Production: How to Create Three Point Lighting

Three point lighting is the basic design used in most set ups today. Though it seems simple, this can become the stepping stone from which you build a magnificent scene.

Step 1: Key Light

This is the first element to the three point lighting set up. The key light is what is used to light the subject. In the most basic set up, this light is set at exposure. However, if you are creating a dark and moody scene, you would probably set it below exposure to create "low-key" lighting. If you are simulating a bright sunny day, you would probably set it above exposure to create "high-key" lighting. The placement of this light can be anywhere from 45 degrees to 90 degrees from the subject-to-camera sight line. This is the most flattering angle, not only for the person's face, but also for the cinematographer who will be avoiding "flat" light. This position allows for shadows that will show off the contour of a face.

Step 2: Fill Light

The next light to set up is a fill light. Generally, this is an extremely soft source. Kino-Flos and LED lights have become very popular for this purpose. You can also bounce a hard source into a white card to get a more natural effect. The purpose of this light source is to fill in and soften the shadows that are being caused by the key light. You will not want to completely eliminate these shadows, only finesse them. So the fill light should be below the exposure of the key light. How far below is up to you and the type of scene you are lighting. In extremely dark scenes, you may even consider going with no fill. However, you then become in danger of having that side of the face go completely black.

Step 3: Back Light

The final piece of the three point lighting set up is the back light. The main purpose of this light is to illuminate the back of the person's hair and shoulders in order to separate them from the background. Setting up the light behind the subject, but still out of frame, can be tricky. Basically, you are trying to achieve a bright rim that will outline the person's shape. This does not need to be particularly intense. It can be just enough to get the job done. This light is especially important for green screen work in order to keep the person from blending into the green. The back light can also be used as a glamor effect. If a model has luscious flowing hair, why not try to accent it.

Step 4: Building

You may have noticed that every light source we have discussed has been pointed at the subject. Since you do not want the character sitting in a dark room, you can now build on this basic set up and paint the background. As is, you have control over the two elements independently of each other.

Three point lighting is a great place to start when you are learning the art of cinematography. However, as you progress, you will never truly abandon it.

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