While smartphone technology is indeed getting better, and many content creators are doing just fine with ring lights and other DIY setups, lighting is still one of the most crucial elements for all types of content creation.

If you’re serious about making videos which look both clear and professional…well, lighting is always going to be key. Luckily, we’ve had quite a few decades to perfect lighting for film and video. And the classic lighting technique you need to know is the 3-point lighting technique

So, to help you on all your film and video adventures, let us present this basic guide to 3-point lighting – including all the steps you need to set up three-point lighting on your own!

What is 3 point lighting? 

Three-point lighting is the name for one of the most common lighting setups and techniques for filmmakers, videographers, photographers, and any other visual creatives. 

As its name suggests, three-point lighting involves the use of three light sources in three distinct lighting positions. By using these three light sources, a professional can control pretty much all the variables for lighting a subject.

Why is three-point lighting important?

3 point lighting is important because it includes all the elements needed to create a diverse, rich and clear image for film, video or photography purposes.

What are the three light sources?

The three main light sources for any 3-point lighting setup include a key, a fill, and a back light. These three sources can vary in terms of angle, intensity and even color, but the principle use for each of these three lights always remains the same.

We’ll go over each light source below, but for all those visual learners out there, here’s a great video from Artlist Ltd which gives some good video examples of each as well.

1. Key light

The key light is the main light source. It shines directly on the subject, usually from the front right right or front left. It establishes the overall look and feel of the shot.

2. Fill light

The fill light is your secondary light source. It provides balance to the key light by ‘filling in’ the rest of the subject’s face with softer light. It should be positioned to the side that’s opposite the key light.

3. Back light

The back light (or rim light) is the background light source. It creates a flattering rim of light around the subject, separating them from the background. As its name suggests, it should be positioned behind the subject.

How to set up three-point lighting in 5 easy steps

Alright, now that you know a basic definition and the three key light sources, let’s explore how to set up your own 3-point lighting setup by following these five easy steps.

1. Start in the dark.

As you should do for any film, video or photo shoot, you want to start in the dark. The darker the better as you don’t want any outside light sources adding light to your subject. 

If you can’t secure a professional studio or soundstage, try to find a room with little to no windows. Turn off all the lights like overheads or lamps as well and you’re ready to begin.

2. Turn on your key light.

The first light is going to be the key light. Depending on where your subject is facing, you’ll want to put your key light to the right or left of your camera at a 45-degree angle.

The key light will often be the brightest light and do most of the lighting work on your subject. Try experimenting with the brightness either by adjusting the light source, or by moving it closer or farther away from your subject.

3. Add your fill light. 

The third step is to add your fill light. The fill light should usually be less bright than your key light as it’s meant to fill in the shadows on your subject’s face and features.

Depending on where your key light is located, the fill light should be on the opposite side of your subject. (For example, if your key light is on the right of your subject, then the key light should be on the left of the subject – or vice versa).

4. Bring in the back light. 

From there you’ll want to add in your back light. The back light helps to separate your subject from the background by creating a sharp edge around them.

Fittingly, you’ll want to place the back light somewhere behind your subject with the light facing the back of your subject’s head. You’ll also want to position the back light higher up to have it shining downwards onto your subject which will help to create an even sharper outline.

5. Adjust for balance and style

Once you have all your light sources set up, you’ll want to begin the process of adjusting for balance, style and look. 

Remember, when you adjust one light source, it changes the values of all the other ones as well, so be sure to plan for enough time to make adjustments if you haven’t used many 3-point lighting setups in the past.

What is four-point lighting? 

Four-point lighting is another lighting technique which uses the same setup as three-point lighting (key, fill and back lights) and adds an additional light for further illuminating the background and making the subject stand out. 

Best practices for three point lighting

Pretty straightforward and simple, right? 3-point lighting isn’t anything revolutionary as it’s been used for decades, however as you dive into working with 3-point lighting there are some common best practices to keep in mind.

Decide on focus and clarity

When setting up a 3-point lighting setup (or any lighting setup really), it’s helpful to have an idea as to what type of style and look that you’d like to achieve. For example, some lighting is meant to be as bright and clear as possible for clarity and focus.

Whereas some lighting is meant to be darker and more cinematic as you might want to challenge your audiences by creating moody compositions with more shadows and less detail. 

Adding depth and shadows

As mentioned above, one of the main ways in which lighting can be made more cinematic is by adding shadows and depth. To do this, you’ll want to experiment with adjusting both the key and fill lights.

By increasing one and decreasing the other, you can create much more dynamic shadows across your subject’s face. 

Harsh lighting vs soft lighting

The other key element for 3-point lighting to consider is brightness. Depending on your desired film or video look, you’ll want to experiment with creating lighting that can vary between being very harsh or very soft.

There are many ways to achieve this, from lighting source types, to working with filters, diffusers or bounce boards, but the easiest way for beginners might simply be to move the light source either closer or farther away.

Don’t ignore the back light

Another common mistake many film and video professionals make when first starting off is to ignore the back light. It’s understandable as for some compositions the back light might not appear to make that much of a difference.

But if you truly want your footage to pop, the back light is crucial to help separate your subject from the background. If you ignore it your footage can feel very flat and un-dynamic.

Experiment and get creative

Finally, as with any filmmaking techniques, the best way to learn and master them is simply by getting out there and experimenting. Try piecing together your own 3-point lighting setup over a weekend to test out different light sources and play around with brightness. 

If you have a willing friend, ask them to stand in as the subject so you can see how the different lights affect shadows and depth. 

When should I use three-point lighting? 

It’s up to you and the needs of your project, but three-point lighting should be used for any professional video setup in which lighting needs to be clear, dynamic and/or cinematic.

Wrapping it up

Hopefully these definitions, steps and best practices have given you a good idea of what 3-point lighting is and how the technique works. 3-point lighting has been a fundamental building block of good filmmaking for decades upon decades. 

However, while its core elements remain the same, much of film and video content is being re-thought and re-imagined even today. It’s important to understand the basics, but also equally important to remember that there are always new innovations and technologies to explore too.

Learn more lighting tricks

If you’d like to learn more lighting tricks, we have some great resources to help illuminate the way with these articles here on Vimeo. Check them out below!