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This post was most recently updated on June 26th, 2022

Have you ever wondered how professional photographers manage to get such beautiful, well-lit portrait photographs?

Using a ring light can help, but if you want your photographs or cinematography to look professional, knowing how to properly light your cameras’ subject can do wonders.

3-point lighting is an effective technique, used to make sure the subject within an image or video is lit properly and to achieve different effects.

By using three different lights positioned at different points around the subject, the photographer or cinematographer has the freedom to play around with the intensity of the light by changing how far away each light is and adjusting the angles of the lights, as well as the positions.

By changing these elements, the photographer can manipulate the mood or atmosphere of the photo, creating different effects.

Being able to control the lighting of the photo also means that you can manipulate the resultant shadows. This can result in sharp, angled shadows, or softer shadows, based on the brightness of and where you place the light.

We’ll talk about this in some more detail within the sections below.

Why Is 3-Point Lighting Important?

3-point lighting gives you absolute control over the shadows and highlights within your shot, and without this, you risk letting subtle details that might take your photo to the next level get washed out by too much light, or shadow.

On the flip side, without the use of 3-point lighting, you aren’t able to add dramatic shadows or soft shadowing to your image, which means that you lose some of your ability to change the mood and atmosphere of the shot, as well.

What Are The Key Light, The Fill Light, And The Backlight?

The three most important aspects of 3-point lighting are the lights themselves. You can’t just set three lights up and hope for the best, the most essential part of 3-point lighting is understanding what the purpose of each light is, so you know how to manipulate the lights to get the effect that you want.

Each of the lights used within 3-point lighting has a different purpose.

The Key Light

The clue might be in the name, here – the “key” light is the most important light within this process. This is because the key light is the main light source – whilst the other two are used, the key light is the strongest, and as a result, has the most impact.

The key light controls the scenes’ exposure – if this light is too bright, you may find that the entire photo looks washed out. Of course, you can edit the exposure in post – but it’s better to get it right in person, as this gives you the most freedom to do what you want within the editing process.

The key light can be used in several ways to gain different effects, with a high-key image being much softer and happier than a low-key image, which would have dramatic shadows and a darker atmosphere.

The Fill Light

As the key-light creates such dramatic shadowing, the fill light is needed to slightly illuminate the shadows the key-light creates. The key light is usually much brighter than the fill light.

Whilst high contrast areas of bright and dark may give a great dramatic feel, you’ll need to use a secondary light to bring out detail in the shadows.

Dim fill lighting helps keep the dramatic feel of a scene, whilst a brighter, warmer fill light will give the subject more balance.

A fill light doesn’t have to be very bright, so you can use bounce cards, a white sheet, or something similar to reflect the light from your key light onto the subject.

The Backlight

The last of the three lights we’re using in this technique is called the Backlight, but this is also often referred to as the “hair light” or the “rim light”. This light is placed directly behind the subject and is used to create separation from the subject and the background.

By illuminating the subject from behind, it creates a rim of light around them that helps to create depth, separating them from their darker background.

Where To Place Your 3-Point Lighting

Where To Place Your 3-Point Lighting

The positioning of your lighting is integral to ensuring that the 3-point lighting works in the ways you need it to.

We’ve put together a quick guide on how to layout your 3-point lighting below.

Where Should I Place The Key Light?

The key light is usually placed to one side of the camera, at an angle of around 45 degrees.

This placement creates extra shadows on one side of the subject, which can help to add depth to the image, and depending on the intensity of the light, it can alter the contrast of the scene.

Where Should I Place The Fill Light?

Fill lights are the ones that you’ll be adjusting the most when on-set. Adjusting the fill light creates subtle changes that are important to the overall appearance of the scene. Try different angles, colors, and intensities.

When using a bounce card or piece of paper, you can adjust the amount of light bouncing back by adjusting the distance you hold the card or sheet of paper from your subject, relatively.

Where Should I Place The Backlight?

Place the backlight opposite to the key light but remember not to get it in the frame. When filming a headshot, aim the light at the back of the subject’s neck. If you can’t hide the light source in the background of the scene, try lighting from above the frame.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a budding photographer or cinematographer, it’s important to make sure that you have absolute control over the lighting within your shot, so that you can get the exact effect that you want.

Using 3-point lighting allows you to control everything about your shot, from the shadows to the highlights, the depth, and the mood.

Hopefully, this article has given you everything you need to know about 3-point lighting so that you can start getting the most out of your photos and videos.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Best Way To Use 3-Point Lighting?

There is no one, specific, way to go about using this lighting method, so it’s important to experiment for yourself by changing the angles and intensities of the lights. You’ll soon find that the lighting of your scene drastically alters the feel of the scene.

Good lighting helps you machine more dynamic shots and images by bringing more dimensions to your shot.

Ensuring that you’ve positioned your lights correctly, and the key light isn’t washing any significant details of the subject out can help you to get a professional look, but if you’re experimenting with your photography, this might not be specifically what you’re looking for.

Because of this, it’s important to experiment with different lighting styles to see what works best for your vision.

What Are High-Key And Low-Key Lighting?

If you’re looking into 3-point lighting, you might have seen the terms “high-key” and “low-key” pop up a lot.

High Key Lighting

You can achieve “high-key” lighting by using soft key light, just off the center of the shot, and also using a fill light about half the brightness, allowing you to give your subject an optimistic, yet soft shadowed look. This style is often used in more light-hearted TV shows.

Low-Key lighting

Alternatively, if you use a much brighter key light than your fill light, about 4 to 8 times brighter, you can create a more dramatic, film-noir style of lighting, often used for sultry scenes and photographs with darker atmospheres.