What Is the Three-Point System with Respect to Lighting?

The three-point system is the most basic lighting technique used in film, video, photography, and computer-generated imagery. It forms the basis of all lighting techniques, which is why all photographers, film lighting designers (directors of photography), and graphic artists master this technique before experimenting with other methods.

In this article, we will share how the three-point system works and how you can fine-tune your setup. First, let’s look at the three lights used in the system:

Key Light

This is the main source of light. It produces the most amount of illumination and therefore has the most influence on the entire scene. It is placed on one side of the camera so that one side is well-lit while another side provides a shadow.

Fill Light

The fill light is used to fill in the shadows produced by your key light. Light used here is less powerful compared to the key light. It is placed on the opposite side of the key light and shines on the scene at a similar angle. It’s not meant to cancel out all the shadows created by the key light, but merely reduces them to build a softer look for the scene.

Back Light

The back light is used to create depth for your shot. Place your back light directly behind the subject so that it provides distinct highlights around the subject’s outlines. The result is a three-dimensional look that sets your subject apart from the background.

How to Use Three-Point Lighting Effectively

Step 1: Set your key light

For standard shoots like interviews, your subject should be in the middle (12 o’clock position) with the camcorder at 6 o’clock position. Place your key light between 15 and 45 degrees to the side of the camera, or in this case, at about 4:30 position.

This lights the subject’s facial profile and front side, although not directly. This way, there is a difference between the lighting on both sides of the face, which creates a look that is aesthetically pleasing.

You can also elevate the key light at an angle of 35 to 45 degrees above your subject. The height is enough to keep glare away from their eyes, yet not so high that it shows dark shadows under the eyes. Meanwhile, for subjects wearing glasses, opt for a softer light so as not to put too much glare on the subject’s glasses.

When filming a set, make sure your key light imitates the lighting that would usually exist for that time of day. For instance, if you’re filming a daylight scene at home, the key light might be sunlight through a window or a top light.

Step 2: Create depth and drama using fill light

Once you’ve established the key light, it’s time to determine the position of the fill light. In an interview setup, place the fill light on the opposite side of the camera at approximately 8 o’clock position. It should be elevated at an angle lower than the key light, around 20 to 30 degrees above the subject. This enables the light to fill in the shadows created on the side farther from the key light.

You can use a brighter or softer fill light depending on what is appropriate for a given scene. High-key lighting is when your fill light is intense and there’s only a slight difference to the key light. Daylight scenes can benefit from this technique. Low-key lighting, on the other hand, is when the fill is dim, creating a strong contrast between the two lights. Use low-key lighting if you want to make a scene look dramatic. Night scenes can be filmed without adding fill light.

Besides diffused lamps, other materials with white surfaces (e.g., foam core and white poster board) are great for fill light because they bounce the key light onto the subject’s face. Gold and silver reflectors add color to your scene and create a more vivid reflected fill light when used.

Step 3: Perfect the scene with backlight

The back light creates a distance between your subject and the background. In an interview setup, the back light should be at a higher angle than the key light, placed behind the subject. It’s important that it does not shine on your camera.

You can use hard or soft back lighting depending on the mood you want to achieve. The more intense the back light, the more dramatic the scene looks. Keep in mind, though, that your subject’s hair color is also a factor: subjects with blonde or light-colored hair require softer back light than subjects with darker hair.

When setting up your three-point lighting system, it’s recommended to check the scene using a color monitor to fix any unflattering shadows or reflections. But the most important thing to remember is to be creative! Explore the possibilities in terms of equipment and arrangement of all three lights, and you will be on your way to capturing the perfect shot.