Join Chad Perkins for an in-depth discussion in this video Mastering three point lighting, part of Creating a Short Film: 07 Cinematography.
- Folks, we now get to talk about lighting, finally. Let me tell you, the magic of cinematography is really in the lighting, but you know it can be so daunting. I mean where do you put the lights? There's infinite possibilities, and unfortunately there's not really a simple answer to that question, as we'll learn as we go throughout this course. But that's kind of where the art of cinematography is really found. One of the great rules of thumb to keep in mind is something called three point lighting. This consists of a main light, which is also called a key light, a fill light, and a back light.
Now if you've ever heard of this concept before, or seen the tutorial on it, you've probably seen the same technique demonstrated exactly the same way over and over again. There's subject that sits in the middle of the frame. One light is over on this side, fill light's on the opposite side, with the back light behind the subject's head. Now the problem here is that this is a shot you'll probably never see in a film. So the idea of three point lighting is often taught as a technique, but it's not a lighting technique, it's a set of lighting principles.
Setting up lights always starts with the key light, this is the main source of lighting in the scene. Now this might be all you need. Here we have our model Lucy lit from above by one light. That's our key light. Now I love this look, and there is no rule that says we need to add anything else if we're happy with the way it looks. If it looks right, it is right, assuming you have a proper exposure. Sometimes though, the key will be too strong and harsh on one side, it will create shadows that are too intense.
We can see that on our model Bitsy here. So we added what is called a fill light on the other side of her. This is usually a bigger, softer light source that primarily just lightens the shadows. For commercial video work, or maybe something kind of lighthearted like a family comedy, you might want a stronger fill, so that there's less of a difference, less contrast between the key and the fill lights. In this shot from The Muppets for example, the key light is coming from frame right and above, like maybe at the top of the staircase or something, and the fill light is coming from the left side of the frame.
Now I suppose that the difference between the key and fill in this case is usually more than it is in lighthearted films or family films, but it's still nothing like you might find in say, Silence of the Lambs for example. Here the shadows are much darker, and the contrast between the key and the fill is much larger, which creates a more dramatic look. Later in this series, we'll look at blocking and shaping light, but you could also just use a single light as they key, and then bounce, or in other words, reflect some of that key light back onto the subject.
This is another way to create fill. Again, this is just using a single light source. The third point in three point lighting is the back light, basically a light coming from behind the subject. This creates an elegant outline around the subject, making them stand out from the background. Note that this can also be called a rim light, a kicker, an edge light, but essentially these terms all mean the same basic thing. Now here's what Bitsy looks like with just a back light. Now I love this look, it's super mysterious, and in some cases, a back light might be your key light.
You keep it just as a single light source, or maybe add some fill. So here's our shoot with full three point lighting. Here's they key light, the fill, and the back light, but again you can use these in any combination. For example, some people like to put the back light on the same side as the key light, or have the back light coming from above, like in this shot in Ben Hur. I generally prefer to put the back light on the opposite side of the key, because it creates this awesome staggering of light and dark, I love that.
Now let's see some examples of these concepts in action. In the hut scene in The Assurance, the lighting was motivated by the big door opening, and also this little window back here. Now we'll talk about lighting motivation in the next tutorial, but essentially, the door opening was our key light, and this little window motivated our back light. Of course we also used lights to supplement the light coming through these openings so that we had more control over the look of our scene.
So this is two point lighting. A key light and a back light. We also used two point lighting for this shot in the council scene. We had this big light as the key light, and our gaffer Chris Taylor hung up a light on this side as kind of an edge light, or in other words, a back light. Now technically this is two point lighting, but remember that any time you're shooting exterior shots during the daytime, you're also probably going to have fill from the sunlight, bouncing around everywhere. Now let's look at this in a few bigger budget films.
In Fellowship of the Ring, during Bilbo's birthday party, we see this shot of Frodo. To determine where the key light is, I simply study the face to see the brightest parts of the face and where they are, and where the shadows are. This shadow on Frodo's nose tells us that they key light is coming from the right side of the frame. But the disparity in brightness between his right and left cheeks isn't that great, so we know that there's some fill coming from the left side of the frame. So that's two point lighting. But in this case, we also have a third point, notice this kind of halo around the fringes of his curly hair, which indicates that there's a back light coming from behind him.
When we see Bilbo a few seconds later, the key and fill are reversed, with key on frame left and the fill on frame right, and the contrast between the key and the fill is a little stronger here, but we see a very similar use of three point lighting. We see key, fill, and back light. Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon used natural light sources, but the concepts still apply. Here we have a soft key coming from the right side of the frame, and we don't really have much discernible fill, other than the light bouncing around everywhere.
We also have a back light coming from behind the subject. On the reverse, we only have just a single light source, just that key. In The Body Snatcher, we have this shot, which also only has a single light source. Now in the reverses, that light source becomes the key light, but in the master shot, this light serves as a back light. So the point here is that three point lighting is not a lighting technique, but instead it's a way to think about the lights in your scene.
As you can tell from all these examples, you can have any combination of these lights that you want, whatever your scene calls for.
- Understanding exposure
- Getting coverage
- Diffusing, blocking, and shaping light
- Shooting at night
- Using wide and long lenses
- Telling stories with camera movement
- Framing the shot
- Using mobile cinematography apps
- Mastering cinematic lighting
- Using common grip equipment
- Lighting people in a flattering way
- Achieving a shallow depth of field
- Creating more cinematic shots
- Working as a Director of Photography