Three-Point Lighting For Video Explained

Videographers can only get so far with good framing, composition, and camera movement. Although the camera can create stunning pictures, lighting is what transforms a good video into something spectacular. High-quality lighting is a necessary element for creating cinematic videos. However, lighting techniques used for video can be extremely complicated to understand. This blog post explains the three-point lighting technique.

What Is Three-Point Lighting?

The three-point lighting method is a traditional method used in film, video, and photography. The method uses three different lights on a subject at different intensities, distances, and angles to create a three-dimensional look. The key light, fill light, and backlight illuminates the front, side, and backside of the subject. Although three lights may seem like a rigid setup, there are a variety of different ways you can use them.
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The Key Light

The key light is the primary light used in lighting setups. The key is the brightest, and it contributes the most to the lighting of the scene. The position of the key light is extremely important because the light establishes where the shadows will fall.
Usually, the key is placed in front of the subject, either front left or front right, at a 45-degree angle. This allows the camera to capture the shadows and highlights to give the image dimension and depth.
Depending on where you place the key light in relativity to the camera and subject, you can make your image high-key (like a sitcom) with hardly any shadows or low-key (like a horror) with a lot of shadows.
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The Fill Light

Shadows can create a lot of depth in an image, but too dark of shadows could affect your image negatively.
The fill light is the second light used in a three-point lighting technique and its purpose is to prevent your shadows from getting too dark. The light is placed on the opposite side of the key light to fill in the shadows that the key creates.
The fill is less bright than the key and to what degree depends on the look you are going for. You can keep the light dim (generally at half the intensity of the key) if you want to create a dramatic mood and brighten the light to match or get close to the key’s intensity to create even lighting. Sitcoms and talk shows typically use even lighting to eliminate any shadows and create a light-hearted mood.
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The Backlight

The backlight is the third light used in a three-point lighting setup and it’s instrumental to create a three-dimensional image. This third light can be used in a few different ways. It can be used as a hair light or a rim light, which are similar but have subtle differences.
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A hair light is used to highlight the details of a subject’s hair while also sometimes working as a rim light.
Photo by Nicolás Flor on Unsplash
The rim light is usually positioned to put a small highlight around the edges of a subject and to separate the subject from the background.

How To Set Up Three Point Lighting

Three-point lighting setups may seem simple at first glance, but there are many subtle importances to setting up the three lights effectively.
When setting up the lights, it’s best to start with your key light as it will determine the look and feel of your shot. Typically, the key light is positioned in front of your subject at a 45-degree angle and tilted down at your subject at a 45-degree angle.
The reasoning behind this specific angle and position is that the 45-degree angle creates a Rembrandt triangle in the shadows of a subject’s face. Also known as Rembrandt lighting.
The other type of shadow created by the 45-degree placement of your key light is called a loop shadow. Also known as loop lighting. Loop lighting is created from your nose and is a little less dramatic than the Rembrandt triangle.
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After your key light is ready to go, then you’ll want to move on to your fill light. The fill light should be easier to set up because you can see what your key is doing and what areas your fill needs to brighten.
The ratio for a key light to a fill light is usually 2:1, which means that the key light is twice as bright as the fill. However, for corporate videos, you might want to decrease the difference in intensity to get a more high-key look.
The fill light is usually softer than the key which you can achieve by pulling the light back to a farther distance, flooding the light, or shining it through a diffuser.
The third light you should set up is the backlight and after getting your key and fill positioned, you’ll be able to clearly see what effect a backlight could have on your shot. The backlight is placed on the opposite side of the key light since that area is getting the least amount of light in the shot.
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Background vs. Backlight

A backlight and a background light are not the same things. A backlight focuses on the subject whereas a background light focuses on illuminating the background. The background light is used in a four-point lighting setup and it can be a great way to add depth into your background rather than just have it be an empty space. However, rarely is a background light necessary to a lighting setup.

The Diverse Combinations Of Three-Point Lighting

Having only three lights may seem like an easy setup without a lot of choices, but there are many different things you can do with three lights.
For one, you could use only the key and the backlight to get a darker and dramatic look. You could change the color of the backlight to add a different quality to your shot.
Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash
You could make your backlight a hard light, for sharp highlights and edges, or soft light, to put a subtle emphasis on someone’s hair. You could add an eye light to your subject to give their eyes some life.
However, as a beginner, focus on getting used to the basic three-point lighting setup and then experiment with different combinations to find the mood you are looking for. The possibilities aren’t endless but there is plenty to discover.
Sam Mikhail

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