When it comes to shooting your own projects or taking on commissions, you want everything to look professional. I've found that the most professional productions are the ones that do the basic things perfectly, like the three-point lighting setup. Lighting techniques like this are crucial to your education as a filmmaker. But what is the three-point lighting technique and how can you master it? The three-light setup takes some practice.
Today, I'm going to take you through this lighting scheme. We're going to learn about key lights, fill lights, and backlights. We'll see how this three-point setup became a sample in Hollywood, and we'll learn the best ways to use it and modify it for your shooting needs. And we'll cover a few other film lighting techniques along the way.
We've talked about types of film lights before and deconstructed lighting at every level, including specific tips for black and white. But today we're going to take you through some basic lighting techniques that can help you make your work look and feel more cinematic, no matter what aspect ratio you shoot in. And after this, if you want to dive into some more directing skillsets, check out the art of blocking!
Ready? Let's fire some lights.
Master the Three-Point Lighting Setup and Lighting Techniques
Where did we learn how to light movies and TV shows? And why did we settle on three lights? Well, before we get into all of this, I thought you should know that many modern historians think that lighting came from our idea of where the sun is in the sky. We light things to feel natural and to resemble human life closely.
That feels obvious, but lighting can change with the tone and style of your story. If you are doing a more exaggerated tale, you might opt for a more exaggerated lighting scheme.
No matter what you do, it all goes back to the three-point lighting setup.
The Three-Point Lighting Setup Definition
Three-point lighting is a method of lighting where you use three distinct light sources to illuminate a scene. It is a guide for where to place your light sources so your subject and scene look as good as possible.
Three-Point Lighting Examples
To hammer home the idea, let's look at a few examples of three-point lighting techniques. First, check out this breakdown of another scene.
You can see where the lights are positioned to highlight this character and remain within the tone.
Credit: Rhett MillerCheck out this scene from Blade Runner. You can see the low key light coming across the face. And the fill light softens the hard shadows. In the back, we have a bright backlight to offset the darkness our character is in the moment. It all feels balanced and nuanced.
'Blade Runner'Credit: 20th Century Fox
The Three-Point Lighting Setup
The key light, backlight, and fill light all make up the three-point lighting setup. Three-point lighting is a standard method used in visual media. By using three separate positions, the cinematographer can illuminate the subject any way they want while also controlling shadows produced by direct lighting.
It uses key lighting, backlighting, and fill lighting to accomplish all of that. Now let's closely examine the kinds of lights used in the three-point lighting technique.
Three-Point Lighting Diagram
Here's how this should look! Feel free to save this graphic for your reference.
Key Light Definition
What is a key light? A key light is the primary light source of the scene. It is the most intense and direct light source. Generally, the key light will illuminate the form of the subject or actor.
Key Light Example
Check out the key light in this image from The Lord of the Rings below. You can see it softly hitting Frodo's face. The background is dark, but we still have plenty of light on him, highlighting his face and giving us his worried emotion as he learns about the Ring.
'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'Credit: New Line Cinema
Key Light Summary
Here's what you need to remember.
- Avoid placing your key light near the camera or your light will become flat and featureless
- Create a dramatic mood by using the key behind the subject
- A key light is the primary light in a three-point lighting setup
How to Use Key Light
Key lights are training on the primary person or object in the scene. They are usually smaller, less harsh lights. You want to use them to make sure there is direct light on the subject. You're giving them their aura. There are two different kinds of key lights—high key lighting and low key lighting.
High Key Lighting Definition
The definition of high key lighting is a style of lighting for film, television, or photography that reduces the lighting ratio in the scene. In the first days of film, this was done to deal with high contrast, but now it's used by filmmakers to adjust the mood and tone of a scene.
High Key Lighting Summary
Here's what you need to remember.
- Dominated by white tones from bright lights
- Minimal use of blacks and mid-range tones
- Tone can be optimistic or hopeful
- Used in a lot of pop music video lighting setups
High Key Lighting Example
If you want to see a high key lighting example, look no further than Her. This film has many of them.
In the scene below, we see how brightly lit Joaquin Phoenix's character is. These bright lights contrast the optimistic future and the pessimistic part of his life we're inside. It is very poppy and fun.
Low Key Lighting Definition
What is low key lighting? The definition of low key lighting is a filmic lighting style that uses a hard source to encase your scene in shadow. Low key lighting wants contrast and blackness.
Low Key Lighting Summary
Remember this about low key lighting.
- Dark tones, blacks, shadows
- Striking contrast images
- Used in noir or thrillers for ominous warnings
Low Key Lighting Example
For our low key lighting example, I chose another Joaquin Phoenix film, Joker. This shot below shows the dark shadows and striking contrast between the makeup and the drab behind. It feels ominous and the movie does have many noir qualities. We see how the light is all about what you can and cannot see.
'Joker'Credit: Warner Bros.
Fill Lighting Definition
What is a fill light? A fill light cancels out the shadows created by the key light.
A fill light is placed opposite of the key light, and is usually not as powerful as the key.
Fill Light Summary
Remember the following about fill light.
- It removes shadows created by the key
- Does not create shadows or its own characteristics
Fill Light Setup Example
To set up a fill light, you want to place it opposite of the key light. It will help cancel out the shadows left by the key light. To explain this, I think you have to see them both working.
What is the purpose of a fill light? Check out this explanation I found on Reddit from The Godfather. You can see how the fill works in tandem with the key to harsh shadows off the face.
Fill, key, and backlight example from 'The Godfather'Credit: Reddit
What is a backlight? A backlight hits an actor or object from behind. It is placed higher than the object it is lighting.
Backlights are used to separate an object or an actor from a background. They give more shape and depth. Backlights help the frame feel three-dimensional.
Remember this about backlights.
- The sun is a great backlight—you can use a reflector or bounce the sun at a lesser intensity back the subject
- If a backlight is placed behind an actor at an angle, the backlight is called a "kicker"
To find an example of backlighting, let's look at The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This masterpiece is a wondrous movie where cinematographer Roger Deakins frames the famous Jesse James with an excellent use of a backlight here.
That dark foreground and lit background show an interesting take on the hero shot. We see our robber introduced with the darkness of his character, and the brightness behind him casts an angelic glow. Very cool.
'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'Credit: Warner Bros.
Bonus: Four-Point Lighting
Four-point lighting is the same setup as three-point lighting, with a fourth light illuminating the background so you can highlight the background of the scene.
Side Lighting definition (Chiaroscuro Lighting)
One thing I wanted to add here is another light that sort of disrupted the three-point lighting techniques. It is prevalent in four-point lighting. And it is called side lighting.
Much like the name, side lighting refers to light that enters the frame from the side to highlight a person or object. These parallel lights provide a faint fill. They're often used to provide drama and mood to a scene, particularly in the genre of film noir. Many people refer to side lighting as "chiaroscuro" lighting as well.
To achieve chiaroscuro lighting, you need a strong contrast and low key light to accentuate the contours of your subject. If your side light is used to fill a scene, you may need to bounce it or deal with high key effects.
Side lighting summary
Remember this about side lighting!
- Used to highlight a person or object
- Can possibly provide harsh shadows if not diffused
- Can help in contrast
Summing Up Mastering the Three-Point Lighting Setup and Lighting Techniques
Now that you understand how we use fill lights, backlights, and key lights to make subjects pop and give depth of field, it's time to try it on your own. Mastering these film light techniques can bring life and professionalism to all your projects. As you conquer studio lighting techniques, you also fill your head with a breadth of skills that can get you work on shorts, commercials, photoshoots, and features.
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!
For our seasoned readers, any other three-point lighting technique tips and tricks you want to impart to the reading audience?
Let us know in the comments.