The old 3 point lighting concept often gets a bad rap. Equated with painting by numbers, a sort of fallback option if you don’t have any creative ideas.
These views of 3 point lighting are generally based on its most simple form. Rather than this being a restrictive set of limits, it is really just the baby steps of what can be achieved with 3 point lighting.
There are some lighting techniques that are not part of the 3 point structure such as dress lights and eye lights but almost all lighting setups use the 3 point structure, even if you think you’re not doing it. Understanding what’s going on frees us from trial and error lighting and gives us more power to be creative with lighting choices.
The concepts of Key, Fill & Back lights are pretty easy at their most basic level. The Key light provides enough illumination to get the correct exposure. The Fill light adds light to control the shadows created by the key and to prevent them being too dark. The Backlight is positioned behind the subject to create a lighter edge to separate the subject from the background. You’ll notice that I’m not talking about specific lamps in this article. The reason is that these techniques can be applied with any lamp type and they will simply be flavoured with the characteristics of that source.
With these basic concepts in mind, let’s explore how far we can push these three humble sources. For this discussion I will focus mainly on lighting faces because these techniques translate well to most other subjects and faces are one of the most important things many of us shoot.
You may have seen a diagram similar to this one, explaining a standard 3 light setup. The important thing to remember about these classic examples is that they can be to 3 point lighting, what a smiley face is the the Mona Lisa!!
I was taught that the best way to think about lighting is to start with the eyes and work your way out. No matter how big the shot, if you start by thinking about the subject’s eyes it will set you up well to make everything else fall into place. To do that we rely on the key light.
The Key Light
The first thing to get past when we think about the key light is the idea that it’s about getting an exposure. It sounds like a cliche, but I mean this in a very literal sense… the key light’s job is to create shadows.
Of course, it is important to get an adequate exposure but beyond that the much more interesting and creative process of deciding what sort of shadows you want and where they should fall.
Shadows are what gives the image it’s character and style. They give 3-dimensional shapes a presence on a 2 dimensional screen (3D’s a whole other story!)
So if we start with lighting the eyes, the first decision is do we want both eyes to be illuminated by the key light?
For a bright, high-key feel, you could have the key light close to the angle of the subject’s gaze with a very small shadow from the nose. For a very dramatic, low key scene you might choose to have one eye and therefore one whole side of the face in shadow while the other is fully lit.
Straight away this takes us out from the eyes to the nose and the other features of the face.
An easy way work out where to place your key light is to look at the subject’s face and imagine where you want the shadow from the tip of their nose to fall. Then draw an imaginary line from the point of the shadow to the tip of their nose and keep going. Somewhere on the straight line is where you want your key light.
A general rule of thumb for attractive lighting is that the shadow of the nose should not go as low as their top lip and should not be higher than the base of the nose.
Not that we can’t break those rules… we just want to be conscious that we’re making a statement when we do and might not be taking the best care of our subject.
Beyond the nose you want to look at the subject’s other facial features and think about how you can use the angle of the key light to accentuate or minimise certain features. Cinematographers of talk of painting with light and in this sense we paint the shadows on with the key light as our brush.
The next step away from the classic diagram is that in situations outside of a presenter talking to camera (…or a singer) the subject is rarely facing directly to the camera. What happens then is that the apparently logical choice is to set the lights relative to the camera and let the subject face where they need to.
The problem with this is that we’re meant to be lighting the subject. In the classic scenario simply turning the subject and leaving the lighting setup the same results in completely flat (usually unattractive) lighting.
So to retain the relationship between the key light and the face of the subject, the key light needs to be be positioned relative to where the subject is looking.
When the subject is looking in more than one direction during a scene we have a couple of choices.
The most obvious is to set the ideal lighting for the direction where they are looking most. Of course, we then need to make sure that this will still work for the other angles as well, but keeping the emphasis on where they look more often.
A more dramatic or poignant choice can be to set the best lighting for where they’re looking at the most important moment of the shot. For example if the subject is looking at a picture through most of the scene and then eventually turn and make contact with their long lost friend, lighting for that moment when they make eye contact can be particularly powerful.
This can also work well in reverse, where they are lit nicely through most of the scene and then turn into shadow at the appropriate moment. In this way lighting can both draw from and add to the actor’s performance.
Another issue that doesn’t come up in the classic example but becomes critical as soon as the subject turns their eyeline away from camera is which side of the face to key from?
The temptation in most rooms is to key from the same side of the face as the camera position. The problem with this is that our beautiful shadows are all falling on the side of the face that we see least of.
In this example, even though I have set very dramatic side lighting, relative to the actor’s eyeline, the overall effect is still quite flat . In small rooms this sort of setup will usually result in harsh shadows on the walls, even if a soft light source is being used.
By moving either the camera or the key light to the opposite side of the subject’s face will produce a much more interesting and dramatic look, with much less drastic lighting angles.
It will also usually cause the shadows to fall on a wall that is off camera or even dissipate into the middle of the room, making it much quicker and easier to control the light background and prevent it overwhelming the subject.
In this example of lighting from the off-camera side you can see that the shadows are much more visible even though the lighting itself is much more high key, with relatively small shadow areas.
As an aside, Butch Calderwood ACS OAM commented to me about ten years ago that over the decades he had noticed that, all things being equal, right handed cinematographers tend to key from the right and left handers from the left. I’m not sure how this would hold up to a statistical study but I certainly catch myself doing sometimes!
Coming up in Part 2:
In Part-2 we’ll explore the fill light and backlight and a few tricks for lighting in tricky situations.
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Ben Allan ACS