How to Create 3-Point Lighting

It seems obvious that in order to create three-point lighting you would need three lights, but actually you don’t. Before we discuss how to create three-point lighting with less than three lights, let’s discuss what we mean by three-point lighting.

It’s the classic studio lighting setup for headshots. It employs one light (the most powerful light source of the three) as the key light. This is placed above and at an angle to the subject. This will illuminate one side of the subject’s face nicely but will cast shadows on the other side of their face. This is where the fill light comes in. It is placed above and at an angle to subject on the other side from the key light. It is a less powerful light than the key light and is designed to “fill in” the shadows created by the key light. Finally, we have the backlight. This is placed at above and behind the subject and at an angle to them and is the least powerful of the three lights. Its purpose is to separate the subject from the background and add some depth to the image.

A good way to visualize the placement of the three lights is to imagine you are looking down on a studio with a giant clock face on the floor. The subject would be in the middle of the clock. The key light would be at four o’clock, the fill light at eight o’clock and the backlight at between 10 and 11 o’clock or one and two o’clock.

The key light is usually around twice as bright as your fill light. The backlight is usually around 25% as bright as your key light. For instance, let’s say you use a 2k (2000 watts) lamp for your key light. This means your fill light should be between 750 and 1500 watts and your backlight should be around 500 watts depending on the look you are trying to achieve.

In practice, most lighting kits feature lights that are identical, so how do you get a key light that is more powerful than the fill light which in turn is more powerful than the backlight out of this? You could have two of the lights on dimmers. You could put the fill light further away from the subject than the key light as illumination drops off rapidly over distance. You could use scrims or diffusion materials to cut the illumination of your fill and backlight to the appropriate levels.

But let’s say you’re ready to shoot and one of the lights breaks, or the room where you are shooting doesn’t have circuits designed for all the amps and volts that three lights require, or you only own two lights—in short, you need to turn two lights into three in order to achieve a 3-point lighting setup. One way to accomplish this is to setup your key light as normal and then use a reflector, placed where you would normally have the fill light, to bounce light from the key light onto the subject. Voila, you have created a fill light without using a lighting instrument. Then use your remaining light as your backlight.

Alternatively, given the same conditions, you could setup your key light as normal and use a half scrim on your backlight. The portion of the light that is cut by the scrim would be used for the backlight, and the other half of the backlight (the one without the scrim) could be bounced off a reflector to create a fill light.

You can take these concepts even further. For instance, let’s say you are shooting indoors and only have one light. If there is a window in the room you could use it as a key light source. Then a shiny board or reflector on the opposite side of your subject from the window light source, could be used to provide your fill light, leaving your one light to serve as a backlight.

As you can see, depending on your situation, there are numerous ways to achieve 3-point lighting setups, even when you have less than three lights. What is important is to understand the positioning and relative strengths of your key, fill and backlights and then do what you can with what you have to create your three-point lighting.

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