Why do filmmakers need to know about 3-point lighting? It’s great for picture-day photography, but what if you’re looking for an explanation of how 3-point lighting works for film and video?
We’re going to show you why 3-point lighting is important for filmmakers, but also take you deeper into some advanced techniques, and how you can use it to effectively light large scenes.
3-Point Video Lighting
How to setup 3-point lighting
3-point lighting is all about creating a three-dimensional look. By placing three light sources at strategic points around the subject, each light source illuminates a separate dimension of the subject and creates an image with greater representation on height, width, and depth.
The light sources are labeled as such:
- Key Light — Used as your “main” light
- Fill Light — Used to fill opposite the key light
- Back Light — Used to extract the third dimension
If you take one light source out of your 3-point lighting setup, you won’t receive the full benefits. Think of it like your favorite recipe for cookies — if you leave out one ingredient, the cookies won't be perfect.
The most important thing to be said about any video lighting, including 3-point lighting, is that it all depends on your creative goals. If you need a clean and corporate look, you’ll probably want to build a more standard 3-point lighting setup for your video.
Want to create a creepy look for a horror film? You can still use a three point lighting setup for the dimensional benefits, and adjust the setup (intensity + angle) in a way that still achieves intended look.
The look can change based on the ratio of your light sources. Generally, if your light ratio is more even, you’ll have a more evenly lit scene. If you have a very strong key light, but have a weak fill light, your subject will be unevenly lit — which can be a good for those creepy horror shots.Your video lighting should always depend on your creative goals. Film lighting is all based on light source intensity and angles.
- Source of light refers to the physical origin
- Angle of light refers to the path of approach
- Intensity is the amount and brightness of the light
For instance, the sun is a single source of light, but it can approach your subject from various angles. You can use the sun to create a 3-point lighting scheme for your video by cutting off angles with flags, bouncing light back with reflectors, and diffusing light with various materials.
It’s important to note that there are various ways to increase and decrease light intensity, but due to the way light works, each method will have a different overall effect — they’re not interchangeable.
- Diffusing the light will decrease the intensity
- Dimming the light will decrease the intensity
- Moving a light further away will decrease the intensity
Each of these methods change light intensity in their own unique ways. You may find yourself in a position where you need less light from a particular source, but simply moving the light further away will have a somewhat adverse effect when compared to, say, diffusing the light.
Professional cinematographers will often adjust and incorporate all three methods to get the optimal look for their creative goals. Three point lighting deals with the relationship each light has with one another. This is called the light intensity ratio.
Generally, the key to fill ratio is 2:1.
This means that your key light should be twice as bright as your fill light. The relationship of intensity and placement can change depending on your goals, but the above ratio will give you a relatively cinematic look for narrative filmmaking and even some YouTube videos.
If you're doing a commercial or corporate video, you may want the ratio to be closer to 1.5:1 so that you get a much more inviting image. If you use a 1:1 ratio, your image may be too flat and negate dimensional benefits.
Key Light Definition
How to setup a key light
A key light is the main light for your scene. It is most often placed in front of your subject at an angle that lights one section of your subject. This angle can range from 15 and 70 degrees, with 45 degrees being most commonly used.
You’re not required to place your key light in front of your subject, one example would be for a silhouette. For standard 3 point lighting, the key light should, at the very least, land on the front portion of your subject.
How is this possible?
Place your key light anywhere you wish. Bounce it off walls or through material, just as long as it hits the front of your subject at an angle. Once you’ve decided where to place your key light, you can then accurately determine where to place the fill light and backlight.
Key Light ExampleHere’s a film lighting scheme used in Snatch:
For this scene, cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones angled a bunch of light at the ceiling so that his key light would just graze, but still illuminate the actors. He also placed diffusion above to bounce some light back down in the middle of the ring rather than the entire room.
This is how the filmmakers were able to create that dark and shrouded look that still retains some pleasant dimensions. Just because your lighting is moody, doesn’t mean it can’t be technically sound.
Maurice-Jones surrounded the ring with super low intensity practical lights so that he could keep the light concentrated on the boxing ring, but still provide a tiny bit of back light to help bring out the crowd.
There is more to this lighting plot, but this explanation illustrates how your key light does not have to follow some rigid structure, and that you should feel free to think about the key light placement more creatively.
FILL LIGHT DEFINITION
How to setup a fill light
A fill light is the second light for your scene, and its purpose is to fill in missing light for your video. It is often placed in front of your subject, opposite to your key light, also at an angle to continue to create some depth, but also to bring out detail in the other side of your subject.
The angle at which you place your fill light does not have to be identical to your key light, but if you are going for an even, polished look for a commercial or interview, you may want to rely on symmetry.
Angle isn’t everything, because the light intensity matters too.
The fill light intensity is generally suggested at around 50-75% of the intensity of your key light. In many marketing and commercial situations, you should actually go higher like 85-95% so as to get a more even look, but you can also go down to 25-45% to get some really cinematic lighting looks that you would see in narrative filmmaking.
Fill Light Example
Here’s a lighting scene used for the dancehall in Schindler’s List:
For this scene, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski used a low intensity fill light to give Oskar Schindler a mischievous look. This not only works perfectly for the scene, but it also evokes a sort of nostalgia for black & white cinema. Look at that shine on the cigarette smoke.
Once you’ve determined the theme of your scene, you can then accurately place your fill light to reinforce the imagery. Place it at a different angle from your key light — it doesn’t matter. You use the fill light to fill in any of the missing light that your subject needs.
How to use a backlight (rim light)
A backlight (rim light, or hair light) is the third light for your video lighting setup, and its purpose is to offset the flattening of dimensions caused by your key and fill light. It approaches from behind your subject, often at an angle.
The most common placement for your backlight can be achieved by placing it on the same side as your key light, and then moving behind the subject so that the backlight is aimed toward the fill light.
You can see an example in the diagram below:
Lighting scheme from Shutter Island:
For this scene, cinematographer Robert Richardson used a really intense backlight to create a rim of light that landed on the outer edges of the subjects. This scene called for a dream-like lighting scheme.
Let’s go over some of the additional lights you can place to enhance your already stellar three-point lighting setups.
SET LIGHT DEFINITION
How to use a set light (background light)
A set light (background light) is a light that illuminates the background of the set, specifically the area in frame that is beyond your subjects. The idea behind this is to create an extra layer behind your subject, which in turn will give your image more depth and illuminate production design.
This is different from a practical light, which is a light that illuminates your scene, and acts as a set dressing element (e.g., desk lamp).
KICKER LIGHT DEFINITION
How to use a kicker light
A kicker light is any light that partially grazes your subject. This can be from any angle, and again it can simply be angled through reflection rather than its own individual source. The kicker enhances your already existing lighting scheme, and it should come at the end of your setup.
This is because your kicker is specifically meant to support the other lights, which is impossible if those light do not yet exist. Often, your kicker light isn’t really there to fill in absent light, but rather to amplify already existing light — more specifically light that is on your subject.
THREE POINT LIGHTING EXAMPLES
Various video lighting examples
Here are some great examples of 3-point lighting setups that each use the technique in different ways. Look at the intensity of light on the subjects. We’ll give you some breakdowns and hints, but try to figure out the lighting schemes for yourself to improve your video lighting skills.
Black Panther Video Lighting
Notice the light intensity on the top right corner of the subject’s face, and the lack of any shadow created by the raised arm. You’ll also notice a set light in the background as well as a practical light.
Game of Thrones Video Lighting
Despite the small shadow on the right side of the subject’s face, this image is pretty evenly lit. Part of this is most likely due to the fact that it's an exterior shot that was captured during the daytime.
The Night Manager Video Lighting
This is a pretty cool example where the key light comes in at a much more extreme angle than most 3-point lighting setups. The back light seems to be pretty intense, which can give you this cinematic look.
A Quiet Place Video Lighting
Here’s an example of high contrast lighting that’s created by the high intensity of the sunlight. While you can’t move the bridge or the sun, you can however wait until the sun is positioned in a way that won’t flatten your subject with straight on light that will also cast odd shadows.
The Hateful Eight Video Lighting
This is a great example of three-point lighting that avoids casting a shadow created by the subject’s hat. If every light source was positioned from above, you might get a shadow, but Richardson probably had lights both above and below the the hat brim so as to eliminate shadows.
You will see 3-point lighting used on every professional film set and television show, but most will use dozens of light sources rather than simply using three. They are still out to achieve the dimensional benefits of three-point lighting, but use extra lights to achieve their creative goals.
Advanced 3 Point Video Lighting
Unique uses of 3-point lighting
I once worked on a commercial that was shot by Russell Carpenter, who is best known as the cinematographer for tiny little yarns such as Titanic, Avatar, Ant Man, and True Lies.
Inside a very large studio, Carpenter had his crew use scissor lifts to raise large lights up to the pipe-grid. They strung an enormous layer of diffusion silk directly below the lights to simulate a cloudy day.
The commercial required a cloudy day to quickly become a sunny day, so with the twist of a knob, the intensity of the key light became brighter, and the team powered on additional lights further off in the distance.
What you got was a transition from an intentionally flat lighting scheme to that of a three-point scheme, one which gave the subject a more pleasant look. This should not only reinforce the importance of 3-point lighting, but also show how you can creatively use the opposite principles of 3-point lighting for some extra emotional control.
LIGHTING FOR YOUTUBE VIDEOS
Can 3-point lighting be used for YouTube videos?
What about lighting for YouTube videos? Youtube videos can mean a lot of different things, but if you’re a vlogger or influencer you will generally be recording footage in an interview setting. This is where you can apply three-point lighting techniques with a color-by-numbers approach.
Consider fine tuning your lighting scheme by moving your key light to cast from a different angle, or play with the intensity of your fill light. Often you will want a clean look, but that doesn’t mean a flat look.
Use your back light to fix that. Do you have some cool emblem or branding on your wall? Use a set background light to really make it pop. Try out a kicker light to give your face some extra character.
Youtube videos (specifically beauty channels) benefit most from soft light. This means that most of your light is being diffused by some piece of material, or bounced off of some surface so that it evenly coats your subject, rather than crashing down with harsh intensity.
VIDEO THREE POINT LIGHTING GUIDE
3-Point Film Lighting Kit
An inexpensive three-point light kit is the Bescor Photon LED 3-Light Kit. This is a bi-color, flicker free LED kit that has a CRI rating of 95, and comes with light stands and plug-in power ability. You can also power these with an NP-F battery.
The fixtures have barn four barn doors which will allow you to adjust the angle of each light, and because they’re LEDs, they don't give off uncomfortable heat, and have decent output for the price tag.
If you really want to soften the light, use some diffusion material, or bounce the light against the ceiling and walls. You can use the sun as your key, fill, or backlight and the kit to light the rest of your scene.
Here are some more professional kit options:
- Digital Sputnik DS3 LED Modular Light Plus System
- Westcott Peter Hurley Flex LED Mat 4-Light Kit
- Kino Flo 4Bank 3-Light Interview Kit
Now you know how to use three-point lighting in your next video project. You understand why 3-point lighting is important, and how video lighting differs from photography lighting.
Next, you’ll want to check out our complete guide on cinematography techniques. We provide a bunch of practical tips and information that will help you navigate the world of professional cinematography, including a downloadable cheat sheet with 30 strategies to becoming a better cinematographer.