3 point lighting, the ultimate way to light anything right?
There is a reason why we use 3 point lighting; it’s simple and it will get you decent results in a lot of situations, but it’s not the only way and it’s starting to look boring.
I’m going to break down what each of these 3 lights do, why we use them in 3 point lighting and what we can do differently.
First off, the key. You’ll pretty much always need a key, it’s the main line on your subject, but where you place it can change your look drastically. Most of the time it’s placed a little off centre, softly wrapping around your subject, but you can change this up, put it at a much more extreme angle, making your subject more contrasty, or head on for less contrast. Or above, or below, or closer, or further away. Making all these changes will have a massive effect on the look of what your shooting. Just experiment and think about the context of what your shooting, how can you enhance the narrative with my shooting style.
Next, the fill. The fill is there to fill in the shadow created by the key. The reason we do this is historic; older cameras couldn’t deal with high contrast images, so the shadow on the off key side of your subjects would look like a black hole. But nowadays cameras can deal with incredible levels of contrast, so why use a fill at all? I often see operators setting their fill to be as bright as the key, making their subject completely flat, maybe they’re afraid of shadow, or so used to a contrast less look that they can’t get away from it. But shadow is great, it gives your subject depth and structure, so don’t fear it, roll with it. If your Keats is soft enough and well placed, then you may not need a key.
Lastly, the back light. The backlight separates your subject from the background by creating a ring of light around them, kind of like an outline. But the only time you should use a back light is if the subject and the background are the same level of exposure, so you have to create some contrast. But if the back ground is dark and the subject is light, or visa versa, then you might not need to do this. On the other hand, if I don need a backlight, sometimes I like to pump it creating a very strong outline, then lowering the key, creating a very dramatic look.
Someone once told me that being a DOP is contrast control, your lighting should marshal contrast and modelling of your subject and separate them from the back ground. And the one thing that 3 point lighting doesn’t come near to touching on is the back ground. Getting your background right is essential, to make your image pop, your subject should be sufficiently different to your back ground, but that doesn’t just mean that your subject should be bright and your back ground dark. You could make your back ground lighter then your subject, you could make it a significantly different colour, you could use depth of field to create separation, or you could have pockets of light and dark in your background. Whatever you do with your background, lighting it can be more important then lighting your subject. Just make sure your image is varied, textured and creates contrast.
To be honest, I’m not saying never use 3 point lighting, sometimes it’s the best option, sometimes it’s just what your client wants. But if you have a little time and a little leeway, then go nuts and find something better.