Three-point lighting

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A typical three-point lighting setup 3 point lighting.svg
A typical three-point lighting setup

Three-point lighting is a standard method used in visual media such as theatre, video, film, still photography and computer-generated imagery. [1] By using three separate positions, the photographer can illuminate the shot's subject (such as a person) however desired, while also controlling (or eliminating entirely) the shading and shadows produced by direct lighting.


The key light , as the name suggests, shines directly upon the subject and serves as its principal illuminator; more than anything else, the strength, color and angle of the key determines the shot's overall lighting design.

In indoor shots, the key is commonly a specialized lamp, or a camera's flash. In outdoor daytime shots, the Sun often serves as the key light. In this case, of course, the photographer cannot set the light in the exact position they want, so instead arranges the shot to best capture the sunlight, perhaps after waiting for the sun to position itself just right.

A portrait with three-point lighting: a 300 watt key light, a 150 watt back light, and fill light from a bounce board Example portrait with three-point lighting, by James Jeffrey.jpg
A portrait with three-point lighting: a 300 watt key light, a 150 watt back light, and fill light from a bounce board
An animated demonstration of three-point lighting

The fill light also shines on the subject, but from a side angle relative to the key and is often placed at a lower position than the key (about at the level of the subject's face). It balances the key by illuminating shaded surfaces, and lessening or eliminating chiaroscuro effects, such as the shadow cast by a person's nose upon the rest of the face. It is usually softer and less bright than the key light (up to half), and more to a flood. Not using a fill at all can result in stark contrasts (due to shadows) across the subject's surface, depending upon the key light's harshness. Sometimes, as in low-key lighting, this is a deliberate effect, but shots intended to look more natural and less stylistic require a fill.

In some situations a photographer can use a reflector (such as a piece of white cardstock mounted off-camera, or even a white-painted wall) as a fill light instead of an actual lamp. Reflecting and redirecting the key light's rays back upon the subject from a different angle can cause a softer, subtler effect than using another lamp.

The backlight (a.k.a. the rim, hair, or shoulder light) shines on the subject from behind, often (but not necessarily) to one side or the other. It gives the subject a rim of light, serving to separate the subject from the background and highlighting contours.

Back light or rim light is different from a kick in that a kick (or kicker) contributes to a portion of the shading on the visible surface of the subject, while a rim light only creates a thin outline around the subject without necessarily hitting the front (visible) surface of the subject at all.

In theatre

A three-point system in theatre can be used in a variety of ways to help set a mood of the character. By having bright key light, but minimal fill and back light, this will give the effect of anger, whereas if the scene is very brightly lit with little shadow on the actor, this can make the scene look very happy.

Four-point lighting

A typical four-point lighting setup 4 point lighting.svg
A typical four-point lighting setup

The addition of a fourth light, the background light , makes for a four-point lighting setup.

The background light is placed behind the subject(s), on a high grid, or low to the ground. Unlike the other three lights, which illuminate foreground elements like actors and props, it illuminates background elements, such as walls or outdoor scenery. This technique can be used to eliminate shadows cast by foreground elements onto the background, or to draw more attention to the background. It also helps to off-set the single eye nature of the camera, this means that it helps the camera give depth to the subject.

Related Research Articles

The film industry is built upon many technologies and techniques, drawing upon photography, stagecraft, music, and many other disciplines. Following is an index of specific terminology applicable thereto.

Chroma key Compositing technique

Chroma key compositing, or chroma keying, is a visual effects/post-production technique for compositing (layering) two images or video streams together based on colour hues. The technique has been used in many fields to remove a background from the subject of a photo or video – particularly the newscasting, motion picture, and video game industries. A colour range in the foreground footage is made transparent, allowing separately filmed background footage or a static image to be inserted into the scene. The chroma keying technique is commonly used in video production and post-production. This technique is also referred to as colour keying, colour-separation overlay, or by various terms for specific colour-related variants such as green screen, blue screen and magic pink; chroma keying can be done with backgrounds of any colour that are uniform and distinct, but green and blue backgrounds are more commonly used because they differ most distinctly in hue from most human skin colours. No part of the subject being filmed or photographed may duplicate the colour used as the backing.

Light meter photographic equipment

A light meter is a device used to measure the amount of light. In photography, a light meter is often used to determine the proper exposure for a photograph. Typically a light meter will include either digital or analog electronic circuit, which allows the photographer to determine which shutter speed and f-number should be selected for an optimum exposure, given a certain lighting situation and film speed.

Forced perspective Optical illusion

Forced perspective is a technique which employs optical illusion to make an object appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it actually is. It manipulates human visual perception through the use of scaled objects and the correlation between them and the vantage point of the spectator or camera. It has uses in photography, filmmaking and architecture.

Lighting deliberate use of light to achieve a practical or aesthetic effect

Lighting or illumination is the deliberate use of light to achieve practical or aesthetic effects. Lighting includes the use of both artificial light sources like lamps and light fixtures, as well as natural illumination by capturing daylight. Daylighting is sometimes used as the main source of light during daytime in buildings. This can save energy in place of using artificial lighting, which represents a major component of energy consumption in buildings. Proper lighting can enhance task performance, improve the appearance of an area, or have positive psychological effects on occupants.

Flash (photography) device used in photography to produce a flash of artificial light

A flash is a device used in photography producing a flash of artificial light at a color temperature of about 5500 K to help illuminate a scene. A major purpose of a flash is to illuminate a dark scene. Other uses are capturing quickly moving objects or changing the quality of light. Flash refers either to the flash of light itself or to the electronic flash unit discharging the light. Most current flash units are electronic, having evolved from single-use flashbulbs and flammable powders. Modern cameras often activate flash units automatically.

Contre-jour photographic technique

Contre-jour is a photographic technique in which the camera is pointing directly toward a source of light and an equivalent technique of painting. It was also used in paintings prior to its use in photography, where the shadows would fall to the left on the left, to the right on the right and forward in the lower centre. The edges of the subject would show surprising colour effects.

Shading depicting depth through varying levels of darkness

Shading refers to the depiction of depth perception in 3D models or illustrations by varying the level of darkness.

Underwater photography Genre of photography

Underwater photography is the process of taking photographs while under water. It is usually done while scuba diving, but can be done while diving on surface supply, snorkeling, swimming, from a submersible or remotely operated underwater vehicle, or from automated cameras lowered from the surface.

Compositing combining of visual elements from separate sources into single images

Compositing is the combining of visual elements from separate sources into single images, often to create the illusion that all those elements are parts of the same scene. Live-action shooting for compositing is variously called "chroma key", "blue screen", "green screen" and other names. Today, most, though not all, compositing is achieved through digital image manipulation. Pre-digital compositing techniques, however, go back as far as the trick films of Georges Méliès in the late 19th century, and some are still in use.

Fill flash photographic technique

Fill flash is a photographic technique used to brighten deep shadow areas, typically outdoors on sunny days, though the technique is useful any time the background is significantly brighter than the subject of the photograph, particularly in backlit subjects. To use fill flash, the aperture and shutter speed are adjusted to correctly expose the background, and the flash is fired to lighten the foreground.

Key light first light in a photographic or filmmaking lighting scheme

The key light is the first and usually most important light that a photographer, cinematographer, lighting cameraman, or other scene composer will use in a lighting setup. The purpose of the key light is to highlight the form and dimension of the subject. The key light is not a rigid requirement; omitting the key light can result in a silhouette effect. Many key lights may be placed in a scene to illuminate a moving subject at opportune moments.

Fill light

In television, film, stage, or photographic lighting, a fill light may be used to reduce the contrast of a scene to match the dynamic range of the recording media and record the same amount of detail typically seen by eye in average lighting and considered normal. From that baseline of normality using more or less fill will make shadows seem lighter or darker than normal which will cause the viewer to react differently, by inferring both environmental and mood clues from the tone of the shadows.

A background light is used to illuminate the background area of a set. The background light will also provide separation between the subject and the background. Many lighting setups follow a three-point lighting or four-point lighting setup. Four-point lighting is the same as three-point lighting with the addition of a background light. In a four-point lighting, the background light is placed last and is usually placed directly behind the subject and pointed at the background. By adding a background light to a set, filmmakers can add a sense of depth to shots.

This article contains a list of cinematic techniques that are divided into categories and briefly described.

Rembrandt lighting lighting technique that is used in studio portrait photography

Rembrandt lighting is a lighting technique that is used in studio portrait photography. It can be achieved using one light and a reflector, or two lights, and is popular because it is capable of producing images which appear both natural and compelling with a minimum of equipment. Rembrandt lighting is characterized by an illuminated triangle under the eye of the subject on the less illuminated side of the face. It is named for the Dutch painter Rembrandt, who often used this type of lighting.

Backlighting (lighting design) lighting

In lighting design, backlighting is the process of illuminating the subject from the back. In other words, the lighting instrument and the viewer face each other, with the subject in between. This creates a glowing effect on the edges of the subject, while other areas are darker. The backlight can be a natural or artificial source of light. When artificial, the back light is usually placed directly behind the subject in a 4-point lighting setup. A back light, which lights foreground elements from the rear, is not to be confused with a background light, which lights background elements.

Portrait photography photography genre

Portrait photography or portraiture in photography is a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses. A portrait picture might be artistic, or it might be clinical, as part of a medical study. Frequently, portraits are commissioned for special occasions, such as weddings or school events. Portraits can serve many purposes, from usage on a personal Web site to display in the lobby of a business.

Reflector (photography) reflective surface used to redirect light towards a given subject or scene, used in photography

In photography and cinematography, a reflector is an improvised or specialised reflective surface used to redirect light towards a given subject or scene.

Photographic lighting illumination of scenes to be photographed

Photographic lighting is the illumination of scenes to be photographed. A photograph simply records patterns of light, color, and shade; lighting is all-important in controlling the image. In many cases even illumination is desired to give an accurate rendition of the scene. In other cases the direction, brightness, and color of light are manipulated for effect. Lighting is particularly important for monochrome photography, where there is no color information, only the interplay of highlights and shadows. Lighting and exposure are used to create effects such as low-key and high-key.