Three Point Lighting

This tutorial is about a technique you can use while shooting your video footage. As I believe Kayla mentioned in her post, you can be well-versed in all the video editing software and techniques, but knowing how to actually shoot a good video makes the editing process much easier.

The point of three point lighting is to highlight your video’s main subject. If you’re doing an interview, for example, you should use this technique to highlight the person you’re interviewing. As the name suggests, there are three light sources that you need to worry about, and this post will tell you what they are and how to use them.

Key Light: The key light is the main light that illuminates the subject, so it should be the brightest. Don’t worry if you don’t have fancy equipment (I know I don’t), because you can use the sun as the key light if you’re shooting outside. Light from a window or a ceiling light can also be used. You can position it anywhere you want to, but a good rule of thumb is to have it 45 degrees above the subject and 45 degrees to the right or left of the camera.

Since the key light will be bright, it will also create the most contrast between illuminated areas and shadows. That’s where the other 2 lights come in. If you shot an interview using only one key light to illuminate the person, their face may be bright while something like their eyes or a shadow on their face will look very dark.

Fill Light: The fill light, which should only be about half as bright as the key light in most cases, is usually positioned lower than the key light. In an interview scene, it may be at about the level of the subject’s face, while the key light shines from above. Also, a fill light generally comes from the opposite direction as they key. If your key is shining from the left, you should position your fill light somewhere from the right (although not completely symmetrical). Using a fill light will help to illuminate the shaded surfaces created by your key light. For a fill light, you can use a lamp, or even a white wall.

It’s worth mentioning that the way you use these lights is dependent on the effect you’re going for. If you want your shot to look more realistic, then you should use a fill light to do so. However, maybe you want your shot to look a bit more dramatic and you like the stark contrast that using a key light creates. If that’s the case, then you can choose not to have a fill light.

Back Light: If you haven’t figured this one out, a back light shines from behind the subject. It’s purpose is to give a rim of light around the subject, so it’s easy for your eyes to separate the subject from anything else in the background. You should adjust it until this outline is visible.

Here’s a picture to help you see what a back light does. In the photo below, the image on the left has no back light, while the one on the right does.

As with anything, you’ll have to take some time to play around with your lighting in order to achieve the effect you’re going for, but using the three point lighting technique is a great foundation from which to start.

-Julie Howell


~ by juliehowell on March 14, 2011.

4 Responses to “Three Point Lighting”

  1. Julie,

    I thought your post was one of the most helpful for people shooting preset people and objects. Lighting is crucial and this technique is easy to remember and very effective. Your description of it is easy to follow and remember. Nice job.


  2. Cheers, this is a very useful post.
    First off, it addresses simple ways to light a subject, which is of course central to making a quality video. We have already learned a good bit about the methods of recording and editing sound, so the natural choice is to focus our mental energies on the visual.
    Second, the post was written in very clear and simple language, which is appropriate for us beginners. It managed to get enough basic material across to be useful without being dense. And it did it in a tone which was authoritative but not off-putting.
    Finally, the visuals helped a great deal.

    -Brendan Sullivan

  3. This tutorial is great! Lighting is one of the most important elements when creating a video, and yet so many people gloss over it. You do a very good job of describing the different lights that are needed for a good shot. You are right, though: this kind of setup is best suited for interviews. At least, in its bare bones form. Altering the power of the light sources is where you can really get artsy.

    Also, I’ve found flashlights to be awesome Fill lights. They don’t completely undo the harsh-contrast of the Key light, but they soften it just enough to not look overdone.

    – Joe

  4. Until reading your blog post I had not considered how important good lighting would be for film, or photography. In fact it brought to mind how much I should change my ideas on how to actually shoot the film for class.

    That said, I do have a few questions: Is there a way to construct some form of mobile lighting if moving the camera is preferred? Also would three point lighting even be desired if movement is used or is it more for use in still or mostly still objects? Basically I’m asking for more recommendations on lighting.

    Rory Coble

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