Film Lighting Basics

Three point lighting is the basic film lighting setup. It employs a key light, a fill light and a backlight. It is designed to highlight the main actor or point of interest in a scene by making them stand out from the background.

The key light is the strongest light source and placed to one side of the actor or point of interest. This will cause one side of the actor or point of interest to be brighter than the other and will cast shadows on the opposite side of the light source.

The fill light is less powerful than the key light and is place on the other side of the actor or point of interest. It is used to soften the shadows created by the fill light.
The backlight is placed behind the actor or point of interest and serves to separate them from the background.

This three point lighting system works well when there is just one actor or point of interest in a scene. It gets more complicated when there is more than one actor or point of interest in a scene. For example, take a two person scene—an interviewer who is facing an interviewee for a sit-down interview. In a live interview situation this would most likely be covered with three cameras: one on the interviewer, one on the interviewee, and the third on a two-shot.

It’s fairly simple to light the interviewer with three point lighting. Adding the interviewee into the mix can create certain lighting logistics that need to be addressed. For instance, the backlight on the interviewer will often times illuminate the interviewee (and the interviewee’s backlight will do the same to the interviewer.) One solution is to have the interviewee’s backlight serve as the fill light for the interviewer and vice-versa.

The goal in basic film lighting is to use as few lights as possible as each light casts its own shadows—therefore having one light serve as both the backlight for one actor or point of interest and the fill light for the other actor or point of interest can eliminate the need for two lights in a two person interviewer/interviewee setup.

There will be occasions where three point lighting is not possible. Imagine an outdoor shoot with no access to electricity to power your lights. In such a situation, the sun will be your key light by default. Using shiny boards or reflectors, you can bounce the light of the sun back to the subject to create both fill light and backlight sources.

Another basic lighting technique is the use of soft light. For outdoor shoots, this would be akin to shooting on an overcast day. In the studio, this would be achieved through the use of soft lights or bounced lights. In both cases, the lighting is relatively flat with very few shadows cast. The effect is the opposite of dramatic lighting but it does avoid casting shadows and serves to provide even illumination across the scene.
A basic lighting kit should include at least four lights with two of them being half as powerful as the other two—for instance two 2K lights and two 1K lights. These should be hard lights. Scrims, diffusers (silk or other fabric) and barn doors are essentials as are reflectors or shiny boards. For instance, a half scrim could be used in the case where one light serves as both the backlight and the fill light in a two person interview setup. The portion of the light being used for the backlight would be scrimmed, the portion of the light serving as the fill light would not. A fabric diffuser can be used to turn a hard light into a soft light, and barn doors can be used to block light from hitting certain areas of the scene. Reflectors or shiny boards can be used both in the studio and in outdoor shoots to provide additional light sources.

The best way to become a master of film lighting basics is practice. Our eyes often overlook lighting problems—our brains compensate for shadows and overly harsh lighting in ways the camera does not. By spending time experimenting with lighting placement—height of lights, distance of lights from the subject, angle of light to subject, type of lights and experiencing how these impact what the camera sees are a good use of your time. Your goal is to be able to see with your naked eye, what the camera will see when you set about lighting a scene. A good lighting director can place lighting equipment perfectly without ever looking at a monitor. Can you?

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