Tl;dr - 3-point lighting is one of the fundamental basics of cinematography. It is taught in every book on lighting and in every cinematography or photography class.
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What Is 3-Point Lighting?

3-point lighting is one of the fundamental basics of cinematography. It is taught in every book on lighting and in every cinematography or photography class.

It has become such an integral part of the teaching and learning process for lighting that it is as ubiquitous as the “180-degree rule” for directing or the “rule of thirds” for composition.

Like these two examples, many consider 3-point lighting to be a rule. Not me. In my experience, 3-point lighting is a great teaching tool that is only used in it’s purest form in very specific scenarios.

In this article, I’m going to explore the idea of 3-point lighting and see how we can put together an ideal 3-point lighting kit.

Key, Fill, & Back Light

These three types of light are what make up the traditional 3-point lighting set up – a “key light” a “fill light” and a “back light”. This is the very basis of the technique so first, we must discuss what each does and why.

Key Light

The key light is considered by many to be the “main” light on an actor’s face and it is, in theory, the light that normalizes the rest.

Meaning, you can set your key light to the desired output, set your camera to an f-stop that matches the key light’s output, and then light everything else around that f-stop.

Standard 3-point lighting has the key light at a 45 degree angle off camera-right or left.

Nowadays, key lights are typically a “soft light” like a Kino Flo fixture or an Arri Skypanel type of soft LED panel. Or, they are a hard light that is modified with a Chimera, silk, or some type of diffusion-

Fill Light

The fill light is the yin to the key light’s yang. It is placed at a 45 degree angle on the opposite side of the actor as the key light.

It’s main function, as one could guess, is to fill in some shadows on the other side of the face that are created by the key light.

Generally speaking the fill light is not at the same output level as the key. It pushes out slightly less power to create what is called “a contrast ratio” on the face – aka one side of the face is slightly brighter than the other.

Like the key light, the fill light is typically very soft so that the light can wrap around the curves of the face and fill in some of the shadows.

Back Light

Once again, as one would expect, the back light lights the back of the actor.

Placing the light behind the actor creates what is called a “rim” light effect – or that glow of harsh light you’ve often seen in films.

These lights are typically fresnels, ellipsoidals, or pars because having more “hard light” or directionality with the light can be much better in the back light scenarios.

The Arri Kit

Because 3-point lighting typically employs multiple light qualities, having three of the same type of light will require the use of modifiers.

Many people have a tried and true Arri kit as their main 3-point lighting kit. And that is great. It’ll certainly get the job done. But, in order to get the most out of this kit, you’ll need some additional gear. 

You’ll want to get:

  • C-stands
  • 4x4 Silks
  • Sand Bags

Why do you want c-stands and silks?

To get a soft light quality, you’ll want to enlarge the source. This is effectively what the silk does. Placing a 4×4 silk in front of a fresnel light like an Arri fresnel and trying to get that fresnel light to fill the full silk will essentially turn the silk into the light source, creating a 4′ by 4′ source. When it comes to creating soft light from a hard source, the two keys are size and distance. Hard sources are generally smaller, so using a silk to increase the size of the source is step 1. Then taking that large source and moving it as close as possible to the subject is step 2. This will allow the light to wrap around the corners and curves, which is what softens up those harsh shadows.

Building an Ideal Kit

Because of all of these new soft LED fixtures, like the new Kino Flo Freestyle LED series, you are able to eliminate the need for the extra modifiers because the source itself is soft (aka larger and able to get closer to the subjects without being too hot). And, they have built in dimming so you can dial in exposure more precisely.

So, utilizing these types of fixtures as key and fill lights is great.

Plus, with their ability to change color temperature or utilize built in gel-presets, you can match the key and fill to any type of fixture or light that is already present in the scene, at the location, or in the set decoration.

Excellent! Now, there are so many types of LED fixtures, why not stay in the zone? I like the Hive Wasp 100-C, which is a single source LED fixture (vs an array of LED bulbs like a Litepanel fixture) and it comes with a PAR lens to intensify and create a more directional beam of light.

Switching It Up

Rules are meant to be broken, and 3-point lighting is no different. It’s a great guide to help you learn the basics and understand how soft and hard lighting works. But, in film, pure 3-point lighting like these diagrams is rarely used.

Often times, only two lights (a key and a back light) are used to create a more dramatic look. Or, in some cases only a single back light can be used for extra dramatic scenarios.

Or, maybe there’s no back light at all. Not every scene and every set up has a natural motivation for a back light. So… don’t use one! 

Switch it up, and do what’s right for the scene. Learn the basics of 3-point lighting and then be free to experiment and see what looks best.

With modern technology – LED lights that can do any color under the sun, digital cameras, and monitors to help you see exactly what the scene will look like – there’s so much room for experimentation and creativity. Get out there and explore with your lighting!

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Alex Darke
Alex Darke
Alex is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker located in Los Angeles, who has spent the past 7 years working with the legendary broadcaster Larry King and shooting thousands of episodes of television as a camera operator and director of photography. He owns the motion picture production company Gilded Cinema and co-hosts the No-Budget Filmmaking Podcast.
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