Watch: Why is Three-Point Lighting the Filmmaking Standard?

Ever wonder why everyone and their mom uses three-point lighting?

When I took my first class on lighting a scene, three-point lighting was the first method I learned. Whether you went to film school or studied on your own, the same is probably true for you, because it's one of the most basic and widely used methods of lighting. But how many of us know exactly where the concept of using a key, fill, and backlight comes from? Well, in the video below, Sareesh Sudhakaran of wolfcrow gives a thorough explanation of three-point lighting's origins, as well as how and why (or why not) to use it in your own films:

So, where did the idea of three-point lighting come from? According to Sudhakaran, its origins are from the sun itself. The sun is the world's natural key light, providing us with enough light to properly expose an image, and surfaces that reflect the sun's light act as fills and backlights.

But this is more than a history lesson; we need to understand both the importance of three-point lighting and its limitations. First of all, this method addresses the three most common issues you face when lighting a scene: exposure, filling shadows, and separating subjects from the background.

Credit: wolfcrow

However, it's certainly not going to be the best lighting choice for every shot. In fact, Sudhakaran warns against using the three-point lighting setup to create a checklist of lights that need to be used, advising instead to make sure your choices are motivated. Yeah, you need a key in order to expose your image, but do you really need a fill light? Do you really need a hair light? Is a three-point lighting setup going to give you the look you want?

There's no doubt that three-point lighting helps take some of the guesswork out of the highly complicated task of lighting a scene properly, but it's important to understand that it's inherently limited and really only works for certain kinds of shots. If you're just beginning to experiment with lighting, it's an excellent place to start, but don't stop there—keep going!     

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Your Comment


Says who? A guy that knows nothing about lighting and is sure not involved in the movie industry. Even if bollywood was ligit.

July 21, 2016 at 1:44PM, Edited July 21, 1:45PM

Martin Brewer
Director, DOP

Ahhh, I see what you did there. He's Indian so, Bollywood, obviously. Clever.

July 22, 2016 at 7:17AM, Edited July 22, 7:17AM

Don Way
Writer/Director of Photography

I've only seen the traditional 3-point lighting system used for formal interviews, otherwise people just go with what they like visually. ( even with my corporate work, it's a rare day that I will use 3-point lighting because I find it to be too artificial looking )

July 21, 2016 at 4:49PM, Edited July 21, 4:49PM

Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer

I never wondered why everyone and their moms use 3 point lighting system for everything because they end up watching videos like this and think it's the rule. Though I appreciate your efforts to bring out these videos, if its not authentic content, then we are better off without such videos.

In his previous video, he was talking about moving lights it was akin telling people to move their cameras farther away to get wide shots and bring closer to the subject to get close up shots, it may be correct technically, but it would be a weird way to do things, because you can keep the camera in its place and change the lenses to get the desired effects. No brainer for us but not for newbies who are just starting off. He failed to convey such variables in techniques. Even his earlier videos were flawed and I wonder how NFS is letting such content make it to final list. Dear NFS editors there are many other authentic video tutorials out there which deserve to be here.

Sorry Sareesh but I would not want to see your videos here keeping in view the interests of the bottom strata of the learning community on this site.

Nothing personal here, intent is to see 'Cinema' flourish and you cannot create 'Greats' with such half baked information.

July 21, 2016 at 9:30PM, Edited July 21, 10:18PM

Arun Meegada
Moviemaker in the Making

My understanding of 3 point lighting is that it was specifically invented to overcome the technical limitations of early motion picture work. The inherent high contrast of orthochromatic film stock was such that it needed to be controlled via secondary and tertiary light sources, to lift shadow values and add highlights, so that they would record on film. This was then further refined at the advent of video technology, as technicians were faced with the opposite problem of the vidicon tubes giving a very flat linear response, that needed to be refined with additional contrast that was provided via (again) secondary and tertiary sources. Over time this became a 'look' and a favoured method of lighting control, as it was easily understood, easily controlled and gave a unifying continuity to the output of busy news and ENG crews. Sareesh says he has searched in vain to find out why 3 point lighting is the accepted norm. This is the reason....

July 22, 2016 at 5:56AM, Edited July 22, 5:56AM


Andy, a good theory but it doesn't hold up to Cinema History. While there is no "official" explanation of the evolution of 3 point lighting, it probably came to Cinema via Portrait Photography practices, which predate Cinematic photography by at least 50 years. Early Orthochromatic film stocks were no more inherently contrasty than modern film stocks; confusion arises because the examples we can now see have been duplicated most often from release prints and not the camera original negative, thus are highly contrasty. The very earliest cinema studios (1897 to about 1905) did not have point-source artificial lighting, such as Arc lights, but were lighted by the Sun and diffused by silks on glass stages. Gradually over the next 20 years, the three point system came into play as Klieg (arc) lights were introduced with Cooper Hewitt Mercury Vapor Lights (flat, blue-rich light source) to offset bad weather and the unpredictability of the Sun as a primary light source. Ortho recorded Caucasian skin tones very dark (not red senstive), so white face makeup (pancake) was used to restore approximate skin tones for Caucasians. The subject is very complex and much more complex than a simple explanation can encompass.

July 27, 2016 at 5:19AM


Only recently have I realized that three point lighting should be used more as a guideline or a learning tool. Most situations, especially for no-budget indie filmmakers, it doesn't work for every set up unless your film is mostly medium and close up shots. I wish there were more tutorials on lighting for wide-shots or unorthodox camera set ups like an actor leaning up against a wall or in a large room where you can't really hide a light. I believe once you start thinking of three point lighting as a 'fundamental theory' that can be broken down to a key light, back light etc then you can begin to make lighting work for you instead of feeling restricted by something you learned in a 101 class on lighting.

July 22, 2016 at 7:08AM

Ryan McCurdy
Commercial Video Producer/ Filmmaker

It seems to me that what the video is saying is that 3 point lighting is nothing more than a "term" and you need to be flexible and thoughtful to light any scene. The "3 point" system the video describes is anything but formulaic, instead being a very useful way to "think" about lighting a scene with any number of lights.

I don't believe many of the commenters here actually get this video, seemingly hung up on their own limited (traditional) definition of the term "3 point lighting," rather than what the video is expressing: a hugely expanded definition of the term "3 point lighting" as a way to see what lighting will work for your scene/shot. It has nothing to do with "3 specific lights."

July 22, 2016 at 3:15PM, Edited July 22, 3:15PM


Well said and superbly explained: very encouraging!

July 23, 2016 at 6:04AM


Interesting and informative, especially the notion about carrying still lighting concepts into the moving image world and the emphasis that thinking of the so talked about 3 point lighting method as a cookbook, almost guaranteed recipe, is downright destructive to your scene!

July 24, 2016 at 9:13PM