Lighting Basics

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

The simplest explanation of the three-point lighting system and more importantly, why 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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Essay contributed by Josephine Babirye.

What is three point lighting?

Three-point lighting is basically a method or a type of lighting setup where you have three distinct light source positions to illuminate a subject in a scene.

It is not a formula or a set standard, but rather a guide as to how and where to place your light sources so as to light your subject and scene.

The placement of your lights in this lighting setup helps create different moods for your image.

We’ll get into this in more detail as we describe the different lights in the setup. You have three distinct lights or light positions;

  1. The Key Light
  2. The Fill Light
  3. The Backlight

The Key Light

This is your main source of light, and is the brightest light in your scene.

The key light is what will give you your scene and subject it’s overall exposure.

Usually, it’s placed in front of the subject, and is often off to one side to create some dimension and depth.

The shadows created by setting it off-center to your subject are what create the depth and dimension.

How you decide to place your Key light is very important because it sets the mood of your scene. The fill and the backlight just help you shape the scene better to bring out he mood. More on this in just a bit.

Depending on how far off center you place the key light, you could end up with anything from a high-key image to a low-key image.

What, you may ask, is a low-key and a high-key image?

Well, a high-key image is one where the shadows on the subjects face and in the scene in general are very light and soft, almost nonexistent.

The overall lighting is generally very even and low contrast. This is achieved by having your key and fill light at almost the same brightness.

This cancels out almost all shadows on your subject.

On the other hand, a low-key image is the exact opposite. The image has high contrast, deep shadows and is often very moody.

Now that we’ve covered what the key light is and the role it plays, let’s move on to the fill light and the backlight.

The Fill Light

This is your second source of light.

It’s usually much dimmer than the key light, and is used to fill in any shadows created by the key light.

The reason you may want to use a fill light is to retain some detail in the shadow areas and to reduce the overall contrast of the scene.

The fill light also comes in handy to create a catch-light in the subject’s eye, which helps to give the character a more “alive” look.

This light is doesn’t always have to be an actual light. It could be a reflector, a bounce card, a wall, or anything that will bounce back some light onto the subject to fill in the shadows.

Your fill light works together with your key light to determine the mood of the image you’re creating.

How bright your fill light is can also depend on the character you’re lighting; are they male or female? Are they a sinister character or a bright and chirpy character?

For example, female characters are often lit with a brighter fill to create more softness on their faces, even if the scene may be dark and moody.

The Backlight

This is your third and final source of light in a three-point lighting setup.

It’s usually placed behind the subject, sometimes off to one side, directly behind or overhead but still behind the subject.

The backlight is used to create separation between the subject and the background so that they don’t disappear into it.

It achieves this by creating a “highlight” around the outline of the subject.

By the way, a backlight is different from a background light, which normally lights the background of the scene, and not the character.

It’s not a formula!

Three-point lighting is not a fixed standard or a formula, but rather a guide on light position and placement.

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

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

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.

How to achieve a three-point lighting setup

The ‘standard’ three-point setup typically has the key and the fill light set up at about 45 degrees to either side of the subject with the camera in between them.

The backlight is then be placed opposite the key light just outside the frame to create separation since that side of the frame would be darker.

Once you grasp the general concept of this lighting setup, you can play around with it, as well as other lighting techniques, to create different effects in your videos.

A few things to note

1. There are other kinds of light placements too

Some of the names you’ll hear are rim light, side light, eye light, catch light, a slash or kicker light, to name but a few. These are specific lighting styles and enhance or modify the three-point lighting system.

2. Your lighting setup helps bring dimension to your character.

Three-point lighting also helps you sculpt and shape your subject to bring out the best or worst of them.

For example, placing a soft key light slightly off center with a 2:1 fill ratio creates a soft flattering look that also tends to hide blemishes in the skin when your subjects are people.

The light wraps around curves and contours and accentuates them.

Moving the key further out and making it a harder light brings out the shape and structure of something more, while also giving the illusion of strength, or something solid.

Wait, what’s a fill ratio again?

This is simply the ratio between the brightness of the key and the fill light. A 2:1 fill means that the key light is twice as bright as the fill.

Make sense? Good. Let’s move on.

3. Your light needs to be motivated.

When you’re thinking about where the source of light in a scene is coming from, it needs to make sense.

This is often referred to as the “motivation” of your light source.

What in the world is motivation of light?

Well, look at it this way.

Your character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They are interacting with their environment.

The environment often has light in it as well, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see it. Because of this, how you light your subject needs to make sense in relation to the environment.

We perceive film much the same way we perceive real life, so anything out of the ordinary will stand out, whereas motivated lighting will make more sense because it’s what we’re used to seeing.

This is what it means for light to be motivated.

Here are a couple of scenarios.

Let’s say your character is out on a picnic in the evening, and the sun is setting behind them. Naturally they’re going to have soft, fairly even warm lighting on their faces, so you’ll place the key and fill light to be similar in color temperature and intensity so you can clearly their face.

And because the sun is setting behind them, you probably want to have a bright backlight placed behind them to highlight their hair and shoulders.

Here’s another example.

Let’s say your character is sitting in front of a window at night. You’ll automatically know that there is probably a ceiling light above them, and if the window is open, then there’s some moonlight streaming in.

So with this in mind, you can set up your key and fill lights to be warmer to match the ceiling light, and set up the backlight to be cooler so it matches the moonlight streaming in through the window.

Again, like everything else, using motivated light is more of a guideline than a rule. You can have unmotivated light to create different effects.

For example, in a horror scene you can have your light setup to be completely unnatural, unmotivated colors and placements to enhance the feeling that something just isn’t right.

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.

Final tips

Whether your light is a fill, back light or the key, its position and direction relative to the scene will determine how well you can sell the shot as ‘natural’.

But again remember, it’s not set in stone. The important thing is to understand what three-point lighting is, how to motivate your lights, and then turn everything upside down to create striking visuals.

Now I know that I said the source of light needs to make sense, but when your motivation isn’t the natural look of things but the emotion of the scene, things change a little. You can place the lights wherever you feel and shape the scene and subject as you see fit to communicate a specific emotion.

You’re not entirely bound by the fact that the light placement needs to be motivated by real life. You can create and enhance emotions just by how you place the lights while still maintaining a three-point light setup.

If you’re a beginner, what I recommend is that you first stick to the basics of the three-point lighting system. Once you’re comfortable with it, then start to break up the “rules”.

Use just a key light, for example. Or maybe use a key light and a backlight and skip the fill.

Study movies that you watch and ask yourself a few questions;

What’s the mood of the scene?

How was the lighting used to enhance the mood?

Who is the character in the scene, and how was the light used to bring out their character traits?

I hope this information was useful to you, and that you’ll keep it in mind the next time you need to light a scene.

What was your biggest takeaway from this post? Let me know in the comments down below.

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 has helped you understand three-point lighting better.

Exclusive Bonus: Download your FREE list: 25 Proven DIY and Cheap Lighting Gear that actually delivers cinematic results (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

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

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.

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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