3 point lighting setup

Three-Point Lighting Setup [Beginner’s Guide]

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Table of contents

In this article, we look at three-point lighting setups with different variations using both artificial and natural light.

When I first started shooting content for clients, interviews were and still are a huge chunk of my work. With most content involving some form of testimonial or interview as the main narrative.

Therefore, it’s important for anyone starting to have a basic understanding of three-point lighting and how to apply it to an interview.

Three-point lighting consists of (no surprise) three sources of light; a Key, a Fill, and a Backlight – simple right?

So, first things first, the key light…

Key Light

The key is traditionally the strongest light source. This is pointed directly at the subject in order to light them.

Where you position the key varies on the style you want to create. However, in corporate environments, you want to position the key light to favor what is known as the “short side”.

This means that the key is placed on the opposite side of the camera in relation to the subject’s eye line. The simple three-point lighting diagram below should help make sense of this a bit more.

key light diagram

As a result, it creates an image where the key is always coming from the side your subject is facing. This helps create a balanced image (see below).

Motivated three-point lighting
[Subject facing key light]

If you are in an environment with some element of natural light, or a light source already present, then it might be worth making sure your key light is also mimicking this source. Keeping your light sources motivated helps create a naturalistic image.

For example, if you’re shooting next to a large window, it makes sense for your key to appear as if it is coming from that source.

Now you have your key in place, it’s time to think about the next source in a three-point lighting setup, your fill light…

Fill Light

The fill light usually comes from the opposite side of the key. As a general rule of thumb with three-point lighting, you should make the fill light a maximum of half the intensity of the key.

All the fill is there to do is to add a bit of balance to the subject. Usually, it sits on the opposite side of the camera to the key.

Fill light diagram

If I’m shooting something a bit moodier I usually take away the fill as it adds extra contrast across the subject’s face.

High contrast three-point lighting example
[No fill light]

However, in a corporate environment, clients (I’ve found at least) tend to want a less contrasted look.

As a result, three-point lighting provides an excellent starting point for this low contrast but well-shaped look.

A fill light is a great way to lift the darker side of the subject’s face.

However, if you’re lighting on a budget, and only have access to one or two light sources, then a bounce board or a reflector can create decent fill light.

Simply position it to bounce part of the key light onto the subject. In this example, we’ve only used a bounce for our fill light, placed to the left of the camera. 

Bounce board reflector
[Fill using a bounce board]

Notice how the side of the face the fill light hits is always darker than the side hit by the key light. Therefore, we’re gaining some tonal contrast (difference in light and dark) across the face.

Pretty neat huh? Check out a few more of our film lighting techniques.

Finally, onto by far the best part of this trio, the backlight…

Back Light

With any three-point lighting setup comes the backlight, which is exactly what it says on the tin. No surprises on this one, the backlight comes from behind the subject.

As a very general rule, you usually want this source opposite the key light, favoring one side of the subject.

Back light diagram

What this does is separate your subject from the environment around them. In turn, this creates depth to the image by separating them from the background.

Quick Tips On Three-Point Lighting

Always try where possible to have a few meters between your subject and the background as this will help further separate the two. Simple really!

Get Creative

Most importantly, you should always remember that three-point lighting is just a guide. When you’re starting out, you won’t always have access to high-quality light sources.

Often you’ll be filming in a corporate world where you have limited space and dreaded white walls. So, get creative and break the rules!!

More often than not I find myself completely ignoring fill light, and only using a backlight and a key.

Here are a couple of frames showing projects where I’ve done just this. The frame below was for Park Run UK in partnership with the This Girl Can campaign.

Subtle backlight
[No fill light]

For this, we just have one key light and a very subtle backlight. The lack of fill light helps add more contrast and gave us a mood that fitted the project.

The second one below was also for Park Run UK, where we used a single light source – the sun 👍

We were in a park and only had two of us (myself and the director) carrying a mountain of kit. As a result, we had to work quickly, so we used the sun as our backlight and a bounce board to help bounce some light into the subject’s face to make a key.

Daylight example
[bounce board natural key light]

In both of these situations, we didn’t have access to artificial light sources. Nevertheless, we still achieved an outcome the client was very happy with and an image that looks balanced.

So, don’t worry if you aren’t always using three-point lighting to the letter, in all honesty, fill light is overrated!

Three-Point Lighting – Wrapping Up

Hopefully, this helps outline the basics of three-point lighting. The most important thing to remember is that these are just rough guides. Rules are meant to be broken!

In short three-point lighting shouldn’t be used as an approach to every situation, but it offers a solid foundation for most projects.

Adapt and create how you see fit! The most important thing is to get creative and trust in yourself. 😉

Archie Guinchard
Archie Guinchard
Archie is a freelance director & DOP. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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