Three Point Lighting

This is the basis of all film and television lighting. Every scene uses a variant of the three (four) lights. Surprise, surprise, it uses four lights:
  • Key light
  • Fill light
  • Back light
  • (Background light)
Have a look at what they do. It’s easiest to start with a simple shot.
This is ordinary room lighting. Not too flattering, I hope you’ll agree. Standard room lighting is much too ‘overhead’ for photography. You need to add light artificially to make the subject look more natural! Of course, your eye doesn’t see the subject like this. Or, rather, your eye does see like this; your brain doesn’t!  Your brain’s ‘view’ of a person is made up of many ‘snapshots’ that form a composite image. A picture of a person on a screen shows only the one view – and in this case it isn’t a very nice view.


The same shot with just the key light on. It’s basically a bulb (plus reflector) about two feet higher than the subject and about forty-five degrees to one side. It gives modelling to the face, but the shadows are far too harsh.


A fill light added on the other side of the camera to soften the shadows. The fill needs to be a bigger (wider) light, so it might mean putting some translucent material a little bit in front of the light, or bouncing it off a white sheet.


Now a backlight has been added. It’s usually opposite the key light. And behind the subject. Now you can see the shape of her hair and shoulders. The shot has some depth to it.


In many cases, the background will get enough light from the fill and key, but here there’s a fourth light – pointing at the background.

Compare the shot with the first one – ordinary ceiling lighting. It’s worth repeating that, of course, you don’t see like that. But your eye does. And so does a camera



In case I’ve not been too clear about which light goes where, Here’s a plan of the setup.

Look at any film shot (well, any simple shot) and you should be able to work out roughly where the lights were placed. Bigger, more complicated shots use just the same basic technique, but there are maybe two or three keylights for a walk along a corridor. Where to put the keylight? Well, if there’s a window or table lamp in shot, it should be obvious. If the lamp is behind (upstage of) the subject, the backlight comes from roughly that angle – and the key should be opposite and not too intense. And so on and so forth… And unless you’re lighting Ben Hur on Ice, you don’t have to spend a fortune.