Video Lighting: 3-Point Camera Lighting

5 min

3_pt_fullIn today’s post I’m going to discuss lighting and specifically 3 point lighting.  I will be talking about creating shadows and intensity of light.


So the question that has to be asked.  Is lighting really necessary for today’s cameras?


In a word – YES.  In fact, I’d say absolutely if you want the images on the screen to really be impactful on your viewers.


 The next time you’re watching prime-time evening television, have a critical eye at how impressive the images look on the top rated shows. I’m referring to any of the reality or drama type series that are currently running on air.  These shows all have a brilliant, vivid appearance to them.  They feel almost 3 dimensional.


The high definition cameras are certainly a big component to the look of these shows, but in additional they are all well-lit.


So the question is – what exactly constitutes good lighting?  Pretty much anyone can buy some lights and turn them on – but how will this look?  You’ve got to understand what it is you’re trying to do with these lights.


The last thing you want to do is to produce bland or uninspiring images on your video.


Video cameras have come a long way in their ability to capture video images under extremely low light levels, but just because technology allows this doesn’t mean you want to do it.  Producing video with low levels of light will result in video with a lack lustre appearance that has an amateurish feel to it.  If you want video to really stand out to an audience and radiate a feeling professionalism – then camera lights are a must.


The biggest challenge for a camera operator is how to make a two-dimensional image appear as three-dimensional as possible when captured on videotape. 


This is accomplished by controlling the amount of shadows that are produced by direct lighting.  This mastery of the shadows is what provides the three-dimensional depth and appearance of a shot on camera.


OK, so how do we manipulate the light to ensure the shadows are working effectively for us to create the illusion of 3 dimensions?  The how and where of light fixture placement is critical to the depth of shadows.


When it comes to lighting fixtures there are many different types to choose from.

It could be incandescent, fluorescent, LED or HMI also known as High Intensity Discharge lights.  This will be whole other topic that I will do on a separate video at another time.  Please click on the subscribe button to ensure you receive notice of that video when it comes out.



3 point lighting as the name describes is based on lighting a scene from 3 different angles or 3 points of reference.


Your first light is known as your key light, it will act as your main light in that the intensity of this light will be the strongest.  The back light could be set to the same intensity but no greater.  I’ll get to the back light shortly.


When you’re positioning the key light it is important that you don’t put it on the same angle as where your camera is going to be otherwise the key light will make your image appear very flat and washed-out. Something you obviously don’t want.  We are trying to create shadows in varying amounts with each light fixture that we use.


I would recommend starting at a 45 degree angle away from the camera’s perspective.  This will allow for strong shadows to be created on the left side of your subject.


It is also preferable to not place this fixture at exactly the same height as your subject’s eye line.  Instead raise the light a couple of feet, if possible.  This will help create shadowing across your subject as a result of the light passing over the natural contours of the face.


Now depending on the type of fixture you are using there are different ways to adjust the intensity level of light for each variety of fixture.  Some lights have the ability to adjust the focal intensity by sliding the bulb forward and aft within the fixture itself. 


The second way to adjust the intensity level of the light fixture is by adding diffusion material over top of the light.  This is done using material such as spun glass or a neutral density gel.  Care must always be taken when placing diffusion material over hot bulbs as some materials could burn and become a fire hazard.


Diffusion material can be purchased at most video and photo supply stores.  The gels can be attached using clips.  I prefer metal ones over wooden clips again they’re safer from a burning point of view.


I prefer to setup lighting in a dim environment so that I can truly see the outcome of each individual light fixture.  It also helps to have a volunteer sit in the position you are lighting.


Now, onto the back light.  The role of this fixture is two-fold.  First off it provides more illumination on the subject which your camera sensor will appreciate.  Secondly you’re separateing your subject from the background.  When placed correctly the backlight will provide a silhouette outline of your subject and add a nice glint or highlight to the subjects’ hair and shoulders.


You have a couple of options for the placement of the backlight.  As with the key light you can place this fixture at a 45 degree angle off from the axis of the subjects back of head or if you enjoy math we could say 135 degrees from the cameras’ perspective. (hopefully I haven’t lost you here).  Your 2nd choice would be to place the back light directly behind your subject.  You don’t want to be able to see your light stand in the shot so this option can only work well if you either have a grid or object above from which you can attach your light above or if your light stand has a boom extension on it.  If you’re using a boom stand it’s always a good idea to counterbalance the fixtures weight with a small sand bag for safety.

You only want to have one light on at a time when you’re setting up your lighting pattern.  This allows you to see all of the results from each individual fixture.  When you’re happy with both lights individually, you can then turn them both on.


At this point look at your lighting results from both the perspective of your eye as well as how it looks on camera.  I would suggest looking at the cameras output from a good viewing monitor rather than just a small viewfinder if possible.


The subject should now be quite well illuminated, there should be some strong separation from your subject and the background and finally you should be witnessing some fairly strong shadows on one side of your subjects face.


Now onto the fill light.  The main function of this light fixture is to now soften or reduce the amount of shadows that are caused by the key and back lights.  But keep in mind you do not want to entirely get rid of shadows because the shadows are what are giving the illusion of depth or 3 dimensions to your shot.


Your Fill light placement should be placed on the opposite side from your key light and at approximately half the intensity.


If your key and back light fixtures are soft or diffuse in a nature, as in you are using lights within soft boxes then there is a chance that your shadows are already diffuse and you may not need to add a fill light at all.


This is where subjectivity comes into play and you can make the decision on what you’re witnessing on your monitor or how it appears to the eye.


Another factor to consider is what message you’re trying to convey to your audience.  If you’re looking for harsh or dramatic feel in a scene then you may want to reduce the fill light and keep your shadows quite strong.  This is a production decision only you can make.


So this gives you a good overview of how you should go about setting up your lights on a three point lighting setup.  Like anything, you’ll find the more often you do this the more comfortable you’ll become with your results.

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Rick Davis


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