A Quick Guide for Lighting Film or TV

From three-point lighting to motivated setups, here is everything you need to know about lighting placement and schemes.

Lighting is an integral part of cinematography, and it’s one of the few areas of filmmaking that has infinite arrangements of set-ups. Quite like camera terminology, there are many variations of tools and lighting language. In short; it can get confusing.

There is no one right way to employ lighting design. A scene could be lit several different ways by different cinematographers, each altering the mood and overall impact of the image. However, there is a basic list of lighting placement.

Below is a list of primary light placement terminology, and the key points for that placement. It’s important to note that there can be several terms for the same placement. For example; A backlight, rim light, and a hair light are interchangeable terms for having the light placed behind and above an actor.

Key LightKey01

A key light is the primary light of the scene. It will be the most intense and direct light source of the entire scene. It will be the first light to set up, and will be used to illuminate the form of the subject or actor.

Key Points:
• Avoid placing your key light close to the camera. It will cause your lighting to become flat and featureless.
• If a key light is positioned to the side or back of an actor, it will create a mysterious/dramatic mood, and overall keep the image dark.
• A key light is the primary light in a three-point lighting setup.

Fill01Fill Light

A fill light illuminates the shadows that are created by the key light. A fill light is usually placed on the opposite side of the key light, and often not as powerful as the key.

Key Points:
• As the primary function of the fill is to remove shadows created by the key, it’s important that the fill remains indistinctive and does not create shadows or it’s own characteristics. The closer the fill light is to the camera, the less shadows it will create.
• Fills are easy to create even if you don’t have another light at hand; you can place a reflector on the opposite 3/4 to the key. Light will spill onto the reflector and bounce up to your subject.
• A fill light is measured in a fill light ratio also known as a key/fill ratio. It describes the relative amount of light from the key and the fill. For example, a ratio of 1:2 would indicate that the fill is half the intensity of the key.

Back LightBack01

A back light hits an actor or object from behind, and is usually placed higher than the object it is lighting. A backlight is often used to separate an object or an actor from a dark background, and to give the subject more shape and depth. Backlighting can help bring your subject out and away from looking two dimensional.

Key Points:
• Non-diffused sunlight can often be too harsh to light your subject as a key light, but as a backlight, the sun can make your subject stand out.
• With the sun as a backlight, you can use a reflector or a foam board to bounce the sun at a lesser intensity back up to the actor.
• To create a silhouette, expose for the backlight and remove your key and fill.
• If a backlight is placed behind an actor at a directional angle, where the light hits part of the face, the backlight becomes a kicker.
• A great affordable backlight is the ARRI 150.

The key light, fill light, and backlight make up a three-point lighting setup. You can learn more about setting up a three-point lighting scheme in this video tutorial from Full Sail University.