When the latest blockbuster is weaving and winding its way up to a full-on plot twist, how do we know something significant is about to happen? Filmmakers use music, visuals, and lighting to give a scene a certain mood, hinting to the audience what’s to come. When directors tell a story, they know it’s about more than just the words.
Below, we’ll teach you how to utilize a three-point lighting setup—but don’t worry, you won’t need a stunt double for this crash course. Keep reading to learn more about why lighting can make or break a scene, and how you can get started as an independent filmmaker or content creator.
Traditional Three-Point Lighting and Tips
The lighting design will depend on a scene’s placement in the film, its importance to the story—since every film is different, there are quite a few ways to go about it. But the essentials in a professional film setup are the distinct, but equally important components, of the three-point lighting system.
The key light functions exactly how it sounds—it’s both the first to be setup and most important light of the three-point process. It’s used for emphasis in a scene that calls for direct lighting on a subject. If placed too close to the main camera, it will have the opposite effect, dulling the features of the subject. If you’re looking to keep the spotlight on your subject, but with a darker, more mysterious twist, try placing your key light to the back or side of the main camera.
The fill light, you guessed it, fills all the shadows created by the key light. This secondary light source is typically positioned opposite the key light, which prevents it from creating shadows of its own. The closer the fill light is to the main camera, the less shadow there will be. If you don’t have extra lighting equipment to work with, but still have some shadows to chase away, you can get the same effect with a reflector.
The back light is positioned behind or above the subject; it separates the subject from a darker background by giving it more shape and depth. Most of the time, you can actually use the sun as a backlight. Use a reflector or a piece of foam to lessen the intensity of the sun, and bounce it back to face the actor. The sun often can’t be used as a primary light source, however, because the harshness of the midday sun will drown out the subject.
For DIY content creators—especially for beauty videos or other “coffee talk”-style content—a ring light could be one of the best options for a primary light source. It gives a soft glow around the edges of the subject, and takes away the emphasis on any blemishes or imperfections. It’s easy to setup, it’s fairly cheap—most run anywhere from $100 to $300—and best of all, it’s portable.
Naturally, Take Advantage of the Golden Hour
Shooting outdoors makes it more difficult to have a custom lighting setup, because filmmakers are working with “available light,” or the lighting that a given time of day or location provides. If you shoot during the “golden hour”—the hour after sunrise and before sunset—it provides an ideal scene.
Instead of settling for the blinding beams of midday, give the soft, diffused rays from sunrise/sunset a try. The warm glow of the golden hour is just what you need to set up a happy or wistful scene. But after you get your perfect shot, don’t put your camera down! The golden hour changes minute to minute so keep shooting for different results.
Overslept and missed the golden hour this morning? Check out Storyblocks for sunrises, sunsets, and content you won’t forget.