What is three point lighting and why do we use it?

In this article and video I explain the wolfcrow three point lighting system, and more importantly, why we use three point lighting in the first place.

Here’s the video:

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What is three point lighting?

Three point lighting is fundamentally a way of expressing where to place your lights for cinematography and photography.

Unfortunately, over time, people have started using it like a formula, without understanding why it is used in the first place. The old formula goes like this:

  • Key light – the main light in your scene
  • Fill light – to fill in the shadows
  • Hair light – to light the hair

I have taken a decidedly un-formulaic approach, and to do that we need to understand why we use three-point lighting in the first place.

Why do we use three point lighting?

We use three point lighting because it comes from the real world – our sun.

We have to be lit by at least one light, the light that gives us exposure – that’s our key light. No surprises there.

While we move around, we’re hit by various sources of light – secondary sources due but not limited to the following:

  • The sun bouncing through or refracting through different materials
  • Artificial light from man-made sources
  • Reflective or refractive light from man-made sources (like passing through a curtain, umbrella, etc.)

Finally, when we turn our subjects’ backs to the sun, it hits us from behind, and this is backlight. We see this at sunset and sunrise. Backlight causes a rim of light behind the subject, cutting it out from the background. Also, it lights up hair differently.

The wolfcrow three point lighting system

Here’s a quick chart that explains the wolfcrow three point lighting system:

The key light is for exposure and is the main light source. It decides the mood. A “High Key” is when the light is bright and “Low Key” is when it is dark. However, in television and cinema, high key refers to a bright scene with few shadows and low key refers to Chiarscuro lighting.

The second light source is where I make the modification. The second point is the motivated light. It must have some reason to exist:

  • Slash/Kicker light – when there is a light from the side-back
  • Rim – when we backlight from only one side
  • Fill – when the dynamic range of the camera isn’t sufficient to provide the contrast ratio we want
  • Eye light – light that only lifts the eyes
  • Catchlight – light that reflects off the eyes – most cinematographers try to get catchlights in the eyes. Due to our eyes being super shiny, it doesn’t take much to get a reflection. I do not agree with the notion that catchlights makes a person look “alive”. Marlon Brando looked alive and deadly in the Godfather. It’s the way you use catchlights that makes the difference.

The third light is the hair light or backlight.

The most important thing to remember about the three point lighting system is

The three point system is just three ideas on when and how to use lights, not the number of lights you have to use.

When should you not use the three point lighting system?

You’re always using the system, whether you like it or not. You always need one light.

Like I mentioned in the video, it doesn’t matter how many other lights you use, as long as they are motivated by something. It can be a light source, or some emotion you want to convey.

I hope this video and article has helped you understand three-point lighting better.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free swipe file on how to shoot night scenes well (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

4 replies on “What is three point lighting and why do we use it?”

  1. Thanks for this video. I am glad to see it. I found this site because I was looking for an answer to the same question.

  2. Sareesh your theory, thoughts, feelings about three point lighting are, the best way I can describe it, very mature, intellectual and thought provoking. I recently joined your site and I am very excited to review and learn what you have to say. If this, my first video to view, is any indication of the quality of your work then I a very enlightened journey ahead of myself.

    As a side note, your nation is blessed with the most beautiful women in the world.

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