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What is 3-Point Lighting? Full Guide with Examples, Setup & Tips

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What is 3-Point Lighting? Full Guide with Examples, Setup & Tips

Lighting is a major part of any kind of camera work, from amateur photography to vlogging to professional videography. If you want your subject to look good on film, it’s critical to understand the mechanics of successful lighting. 

Thankfully, one of the best lighting methods is also one of the easiest for beginners to learn: the 3-point lighting method! 

If you’re new to lighting, the 3-point method is the best place to start. Below, we’ll cover all the basics you need to know about 3-point lighting, including how to create and use a 3-point lighting setup, examples of 3-point lighting, and helpful tips for best results.

What is the 3-point lighting system?

As the name suggests, the 3-point lighting system involves using three light sources to illuminate your subject. It has been used in photography and film-making for decades, and the principles of 3-point lighting also form the basis for more advanced lighting techniques. 

What are the three light sources?

To get started, let’s go over the three different kinds of lights used in the 3-point lighting method: the key light, fill light, and backlight.

Key light

Setting up 3-point lighting starts with the key light. The key light is the brightest light and does the most work in illuminating your subject. 

This light is set up on one side of the camera and shines toward the subject from the front at a diagonal. Generally, the key light is positioned at about a 45-degree angle from the camera, but this can be adjusted depending on your needs. 

If you’re shooting a standard interview where the subject is sitting facing the camera, for example, the key light would be set up at an angle from the camera, illuminating the subject’s face. If done correctly, there should be shadows cast on the side of your subject’s face opposite the key light. This is important to the shot, as it gives your subject depth and three-dimensionality. 

Fill light

As its name suggests, the purpose of the fill light is to help fill in the shadows cast by the key light. 

The shadows cast on the side of the subject opposite the key light will probably be too dark (unless you want to keep the shadows for effect, such as if you are shooting a dramatic scene).

The fill light should be positioned on the other side of the camera from the key light, pointed at an angle so that it illuminates the other side of the subject’s face and lessens the shadows cast by the key light. 

It is important for the fill light to be less bright than the key light so that there is still contrast on either side of the subject, maintaining the three-dimensional look. 

Backlight

The final component of 3-point lighting is the backlight, also known as a rim light, hair light, or kicker. The purpose of the backlight is to create a rim of light around the subject in order to distinguish the subject from the background. 

The backlight is positioned behind the subject, either higher or lower than the subject so that the light is out of the shot. A good rule of thumb is to aim the light toward the back of the subject’s neck. 

The backlight will create a rim of light around the subject that helps them stand out against the background. This is especially important when you have a subject with dark hair or clothes against a dark background, for example.

3-point lighting examples

Here’s a diagram showing the complete 3-point light setup in relation to the subject and the camera:

3 point lighting setup
Image source: StudioBinder

Here you can see the effect that each light has in the shot:

Image source: Skillman Video Group

Proper 3-point lighting accentuates the height, width, and depth of the subject, helping them stand out in the shot. 

Example of 3 point lighting in a film scene
Image source: Cinemagic

Why do you need 3-point lighting?

You now have an idea of the components of 3-point lighting—but why is 3-point lighting so important? In short, if you’re using a camera and want your subject to look good, then you need to know how to do 3-point lighting!

The 3-point lighting method has been used for decades and is essential to understanding the basics of lighting. Whether you just want a quick and easy method for lighting or you’re interested in learning all there is to know about it, it is essential to familiarize yourself with 3-point lighting as a starting point. 

Once you have the basics of 3-point lighting down, you can then learn how to adjust the method to fit your needs and begin learning more advanced techniques. 

When is 3-point lighting used?

The goal of 3-point lighting is to help your subject stand out in the shot. The combination of the key light, fill light, and backlight helps distinguish your subject from the background and helps them look 3-dimensional as opposed to flat. 

While helping your subject look good in the shot, 3-point lighting also allows for a great deal of flexibility in adjusting how light and shadow fall on your subject.

The key light and fill light, for example, can be adjusted to deepen or soften the shadows cast on the face. This can have a major impact on the mood of the shot. 

The key light is typically about twice as bright as the fill light, but if you want darker shadows, you can increase the contrast by dimming the fill light. This contrast between the key light and fill light is known as the light intensity ratio

So, to shoot a scene with a darker mood, you might adjust the ratio from 2:1 to 8:1. 

On the other hand, if you want a lighter, friendlier feel, you might adjust the ratio to 1.5:1 (meaning the fill light is about two-thirds as bright as the key light). This ratio is common when shooting an interview.

What is the difference between 3-point and 4-point lighting?

4-point lighting is a variation on 3-point lighting that adds (you guessed it!) a fourth light to the setup. 

In addition to the key light, fill light, and backlight, a fourth light is used to illuminate the background behind the subject. The fourth light is placed either above or below the shot, positioned so that it illuminates whatever is behind the subject. This technique can be used to accomplish several things:

  • The background can be illuminated if you want to draw attention to it for some reason
  • Illuminating the background can help the subject stand out more
  • If the subject or something else in the shot is casting shadows on the background, the background light can get rid of them

How to easily set up 3-point lighting in 6 steps

Here’s a guide on quickly accomplishing a 3-point lighting setup:

Step 1: Observe the lighting you start with.

Before jumping into setting up all the different lights, think about what kind of light you already have for your set. If you’re shooting a scene in which the set needs to have a lot of ambient light, consider what the light is already like and what the position and brightness of your key light should be to best illuminate your subject. 

For the most control over lighting your subject, however, you would ideally start with a completely dark set. 

If you aren’t shooting in a professional studio, eliminate as much ambient light as possible by turning off lights and closing windows before setting up the key light. When you’re first getting started, it’s best to start with as dark a set as possible. 

Step 2: Set up the key light

Set up the key light facing your subject at about a 45-degree angle. The brightness of the key light will determine the brightness of the other lights on set, so adjust the light until your subject is properly illuminated.

Step 3: Add the fill light

Set up the fill light on the other side of the camera, pointed at your subject so that it illuminates the shadows cast by the key light. Start at about a 2:1 ratio (with the fill light about half as bright as the key light) and adjust as needed.

Step 4: Add the backlight

Position the backlight either above or below the frame so that it’s out of the shot, pointing toward the back of your subject. 

If your subject is a person, aim the light toward the back of their neck. The backlight should create a rim of light around the subject, helping them stand out from the background. 

However, it shouldn’t be so bright that it looks like they have a halo.

Step 5: If needed, illuminate the background

If you have an extra light available, consider whether it would be helpful to use it as the fourth background light. 

It might be helpful to illuminate the background to help your subject stand out more, or perhaps there are unsightly shadows on the background that can be eliminated using the fourth light. 

Step 6: Adjust as needed

Tweak your lighting setup until you have the balance and mood you want for the shot. It’s worth taking some extra time to make sure it looks right before you start shooting. 

Keep in mind that as you adjust one light, you may have to make adjustments to the others as well to keep things balanced. 

Tips for a successful 3-point lighting setup

Tip 1: Experiment and be creative!

The basic 3-point lighting setup is just a starting point. Think about the mood and style you’re going for, and then try playing around with things like:

  • Light intensity ratio
  • Angles
  • Distance
  • Brightness
  • Different kinds of lights

Tip 2: The three D’s: dimming, distance, and diffusion

Dimming, distance, and diffusion all refer to different ways of lowering the intensity of the light. 

  • Dimming refers to simply lowering the brightness of the light. 
  • Distance refers to adjusting the light based on its proximity to the subject; moving the light farther away will lower the brightness. 
  • Diffusion means lowering the intensity of the light by shining it through an object or bouncing it off of an object. 

The three D’s are all methods of reducing the intensity of the light, but they have subtly different effects. Experiment to see how using these can affect the mood of your shot. 

Tip 3: Not every light has to be an actual “light”

The principles of 3-point lighting apply even if you don’t actually use three lights. In some cases, for example, your “fill light” can be a reflector. If you’re filming outside, then perhaps the sun functions as a key light or backlight. 

As you become more comfortable with the basic methods, you can experiment with alternative light sources. 

Conclusion

The basic 3-point lighting method may be relatively simple, but the flexibility it offers can lead to great creative potential. There are many ways the method can be adapted to fit your needs. Proper lighting is essential for clear photos or professional videos, so for your next project, be sure to give 3-point lighting a try.

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