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Three-Point Lighting Overview and Setup

Updated on July 23, 2017

3 point lighting in any studio set up simply means that you must set up three separate and different light sources to illuminate a subject so that you can have good control over unsightly shadows and possess the ability to balance the contrast.

In your recording or photography studio, you need to light the subject so you can see them easily and clearly, but that's not adequate enough. By using a three point lighting set up, you will ensure that the subject not only looks awesome but the effects you produce and the results you'll get will make you come across as a renowned professional cinematographer.

How 3 point lighting works.
How 3 point lighting works. | Source

This form of lighting forms the basis of more complicated studio lighting setups and this article will illustrate the important lighting concepts that you can use, no matter the scene you intend to set up.

How Best to Utilise 3 Point Lighting in a Studio Set Up

The main objective of using the 3 point lighting set up is to get a nice, clear and even distribution of illumination across the subject. Using these 3 points of lamps will remove shadows from parts of the subject, and allow the subject lift off a bit away from the background.

To achieve this effect, you are going to need 3 different types of lights set up in your studio. They are the:

  1. Key light
  2. Fill light
  3. Background light

The Key Light

The first and very important of the 3 point lights is the key light, and it is the 'key' to the whole setup.

The main source of illumination for the studio shoot scene is the key light. When installing or placing your key light, it's best to set it at a forty-five-degree angle from where the camera is placed.

The key light should not be positioned to face the subject directly because you need to add some definition to the outer edges of the subject's face and shoulders. Positioning the key light straight onto your subject will produce an unflattering look that's similar to the effect you get when using a flash on a still camera.

Once the key light is set at the appropriate angled position, you will instantly notice how well defined the subject is, and how the illumination from the light tends to wrap around the face.

The essence of having three point lighting is that, even with the use of the key light, you will still see dark shadows on the other side of your subject's face, with the scene itself looking kind of grainy. What needs to be done to remove this? It's quite simple. These unsightly shadows need to be 'filled in' using the appropriate name 'fill light'.


The Fill Light

The fill light source must also be placed at a forty-five-degree angle from the camera, and forty-five degrees opposite from the key light. To avoid 'competition between both types of lights, you must ensure that the fill light is less intense than the key light by taking any of these steps:

  • Use a lamp or bulb with less wattage.
  • Move the light further away. Moving the light source back a little has a great effect on the intensity of the light.
  • Use a neutral density gel (or diffusion) in front of the fill light.

So, when both lights are turned on, you'll get an even light distribution around the entire face. And even though the shadows formed by the key light are still obvious, they have become softened, giving them to a pleasing and very natural look.

Even with this result, we still need to work on the subject/background relationship. At this point, the overall effect will appear a bit flat, with the subject tending to blend into the background. This is the point where the 3rd light source in the 3 point lighting system comes to play, the backlight.

The Back Light

The backlight placement is behind your subject and set off at an angle where the light is placed out and above the frame, so that it only beams on the subject, but not into the lens of the camera. The idea behind the use of a backlight is for it to beam down onto your subject, thereby creating a rim of light around your subject's head and shoulders.

It is imperative to ensure that the backlight should, like the fill light, be of a fairly low intensity. And when the key and fill lights are combined with the backlight, it makes the subject stand out more from the background, focusing your attention where it belongs on your subject.

Simple 3 point lighting setup. Home Depot Work Light with a softener, full power as key, camera right. Light half power camera left for fill. Bare light full power as kicker high and to the right rear of model.
Simple 3 point lighting setup. Home Depot Work Light with a softener, full power as key, camera right. Light half power camera left for fill. Bare light full power as kicker high and to the right rear of model. | Source

A Base to Set Up Even The Most Complicated Studio Shots

To summarise it all, each type of light and their role in 3 point lighting is as follows:

  • The key light or main light is required to illuminate the scene.
  • The fill light is meant to fill in the shadows.
  • The backlight is essential to make your subject pop out from the background.

When you combine the three lights, you will achieve a satisfying all around lighting that will make your subject look impressive.

Setting up your 3 point lighting system for your studio is fairly simple and straightforward, and once you've mastered it, you will be able to use this basic knowledge of lighting effects and properties to help you address any studio lighting set up you may need.

© 2011 viryabo


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    • viryabo profile image

      viryabo 2 years ago

      You are welcome @Lady_E

      Thanks a bunch for visiting.

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 2 years ago from London, UK

      Worth knowing. I learn something new everyday. Thanks