Ready to light your first shot? Learn how to set up a basic three-point lighting arrangement, and discover how the kelvin scale will affect the color temperature of your footage.
Open any book on the practices of filmmaking, and it’s a sure bet that within the first dozen pages, you’ll find a sentence that starts, “With good lighting, any scene…” But what is “good lighting” and how can you achieve it as a beginner? The best place to start is with a three-point lighting setup.
Lighting a scene has an infinite amount of variations and arrangements, but a three-point setup is all you need in the beginning. In this article, we’ll break down the measurement of color temperature on the Kelvin scale and look at the process of setting up a basic three-point lighting kit. This is all the info you need to properly light a shot.
Three-point lighting, of course, is derived from three lighting sources: the key light, the fill light, and the back light. Let’s take a look.
1. The Key Light
The key light will be the primary light source of the scene. The term “key light” isn’t derived from a specific type of light or intensity; it’s merely the main light that illuminates your subject. The light could be a Fresnel fixture, or it could be the sunlight coming through the window. However, in this guide, we’re going to look at the key light as a lighting fixture, not as available light.
Since the key light will set the look of your scene, it’s the first light you’ll want to assemble and place. Conventionally, the key light is placed 45° to the side of the actor or subject, and 45° above. That placement is just a rule of thumb – you can technically place the key light beneath the subject if that fits the tone and direction of the scene.
There are numerous permutations for a lighting setup, and for some circumstances, a sole key light may be enough. Following the conventional 45 degree setup, the light source on the opposite side of the eyeline to the camera. cheek patch which forms on the cheek opposite from the light. With this you can achieve “Rembrandt lighting,” will throw the shadow of the nose across the cheek, leaving a light patch (upside-down triangle) on the cheek. Many cinematographers and photographers prefer this type of lighting.
Key Light Variables
Of course, there are two sides on which you can light the actor. Customarily you will get more photographic results by lighting the actor with a far-side key. What does this mean? Typically in standard coverage, the actor looks either to the left or right of the camera, which is called camera left or camera right. In doing so, you will see one side of their face more prominently than the other. The side of the face that you can clearly see is called the near side, and the far side is, of course, the opposite side of the face that you can’t see as clearly. When lighting for the far side, the key light will push the shadows of the face across onto the near side, creating more contrast and depth to the face
If you place the key on the near side, the light will appear less pleasing. Of course, there is no right or wrong placement, and sometimes the scene may call for a near side key.
Sometimes, however, the key light creates too much heavy contrast and will require a fill light to decrease the contrast ratio.
2. Fill Light
As the name suggests, this light is used to fill in shadowy areas of the face/subject that were created by the key light. Typically you’ll want to use a fill light that is softer and less intense than the key. The goal is to raise part of the face out of the shadows without creating any additional shadows.
As Todd explains in the following Shutterstock tutorial, practicals make for great fill lights.
If you were to use a fill light at the same intensity as the key, your shot might look like the following. Both sides are brightly illuminated, and shadows are being cast from either side of the face. To some extent, it seems like the actor is being illuminated by the flash from a camera.
The amount of fill will dictate the contrast ratio, which will ultimately dictate the mood and tone of the shot. Sometimes you may not want any fill; instead you want the contrast to remain or even increase. However, due to the directionality of the key light the subject may receive light bounced back from an adjacent surface, such as a wall. This ambient light will softly illuminate the face. You can negate this light by using negative fill.
Negative fill is a form of reductive lighting, which means it takes away light. You can create contrast by adding a black flag/frame/floppy of some kind that absorbs light instead of reflecting it.
3. Back Light
The back light, also known as the rim light, is a light that hits the back of the head and shoulders to make the subject stand out from the background. Typically a backlight would be used in darker scenes where the subject would otherwise merge into the dark background. As seen in the still below from Game of Thrones, Jamie is illuminated by a light acting as the fire, but because they are in a dark dungeon, there’s not much other light to be sourced. Without the moonlight coming in from the window, Jamie would be indistinguishable from the dark background, as we can see, his right shoulder has already started to do so.
Using Three-Point Lighting in Filmmaking
While three-point lighting is a fundamental lighting setup for pleasing imagery, it’s not necessarily fitting or practical for all scenes. Three-point lighting produces a clean, by-the-books shot which might not match the intended tone for the scene. There are many critics online that argue that three-point lighting is only ideal for interviews and broadcast. Regardless, this lighting arrangement teaches you the fundamentals of lighting a subject. Your scene always needs a key, and if the scene is dark you know the subject needs a backlight, and if there’s too much contrast? You add a fill light. You can see three-point lighting executed perfectly for an interview in Shutterstock Tutorial’s video on lighting interviews below.
There are numerous lighting arrangements you can add to three-point lighting: a sidelight, hair light, eye light and so on. These can be added to a three-point setup, or positioned in lieu of one of the three point lights. For example, move the key from 45° to 90°, and you have a sidelight (although it’s technically still your key as it’s your primary light source).
This was my shot without any lighting; the actor is only illuminated by the soft sunlight diffused through the window blinds and the ambient light in the background. Before I light, I have to consider the tone of the scene: The character has just returned home from a court hearing where he hasn’t received the verdict he wanted.
To capture this I used a single key light with negative fill positioned to the right of the actor. It creates a stark contrast that clues the viewer into the drama of the moment. Since there’s ambient light in the background that creates depth between the character and wall/window, there was no need for a rim light.If I was to light this scene following the three-point setup directly, it wouldn’t have worked.
Check out more lighting arrangements.
With the increase in consumer-priced LEDs, more people are leaving tungsten-based Fresnel’s in the past and opting for cheaper, brighter, and more energy-saving alternatives. However, there’s one big difference between the two formats — the color temperature.
The Kelvin Scale
The color of light is measured along a Kelvin scale, from 1000k to 10,000k. This quote from Harry C. Box from the Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook perfectly summarizes the methodology.
You may be wondering why the Kelvin scale (a temperature scale) is used to quantify color balance. In order to give us a fixed reference point, scientists decided to compare the color makeup of any source to that of a theoretical “perfect black body radiator” when it is heated. The idea is that light is emitted when a substance is heated. How much it is heated determines the color makeup of the light. When heated a little, it glows red. Heated more it becomes orange, then yellow, and then gradually less yellow and more pale blue, and finally brilliant blue.
To summarize even further, color with a lower kelvin appears more red, while a higher number represents a more blue look. The temperature scale begins around the 1000K range, which you can equate to the look of a candle flame or match fire. This is actually an easy way to remember the Kelvin scale — the lower numbers are related to fire, which is red and orange.
With that, you can see how the Kelvin scale correlates to specific lighting equipment. Tungsten based lights, like an Arri 650 Fresnel, would typically have a temperature that sits around 3200k. You can obtain LEDs with a temperature of 3200k, but for the most part they are daylight balanced. Daylight fluctuates between 5500k-5700k and will decrease to as low as 2000k-2500k at dusk and dawn, or increase as high as 7000k on an overcast day.
Balancing Color Temperature
In my example shot, the ambient light through the rear windows and the blinds at the front is daylight balanced (it’s daylight after all), and the tungsten fresnels I used are 3200k.
To balance this, I had to apply a correction gel. They come in two forms: CTO and CTB, or color temperature orange and color temperature blue. These gels redistribute the spectrum by decreasing the concentration of selected wavelengths from the light. If you’re using two 3200k fresnels and one daylight-balanced LED, with the goal to balance all lights to daylight, you will need to apply CTB gel to the 3200k lights to unify the colors. When you light a scene, make sure you’re matching the color temperatures.
Looking for more lighting tips and tricks? Check these out.
- Cinematography Tips: 10 Things Beginners Need to Know About Lighting
- Cinematography Tips: How to Use Additive and Reductive Lighting
- The Ultimate Guide to Artificial, Natural, and Mixed Lighting
- Video Breakdown: How to Minimize Your Lighting Setup on Set
- Production Tips for Lighting Your Next Interview Shoot