The Three-Point Lighting System

In video production, one of the most crucial, yet overlooked, aspects of the entire process is lighting. When you consider that a video camera is merely a camera that takes anywhere from 24, 30, or 60 pictures per second, it makes sense that video shoots need a substantial amount of continuous (non-flash) lighting to help achieve the right exposure. Lights can be used to simply make a scene brighter, create a mood, or even be used to reveal (or conceal) certain elements of the story. Old film noir movies heavily used shadows in order to create a sense of mystique and drama, while new sci-fi flicks like Star Trek use abundant amounts of bright lights pointed at the lens to create dramatic and intense lens flares. Whatever your purposes, lighting is something to become familiar with if you plan on upping the quality of your video shoots.

The most basic way to light any shot is what’s known as the three-point system. Basically, it’s one key light, one fill light, and one back-light or “hair light”. The key light is usually quite large, contains a ton of wattage, and is angled towards the subject, slightly askew so that it lights one side of the face. It should also be placed slightly above, depending on what kind of stands or grid you have, so that it most closely mimicks a natural, overhead light source. The key light exposes the front of the subject and usually provide a decent amount of lighting just by itself. However, due to its power, you often get shadows on the other side of their face, and behind the subject, which is where the fill light comes in handy. The fill light is placed on the other side of the subject and out of frame, providing a nice contrast to the key light by eliminating the shadows that the key light creates. The back-light or “hair-light” is then placed behind and above the subject, pointed at their hair (hence the name). This light separates the subject from the background and further eliminates shadows cast by the key and fill. Keep in mind that while this is one of the simplest and most common lighting methods, it’s not ideal for every situation.

If you need to light an entire environment or room, this type of lighting would only provide light within a certain physical space, and only to a few subjects, therefore rendering it obsolete. For that type of shoot, you’d require much more than just three lights. However, for any sort of single-subject shoot–i.e. an interview, or product shoot, the three-point system is ideal. It’s simple, relatively affordable, and easy to set up.

Prices for assembling a three-point lighting kit can vary quite drastically–some people DIY their setups and use shop lights, lamps, and other various household lighting sources to light their shoots. On the top end, professionals can spend thousands of dollars on cinema-grade brands, stands, and the lights themselves. The type of light varies too–there are tungsten, fluorescent, and halogen lights, all with different color temperatures and practical applications.

Whatever your project might be, lighting is a must for your next shoot if you want your videos to look clean and professional.

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