Film Production Lighting

Three-Point Lighting Setup: Lighting in Film

Three-point lighting seems to be overlooked by filmmakers and photographers occasionally, but it mustn’t be scoffed at! Three-point lighting is a stalwart within the lighting scene and must be understood so you can use it to its best potential.

It uses three light sources that allow you to light your scene to your preferred setup, placing the lights to create the perfect light composition.

In today’s article, we will delve into three-point lighting and look into what it is, how you can set it up and most importantly, what three-point lighting compromises of.

Let’s check it out below.

What is a three-point lighting setup?

Three-Point Lighting Setup - iFilmThings
Three-Point Lighting Setup – iFilmThings

A three-point lighting setup is a setup that consists of three light sources in three positions for you to light your scene.

Placing these lights at different angles, positions, and heights allows you to control the shadowing and spread of light within the scene. 

You’ll find this is used in multiple different light setups, used in high key, low key, soft lighting and many others. The reason is that the lighting setup is so versatile you can create evenly diffused lights and high contrast shadowy images to create tension and fear. 

Read more about key lighting here.

How to set up three-point lighting?

When setting up three-point lighting, there are three light sources to consider; these are the key light, the fill light and the backlight.

The three-point lighting setup is all about creating multiple dimensions to your picture. Positioning these three lights allows you to create an image that shows greater depth and height within the shot. 

This is how you’ll be able to create those cinematic shots. 

Here’s an overview of what each light is in the setup. 

What is a key light?

The key light is the primary light of the setup. It gives the shot its overall exposure and is typically set up at a 45-degree angle. It creates a sense of dimension and depth, allowing you to create a cinematic feel to the shot.

This creates the mood of the shot; it’s the primary source depending on the type of light, the angle and the other components of the lighting setup. The key light can be a low key setup or a high key setup. 


A low key lighting setup is one with a vast amount of shadows. It’s deep and contains high contrast. Perfect for creating tension and fear.

Whereas the high key lighting setup is one of a much softer setup, with a dispersed light source that is evenly spread creating much soft lighting within your shot. The perfect lighting for a coming of age film or a comedy.

Read more about: Key light in film. What is key light in film?

What is a fill light?

Fill light

A fill light is a light that’s used within the three-point lighting setup and essentially mirrors the key light. The fill light will fill in the shadows that are created by the key light to allow details in the darkness to become prominent. 

The fill light is usually less powerful than the key light and depending on the preference of the cinematographer, will be set to achieve their preferred light setup. 

For example, a dim fill light will create more shadows and a much higher contrast within the shot, perfect for horrors, film noir and building up tensions within the scene. 

Whereas a brighter fill light will achieve a much more balanced lighting setup that you’d see in happier, fun-loving movies. 

The fill light can also be an object, for instance, a bounce board or material to help disperse the light – the fill light and the key light are what essentially determines the mood of the scene.   

You may also be interested in reading: Low Key Lighting: How you can create a dramatic atmosphere immediately

What is a backlight?  

The final light source within the three-point lighting setup is the backlight. A backlight is a form of lighting that is used to shine from the back onto your subject. It’s also known as the hair light or rim light. 

It gives a sense of depth as it pushes the subject away from the background of your shot. Cinematographers will place it high enough out of the frame, opposite the key light to ensure you achieve the right setup. 

The depth helps finalise the image, and gives it that cinematic edge you’ll be looking for. I personally love the depth it creates, as it allows the audience to buy in and understand the world that the character lives in.

A couple of tips on when to use three-point lighting in film 

In short, there isn’t a specific way to use three-point lighting in film, but there are a few pointers to assist you with your setup. Maybe we should call them best practices on how to use three-point lighting to its best ability! 

The lighting adds dimensions to your subject/s

The three-point lighting setup is used to create depth in your shot, and add to the dimension of your setup. It helps emphasise the shape and dimensions of your subject and brings them to life.  

To create sharp shadows and high contrast.

Ultimately, it’s a “Low Key Lighting” Setup. But using the three-point lighting setup, you can create a cool low key lighting setup that will create a dramatic, tense scene. 

A great source of light if you’re looking to create a film noir, a drama and even a horror film. You can use this lighting setup to nail the dark tones and high contrasts that partner with these genres to a tee. 

Creating a soft, balanced mood

Creating a soft, balanced mood

Using a soft key light with a fill light, it allows you to create a high key lighting setup, perfect for happy, endearing and upbeat. This is the sort of lighting you’ll see in sitcoms, comedies and upbeat coming of age films. 

The three-point lighting setup allows you to create this balanced setup and really indulge in the marvel of lighting. Creating a smooth, dispersed lighting source will allow you to tell your story with the aura of light.

Top tips when setting up three-point lighting

Here are some key tips you must consider when using three-point lighting. These will help you create a fully functioning three-point setup to nail your lighting setup. Create that astonishing atmosphere that your film deserves. 

Consider your light sources size and distance.

The size and the distance is key to how your subject appears on the screen. For instance, a smaller light source will create a “Hard” setup while a bigger light source will create a “Soft” setup. 

A hard light source has sharper edges, high contrast and a lot of shadows. Whereas the soft lighting setup is a much more balanced picture with smoother light spread evenly. 

If you’re looking to shoot a specific scene with a certain edge to the lighting setup, it’s definitely worth looking at the sizing and dimensions beforehand. This will allow you to the light the shot correctly and save you time on the shoot, as you’ll have a much clearer idea of dimensions. 

Once you understand the overarching feel of the scene and what sort of atmosphere you want to create, you can start experimenting with the lighting size and dimensions. 

You may also be interested in reading: Hard Lighting vs Soft Lighting, what’s the difference?

Establish the motivation of your lighting

Establish the motivation of your lighting

As with your writing your story and developing characters, with the lighting setup, you will also need to establish its motivation. 

The source of your lighting must be relevant to the setup of your scene and needs to make sense. Ask yourself what the goal of the scene is? Where will the scene be set? What will the characters be doing in the scene? 

These questions will allow you to create a motivated light source that lights the scene correctly and with a solid motivation. For example, if you’re lighting a horror scene and the scene is set where the protagonist goes searching through a house, you’ll want a low key lighting setup with dark shadows and high contrast.

You may be interested in reading: Low Key Lighting: How you can create a dramatic atmosphere immediately

Testing

It’s a simple one, but make sure you test your setup. We kind of touched upon this in the above around sizing and dimensions. But testing is essential. 

Once you know the lightings motivation and the position, size and intensity, it is time to test it out. This testing period is crucial as it allows you to understand how the lights work with one another and allows you to reset them to set them up to achieve your preferred look perfectly.

Intensity and positioning

The intensity and positioning of your light source are key within the three-point setup. The intensity is essentially the brightness of your light source, and the positioning is where you place your lights relative to your subject and the camera. 

The brighter the light, the harsher the shadows, so it’s a must to consider the intensity of the light before shooting the scene. The higher intensity lights must be used with a hard lighting setup to perfect those low-key shots. 

Whereas a much lower intensity must be shot for the high key, softer lighting setups for those happier, funnier scenes. 

The positioning is also a must as to achieve the different looks, you must experiment with the distance and angles to create those harsh shadows. Or also to remove the shadows and create a much softer, dispersed lighting setup.

You may also be interested in: Natural Light: How to shoot using Natural Light

A final thought

Hello, if you’ve made it this far, well done! 

Three-point lighting is a lighting mainstay in all things fill and can be complemented with other setups, i.e. high key lighting and bounce lighting. 

It’s an integral part of filmmaking to help you create a scene with purpose and submerge your audience within your film. Three-point lighting offers a versatile setup that enables you to pair it with other more common setups, including high, low key and bounce lighting setups. 

You’ll be able to create an astonishing cinematic piece with this setup and wow your audience with an atmosphere that’s both encaptivating and thrilling. 

We hope this article on “Three Point Lighting Setup: Lighting in Film” was helpful to you. Let us know down below in the comments what you think. 

Happy filmmaking!

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