator needs to know is 3-point lighting. Seeing as it’s one of the basics, we thought we’d put together a guide, telling you everything that you need to know about it.

Why use 3-point lighting?

Three-point lighting setups are the go-to for filmmakers–and plenty of photographers, too–because of the natural-looking light that they produce.

While the sun is a single light source, it’s a very large one. Its light is also bounced and reflected off of surfaces extensively, and with the addition of artificial lighting, it wraps itself around subjects very easily. Three-point lighting does a good job of emulating this natural light source.

3-point lighting adds a three-dimensional feeling to scenes, which adds to the natural feel. You can make your subject stand out from the background and keep the entire scene from looking flat and textureless.

What’s the setup?

A three-point lighting setup uses, somewhat unsurprisingly, three lights.

  • The main, or key light
  • The fill light
  • The backlight

The key light

The key light will provide the majority of the light for your scene. How intense or bright it is will depend on how you want the scene to look but in general, you will be aiming for between 500 and 1,000 watts of power.

Usually, a key light will be positioned slightly higher than your subject and at an angle of between 15 and 45 degrees from your camera, depending on where you want the light to fall. Whether you place it camera-right or camera-left is entirely up to you.

The key light

By moving your light closer to or farther away from your subject, you can control its softness. But remember: softness does not mean intensity. Softness refers to the type of shadow that the light casts. Gentle shadows come from broad, diffused light. Harder light creates sharper shadows. When you bring your light source closer to your subject, you make it bigger, and broader, more diffused, and therefore softer. (Of course, in a white-walled room, you’ll get lots of reflected light, which creates diffusion, too!) If you need diffused light but from a light source positioned quite a distance from your subject, use a diffuser. You can buy specialist ones, but a white sheet stretched over a screen and placed between light and subject will do the job.

The fill light

To balance your key light and fill in the shadows it creates, you need a fill light. As a general rule, but not a hard and fast one, you need to set the intensity of your fill light to about half that of your key light. So if your key light is at 500 watts, your fill light should be at 250 watts.

The fill light

Position the fill light on the opposite side of the camera to your key light. It doesn’t need to be at the same angle from the camera as you have the key light, it needs to be at the best angle to balance the shadows from the key light. However, if you’ve positioned your key light at 30 degrees to the left of the camera, placing the fill light at 30 degrees to the right of the camera is a good starting point.

Using an actual light to fill in the shadows created by your key light isn’t always necessary, though. Sometimes, you might find that bouncing the light emitted by the key light back toward the subject using a reflector or a bounce card is all that you need. If you’re working with restricted power outlets, or if you’re operating in a small space, it’s definitely worth trying.

The backlight

The backlight is the light that will elevate your scene from something good to something that looks really special. Position your backlight behind your subject, pointing toward the camera. The idea is that it will create a halo of light around your subject that places some definition between her or him and the background. This rim-lighting effect will lift the shot and create a 3-D feel.

The key light and the backlight

There is nothing to say that you have to position your backlight on the same side as your key light, but it is common. The important thing to get right is that the light source itself is properly concealed and the camera doesn’t pick it up.

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Things to remember

When you’re using multiple light sources, you must remember to set them all to the same color temperature. If you have one light set to daylight and the other two tungsten you will struggle to achieve a natural-looking white balance. Pick a light temperature and set all your lights to it.

If your subject is wearing glasses or a watch, or there are picture frames, mirrors, or glass doors in the background, you might have a problem with glare. Remember to check for this before you start recording, because noticing halfway through, or toward the end of filming will be very frustrating. To remedy any glare, you might need to adjust the angle of your lights, or perhaps move any freestanding objects in the background slightly so that they don’t catch the light.

Light spilling into areas of your scene where you don’t want it can be very irritating, but you can control it. For a start, you can try using barn doors or a grid on your lights to direct them more precisely. Or you could use a black foam block, known as a flag, to block light. By introducing some distance between your subject and the background, you can prevent light from spilling onto your background, too.

Moving the lights away

We’ve already mentioned how moving your light source closer to your subject will create a broader light with softer shadows, and how moving your subject away from your background will help to keep the background in shadow. But if you have two subjects in a scene, for example in an interview, you might find that one of them is deep in the shadow of the other. How do you fix this? By remembering the inverse square law and moving your light source farther away from them. The inverse square law means that light fall-off is less noticeable as the subject moves away from the light. The change from light to shadow is more gradual as you move away from your light source. It is counterintuitive, but try it and you’ll see.

To create a low contrast scene, try to use relatively large light sources that are diffused and spread light in different directions. For higher contrast, reduce the size of the light source relative to your subject and keep them carefully directed.

That’s your guide to 3-three-point lighting. Now all you need to do is go out and give it a shot!

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Daniela is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

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