Three-Point Lighting: The Basics
December 20, 2013
•IADT General, Cinema Production
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Three-point lighting gives your subjects a magical, Hollywood glow and sheen. It is used as a standard lighting scheme for not only motion pictures and television, but still photography and even computer generated imagery. Three-point lighting involves illuminating your subject with three lights: a key light, a fill light and a back light.
This is the brightest light, and is typically the "hardest" light that contains no diffusion. The key light thus produces the most stark contrast between the most brilliant highlights and the darkest shadows. It is intended to be the dominant light source illuminating your subject. Place this light about 45 degrees either to the left or right of your subject, between the subject and your camera, in whichever direction the subject is looking. For the most pleasing results, and to avoid your subject squinting, place the light slightly above your subject's face.
This light is dimmer and is typically "softer" than the key light. To soften the light from the fill light, add a scrim, a gel or simply move the fill light farther away from your subject than the key light. The fill light is meant to fill in the harsh shadows produced by the key light, as well as making the entire subject clearly visible. Place this light on the opposite side of the subject as the key light at a similar 45-degree angle.
This light, also known as the rim light, creates a shiny halo of illumination around your subject that makes the subject stand out in a three-dimensional way from the background. It tends to be a hard, undiffused light like the key light, to provide a sharp line of illumination around the top of the subject. Place this light behind your subject facing your camera on approximately the same 45-degree angle as the fill light.
There are many alternatives to the standard setup listed here. Adjusting the angles of the three lights creates different moods, as does using more or fewer lights. Some other arrangements include:
- Shining a single key light on the subject from below makes it appear as though it is in a classic monster movie from the 1930s.
- Shining a single key light on a person from above makes his eyes disappear into the sockets like Marlon Brando in the opening scene of The Godfather. It also gives the harsh feel of an interrogation room.
When shooting outdoors, the sun can serve as a key light or back light. When it's a key light, the sky, clouds and a white reflector card serve as a fill light by reflecting the sun. When the sun is a back light, you can use the reflector card as a front light instead.
Light is a tool that you can bend and shift to inform and motivate the emotional content of your scene, so use it wisely.
Photo credit: morgueFile.