Lighting: Three Point Lighting


Kyle Cassidy | November 2010

Three point lighting is so ubiquitous that everybody who works with video should know how to set it up in their sleep.

"I need you to set up three point lighting on that podium there, I have to run out for more video tapes."

This is something that you might hear on nearly any video shoot. It's the easy answer to a myriad of questions and, it's very adaptable, doesn't necessarily requires three lights, and luckily, its not terribly difficult to learn.

Three lights: Key, Fill, and Back

The key is your main light, usually placed 45 degrees from your subject and aimed down. This, as the name suggests, is the primary light, it provides the bulk of the illumination on your subject and may produce some strong shadows.

The fill is 45 degrees from your subject on the opposite side and is broader and usually about two or three stops dimmer. The job of the fill is to keep the shadows from the key from being too strong.

The back light (sometimes called the "kicker", which sounds a little cooler if you're on the set: "Jim, get me a kicker back here") is aimed at your subject's head and shoulder from behind and above, also at about a 45 degree angle and gives them a bit of a glow which serves to give some separation between the subject and whatever's behind them often called a "defining edge". If you have a nice background you can also aim the back light at that. This works particularly well if the background is textured - like draped fabric - if you aim a light at it obliquely. This is common in interviews done at a location chosen for the subject's convenience rather than its scenic beauty - a backdrop can be quickly thrown up in a warehouse or a garage and three point lighting magically transforms it into a studio in a matter of minutes.

The rational for the back light becomes most apparent when shooting a dark haired person against a dark background. Without a back light, the hair vanishes into the background and you're left with a floating face.

Harsh or Diffuse? Lighting styles change. Often when looking at interviews from the 1970's you'll see three point lighting done with very bright, undiffused lights but more recently the trend has been to use relatively soft key and fill lights that can be behind an umbrella or a softbox.

What Kind of Lights to Get?

There are several kinds of continuous lights designed for videography and companies like Lowell, Westcott, and Arri, among others, make three light kits that pack up into a single case and include various diffusers. The two main types of lights are quartz/tungsten which are traditional "hot lights". They have a relatively high power draw and pump out a lot of lumens. Also popular in recent years are daylight or tungsten balanced fluorescent lights made popular by Kino Flo who, in 1987, created a set of small, bright, lamps that gave off very little heat specifically for the movie Barfly. Now lots of other companies make fluorescent lighting banks. Their low power consumption and high portability make them very popular. (Check out our review of the Barfly light kit). Another, more recent, but more expensive, player in the field are LED banks like those made by Litepanels. Similar to fluorescent lighting banks, LED panels use dozens of small "Light Emitting Diodes" usually in groups of daylight and tungsten colors, (one can switch between the two with the flip of a switch).

Get lights that fit your budget, but also take into consideration that you want a kit that will grow with you. Many times its better to get one good light than three you'll outgrow in a year. Is it easy to get accessories for them? Do they hold their resale value? Other factors to take into consideration are size and portability - remember you'll be carting them around and setting them up. 

Light Modifiers

Having a light isn't the end of your journey. Most often you'll want to modify the raw from-the-bulb light with some sort of diffuser. The most popular are:

Barn Doors: These metal flaps can be used to control the "spill" of the light - how directional it is. They don't diffuse light at all but some people clip special heat resistant diffusion material to the front to cut back on the shadows.

Umbrella, reflective: This is an umbrella that is opaque painted either white or metallic silver or gold on the inside, these collect light from the bulb, diffuse it, and aim it towards the subject.

Umbrella, shoot-thru: This is a translucent umbrella, usually white, the light travels through the fabric and diffuses but also reflects back towards the lamp, giving a lot of spill behind, too. These are useful for lighting large areas of a rooms.

Softboxes: These are sort of like reflective umbrellas, but box shaped and completely enclosed. They are more directional than an umbrella and one or two additional layers of translucent material make the light even more diffused.

Snoots: These cone or tube like devices are used to focus a beam of light in a very tight spot - often used on backlights to keep light from spilling onto the background.

Grids: Either made of cloth, metal, or plastic grids come in a variety of dimensions and serve to tightly focus and soften a light. Large cloth grids can attach to the front of soft boxes for very soft, very directional light or small grids can fit directly over a lamp to give a brighter, sharper, but still very focused light. These are often used when your backlight is aimed at your background to create a small, soft, circle of light or a pattern across a draped cloth backdrop. But you don't always need ALL that stuff!

Other Light Sources:Three point lighting doesn't require three artificial lights, but only three light sources. Window light is an excellent key light and the fill can be a reflector - either a collapsible made by a company like Bowens, Photoflex, Flexfill or Creative Light, or any flat reflective surface like a sheet of foam core or even a bed sheet. Your third light can be balanced to match the daylight with a gel from a company like Lee Filters, Kodak or Rosco.

Three point lighting isn't always the best answer, but it's often the most convenient one, and one you need in your skill set. Being able to quickly set up good lighting allows you to turn your attention to other important tasks. 

Sidebar: Homework

Practice setting three point lighting in different rooms of your house. Work with the benefits and drawbacks of each location - do a setup that involves window light and then do one in a room without windows. Try three point lighting on objects as well as people - how does the light differ when used on something smooth, like a basketball, or made up of complex lines, like a bicycle?

Deconstruct lighting when watching television - look for three point lighting - particularly in interviews - follow the shadows backwards to the source. Are the lights above or parallel to the subject? How often is natural light a component? Pay special attention to the kicker. How bright is it? Is there good definition between the subject and the background?

Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who exhibits regularly and has written books on technology and photographic art.