A Beginner's Guide to Three-Point Lighting


Lighting can make the difference between a good video and a great video!

If you’ve got a great idea for a video and have spent time preparing a script and shot lists, why let your project lose credibility on lighting?

Lighting has the power to transform a flat, dull image into an attractive, dynamic one. It creates the illusion of a 3D subject in a 2D image. The tone and mood of a scene can be enhanced through the use of lighting.

Three-point lighting is the standard lighting technique used in video; it is used for most ‘talking head’ interviews. It forms the basis of most lighting techniques in video, so if you’re a beginner, you should try to get to grips with how best to approach this technique and what it means.

The three lights used are the key light, the fill light and the backlight.

Key Light

This is the primary light source that has the most influence on the look of the scene. It is the strongest light. Generally, it shines directly on one side of the subject, creating a shadow on the opposite side. If your subject is on the left side of the frame, you would place the key light at a 45-degree angle to the left of the camera and 45 degrees up from the subject.

Your other lights support the key light so you should position it first. Ideally, you will have a professional lighting kit but if not, a strong desk lamp is best to use as your key light.

Diffusing your light though a softbox, or even just a piece of sheer material, will make your key light softer on your subject - on the other hand, light coming directly from the source will result in harsher shadows and contrast for a moodier look.

Fill Light

This is your secondary light source and should be placed on the opposite side of the key light. It is used to ‘fill’ in the shadows created by the key light and should not create a second shadow. It prevents shadows from being too dark. If it creates a second shadow, it means the fill light needs to be reduced, which can be done by simply dimming the light (if possible), by moving it further away or by using diffusion paper.

If you are on a budget, you can use a reflector instead of a second light. You would reflect the light from the key light and bounce it into the shadows. Any sturdy reflective material will do if you cannot avail of professional equipment.

Back Light

This should be placed behind the subject. It does not provide direct lighting like the fill and key light. The purpose of this light is to create a 3D dimension in a 2D image by separating the subject from the background, defining the outlines and thereby highlighting the subject.

If you are filming indoors and don’t have a third light, you can use daylight from the window as your backlight. However, always avoid placing your subject in front of your light source (unless you are also using a key and fill light as well) as you will just create a silhouette effect. The backlight should be placed behind and above the subject’s head, also at a 45-degree angle, pointing down at the head, neck and shoulders (for a talking headshot).

Shooting video in a dark room will result in dark, grainy footage, so it’s essential to use any available light. This can be as simple as choosing to shoot during the daytime instead of the evening, or filming outside/in a well-lit room.

Ideally, you will have a professional lighting kit to use but as mentioned above it’s possible to make a D.I.Y kit if you’re a beginner on a tight budget.

Videographer Joey Shanks uses affordable flashlights to illuminate scenes. Watch this video for more lighting tips. Once you’ve got the hang of the basics of lighting, you can experiment more to set a mood or enhance a character. The position or addition of a light source can change the atmosphere dramatically.


A bit of practice and experimentation can make all the difference, but you don’t need a big budget for equipment as there are often cheaper options!

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