L ight is one of the most important things in image composition – whether you’re making a film or taking a photograph. Light is used to create atmosphere, shape images and convey moods. But to put someone in the right light, there are endless possibilities. Especially for beginners, the task of "setting light" does not always seem easy.
Therefore, it is particularly important to know the basics of light setting – The 3-point lighting. Because if you master it correctly, you can achieve good results with just a few light sources, create atmosphere and tension, and create captivating images.
Table of contents
The basics of lighting
Many beginners in the field of film think that good lighting has something to do with brightness, but this is deceptive – the exact opposite is the case!
Good lighting includes not only light and brightness, but also shadows and darkness. Because it is the play of light and shadow that creates unmistakable atmospheric images.
The 3-point lighting – An explanatory film on the subject of light
As part of my training as a media designer for sound and vision, I made an explanatory film on the subject of 3-point lighting. The video explains the most basic aspects of light placement. In the following article, I go into more detail about the individual elements of 3-point lighting.
The guide light
The guide light is the main light of the illumination. It is the strongest and most important light within a scene and determines the direction from which the actual light comes. This direction is called "lighting angle".
The lighting angle, so the direction from which the guide light comes depends on the position of the camera. In concrete terms, this means that the position of the camera should first be determined in order to carry out the illumination correctly.
The guide light is at an angle of about 45 degrees next to the camera. In addition, the guide light is set slightly from above, since natural light, such as the sun, also always comes from above.
In an interview or. of a close-up of a person, the light is set on the side of the face facing away from the camera in such a way that the shadow of the nose falls obliquely downwards. This enhances the three-dimensional structure of the face and creates a natural angle of light. However, care should be taken that the light quality is not too harsh. A softer light can be created with foils such as "frost foil".
If the guide light is set too high or too low, the illumination looks abnormal. The same applies if the guide light is placed on the side of the face facing the camera. Again, you lose depth and the three-dimensional structure in the image. By the way: If a person sits frontally to the camera, the side of the face facing away from the camera is the side where there is more space to the edge of the image.
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The brightening (fill light)
The brightening is an essential element within the 3-point lighting system. It is mainly used to reduce the shadows, which are created by the guide light.
For this reason, the fill light is usually a very soft light, much weaker than the leading light (so as not to deprive the lead of its dominance) but still bright enough to brighten the dark areas.
The relationship between guide light and fill light
There are quite different and individual views about the relationship between guiding light and filling light. While in a classic interview situation, a ratio of 2:1 – 4:1 is usually used, in Hollywood films you can even find ratios of 8:1 and more. In the classic interview situation, this means that the highlight may only be half as bright as the guide light. This corresponds to a difference of about one f-stop for most cameras. The ratio of 8:1 significantly increases contrasts and creates more tension in the image.
So there are clear differences in relation to the situation, the shooting location and the purpose of the production. But be careful: In principle, the ratio should not fall below 2:1, otherwise the object can no longer be modeled with light.
To optimally brighten the dark areas, the fill light is positioned on the other side of the camera (where the shadows are) at an angle between 15 – 60 degrees to the camera-object axis.
In order to naturally brighten the shadows of the guide light, it is a good idea to use indirect brightening to create an even softer light than would be possible with frost foil, for example. "Indirect light" in this context means that the spotlight is not directed directly at the shadows, but away from the object onto a wall or reflector, on which the light is then reflected, making it even softer, more uniform and unobtrusive. Good highlighting should be perceived as natural in the finished image and should not be obviously recognizable as a light source.
The highlight (edge)
The highlight, also called edge or back light, is the third element in 3-point illumination. The task of the highlight is to make the object stand out more clearly from the background and thus to separate the foreground more clearly from the background. This emphasizes the three-dimensional structure of the object more clearly and at the same time creates more depth in the image.
In a classic interview situation, the highlight creates a glowing ring of light that extends from the back of the head to the shoulder area. Naturally, the half of the body where the highlight is located is illuminated more than the other side of the body.
In addition, the light quality is usually direct and hard, that is, no foil or indirect light is used to soften the light. However, if the highlight is too close to the subject and there is therefore a risk that it will be significantly brighter than the guiding light, the use of foils is certainly an option.
The highlight is located behind the object and therefore usually exactly opposite the guide light. The light comes best from diagonally above at an angle of between 15 and 45 degrees in order to optimally create a ring of light around the object.
Ratio of guide light and highlight light
As with fill light, there are different views and opinions about the ratio of guide light and highlight light. But the most important thing is that the highlight can fulfill its task optimally. This is usually done with a ratio of at least 2:1 to 1:1.
In some lighting situations, it may be justified to make the highlight brighter than the guide light. Because since the highlight light is behind the object resp. of the person, it cannot replace the guiding light in any way. And this is fundamentally important in order to create the modeling shadows in the first place. However, in these cases, the highlight should not be too much brighter than the guide light, otherwise a certain effect is created that is rather unusual for 3-point lighting. More on this below.
Rules are made to be broken!
It takes some hands-on experience to master the basics of 3-point lighting. I, too, had to experience this myself often enough and had to shoot many settings over and over again.
But if you master the basics of 3-point lighting and know the rules, you can start to consciously break these rules. This allows you to create new atmospheres and gives you more artistic freedom in setting the light.
Here are three examples of how to deliberately break the rules.
Omit the brightening
If the brightening is completely omitted, very strong contrasts are created when illuminating the object. However, since the three-dimensional structure of the object is mainly formed by guide light and highlight light, this case is not at all as rare as one might think.
A good example is Hollywood. Here, especially in the low-key area, i.e. in scenes where there should generally be little light, fill light is often used with a ratio of only 16:1 or even not at all. For example, when the character of a vicious protagonist is to be emphasized by light. In the movie Sin City this is often used.
The guide light is behind the subject
When illuminating a person, if the guide light is behind the person, the silhouette of the head is emphasized. Although it is then in the position of the highlight, this is called an upstage key light.
The use of an upstage guide light has a dramatic effect on the impact of the scene and should be chosen wisely. It is appropriate, for example, when someone is to be portrayed in a gloomy way, as this puts the face more in the shadow. But even if a person in the film stands with his back to the sun, most of the time the face is just as bright as the highlight created by the sun.
The highlight as the brightest light
A very strong highlight should not be confused with the upstage leading light. The difference is as follows: while an upstage guide light usually also illuminates part of the face, a very strong highlight light creates a strong ring of light around the subject.
In film, this is often used to make a person or situation seem supernatural or special. In the movie A.I. – Artificial intelligence by Spielberg the boy David is often characterized with such a light, because he is an artificial being and not a real human boy.
A distantly related concept is, for example, the backlight situation at a sunset. Because the exposure is set to the background, often only the silhouette of a person is recognizable, which is emphasized by a strong ring of light. But this should also be used deliberately to convey a certain atmosphere to a scene.
– The 3-point lighting is the basis of light setting in film and photography.
– In a well-lit scene, each light serves a very specific purpose.
– It is often used in interviews.
– If you know the basic rules, you can deliberately break them.
The guiding light
– The guide light is the main light of illumination.
– The guide light is at an angle of approx. 45 degrees beside the camera and coming from diagonally above.
– It is placed on the side of faces facing away from the camera during interviews and in movies.
– The brightening reduces the shadows created by the leading light and lightens them up.
– The fill light is placed on the other side of the camera, between 15 – 60 degrees from the camera-object axis.
– In interview situations, the optimal ratio of guide light and fill light is 2:1.
– To make the light softer, the light is often set indirectly.
– The peak (edge) is opposite the guide light.
– The task is to make objects stand out better from the background and get more depth in the picture.