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The Standard 3-Point Lighting Technique

The Three Point Lighting Technique is a standard method used in visual media such as video, film, still photography and computer-generated imagery. It is a simple but versatile system which forms the basis of most lighting. Once you understand three point lighting you are well on the way to understanding all lighting.

The technique uses three lights called the key light, fill light and back light. Naturally you will need three lights to utilise the technique fully, but the principles are still important even if you only use one or two lights. As a rule:

  • If you only have one light, it becomes the key.

  • If you have 2 lights, one is the key and the other is either the fill or the backlight.

 

The Basics: Three-point Lighting

  1. KEY – The key light is your main and strongest source of light. This can be the sun or an electrical light source.

  2. FILL – This is your second light source, softer than your key light, which crosses the key light to “fill” the strong shadows created by your main light source. This can be a reflector or an electric light.

  3. BACK – The back light is used to separate the subject from background. It makes the scene look more three-dimensional. Sometimes you can use the “setting sun” as your back light or another light source.

 

 

Key Light

This is the main light. It is usually the strongest and has the most influence on the look of the scene. It is placed to one side of the camera/subject so that this side is well lit and the other side has some shadow.

 

Fill Light

This is the secondary light and is placed on the opposite side of the key light. It is used to fill the shadows created by the key. The fill will usually be softer and less bright than the key. To acheive this, you could move the light further away or use some spun. You might also want to set the fill light to more of a flood than the key.

 

Back Light

The back light is placed behind the subject and lights it from the rear. Rather than providing direct lighting (like the key and fill), its purpose is to provide definition and subtle highlights around the subject's outlines. This helps separate the subject from the background and provide a three-dimensional look.

 

If you have a fourth light, you could use it to light the background of the entire scene.

 

 

 

Try the simulator

https://www.mediacollege.com/lighting/three-point/simulator.html

 

 

 

In classical portraiture there are several things you need to control and think about to make a flattering portrait of your subjects, including: lighting ratio, lighting pattern, facial view, and angle of view. I suggest you get to know these basics inside out, and as with most things, then you can break the rules. But if you can nail this one thing you’ll be well on your way to great people photos. In this article we’re going to look at lighting pattern: what is it, why it’s important, and how to use it. Perhaps in another future article, if you enjoy this one, I’ll talk about the other aspects of good portraiture.

Lighting pattern I’d define as, how light and shadow play across the face to create different shapes. What shape is the shadow on the face, in simple terms. There are four common portrait lighting patterns, they are:

  • Split lighting

  • Loop lighting

  • Rembrandt lighting

  • Butterfly lighting

There are also Broad and Short lighting which are more of a style, and can be used with most of the patterns above. Let’s look at each of them individually.

 

 

1. Split Lighting

 

 

Split lighting is exactly as the name implies – it splits the face exactly into equal halves with one side being in the light, and the other in shadow. It is often used to create dramatic images for things such as a portrait of a musician or an artist. Split lighting tends to be a more masculine pattern and as such is usually more appropriate or applicable on men than it is for women. Keep in mind however, there are no hard and fast rules, so I suggest you use the information provided here as a starting point or guideline. Until you learn this and can do it in your sleep, default to the guideline whenever you’re not sure.

 

To achieve split lighting simply put the light source 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject, and possibly even slightly behind their head. Where you place the light in relation to the subject will depend on the person’s face. Watch how the light falls on them and adjust accordingly. In true split lighting, the eye on the shadow side of the face does pick up light in the eye only. If by rotating their face a bit more light falls on their cheek, it’s possible their face just isn’t ideal for split lighting.

 

NOTE: any lighting pattern can be created on any facial view (frontal view showing both ears, or ¾ face, or even profile). Just keep in mind that your light source must follow the face to maintain the lighting pattern. If they turn their head the pattern will change. So you can use that to your advantage to easily adjust the patten just by them rotating their head a little.

What is a “catchlight”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Loop Lighting

 

Loop lighting is made by creating a small shadow of the subjects noses on their cheeks. To create loop lighting, the light source must be slightly higher than eye level and about 30-45 degrees from the camera (depends on the person, you have to learn how to read people’s faces).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Rembrandt Lighting

 

 

 

Rembrandt lighting is so named because the Rembrandt the painter often used this pattern of light in his paintings, as you can see in his self portrait here. Rembrandt lighting is identified by the triangle of light on the cheek. Unlike loop lighting where the shadow of the nose and cheek do not touch, in Rembrandt lighting they do meet which, creates that trapped little triangle of light in the middle. To create proper Rembrandt lighting make sure the eye on the shadow side of the face has light in it and has a catch light, otherwise the eye will be “dead” and not have a nice sparkle. Rembrandt lighting is more dramatic, so like split lighting it creates more mood and a darker feel to your image. Use it appropriately.

 

 

 

To create a small triangle of highlight on the shadowy cheek, place the key light farther to the side of the subject than it is in the loop lighting scenario.  The light is going to almost be coming off a bit to the side of the subject and slightly above eye level (however, this depends on how their head is placed.)  You may have to play around and move the light closer to the subject in order to get a nice, strong Rembrandt light.  This is a highly flattering lighting technique that can be used on almost anyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Butterfly Lighting

 

 

 

Butterfly lighting is aptly named for the butterfly shaped shadow that is created under the nose by placing the main light source above and directly behind the camera. The photographer is basically shooting underneath the light source for this pattern. It is most often used for glamour style shots and to create shadows under the cheeks and chin. It is also flattering for older subjects as it emphasizes wrinkles less than side lighting.

 

Butterfly lighting is created by having the light source directly behind the camera and slightly above eye or head level of the subject (depends on the person). It is sometimes supplemented by placing a reflector directly under their chin, with the subject themselves even holding it! This pattern flatters subjects with defined or prominent cheek bones and a slim face. Someone with a round, wide face would look better with loop or even split to slim their face.

 

At its most basic, Butterfly consists of a single light pointed directly at the subject straight on, and raised high enough to create a downward shadow on the subject. This causes a little ‘butterfly’ shadow to appear directly underneath the subject’s nose.

 

Often the Butterfly Lighting setup is augmented by a reflector or fill ight in front of the subject, underneath and just outside the frame of the shot to bounce some light up into the eyes because a light at such a high camera angle generally causes the eyes to go very dark without it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Broad Lighting

Broad lighting is not so much a particular pattern, but a style of lighting. Any of the following patterns of light can be either broad or short: loop, Rembrandt, split.

 

Broad lighting is when the subject’s face is slightly turned away from centre, and the side of the face which is toward the camera (is broader) is in the light. This produces a larger area of light on the face, and a shadow side which appears smaller. Broad lighting is sometimes used for “high key” portraits. This type of lighting makes a person’s face look broader or wider (hence the name) and can be used on someone with a very slim face to widen it. Most people however want to look slimmer, not wider so this type of lighting would not be appropriate for someone who is heavier or round faced.

 

 

 

To create broad lighting the face is turned away from the light source. Notice how the side of the face that is towards the camera has the most light on it and the shadows are falling on the far side of the face, furthest from the camera. Simply put broad lighting illuminates the largest part of the face showing.

 

6. Short Lighting

 

 

Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting. As you can see by the example here, short lighting puts the side turned towards the camera (that which appears larger) in more shadow. It is often used for low key, or darker portraits. It puts more of the face in shadow, is more sculpting, add 3D qualities, and is slimming and flattering for most people.

 

In short lighting, the face is turned towards the light source this time. Notice how the part of the face that is turned away from the camera has the most light on it and the shadows are falling on the near side of the face, closet to the camera. Simply put short lighting has shadows on the largest part of the face showing.

Putting it all together

Once you learn how to recognize and create each of the different lighting patterns you can then start to learn how and when to apply them. By studying your subject’s face you will learn which lighting pattern will be best for them, and for the type of portrait and mood desired. Someone with a very round face that wants to appear slimmer in a grad portrait, will be lit very differently than someone that wants a promo shot for their band that makes them appear mean or angry. Once you know all the patterns, how to recognize and master quality of light, direction of light and ratio (we’ll discuss that in a future article) then you will be well equipped to handle the challenge.

Of course it is much easier to change the lighting pattern if you can move the light source. However if the main light source is the sun, or a window – it’s a bit tougher to do that. So what you will need to do instead of moving the light, is to have the subject rotate in respect to the light to change the direction it falls on them. Or change your camera position. Or change their position. So basically move the things you can move in relation to the light, if you cannot move the light source itself.

 

 

 

Exercise  7  Lighting 

 

Working with  a partner   create  each of the  following lighting patterns

 

            butterfly lighting

            loop lighting

            Rembrandt lighting

            split lighting

 

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