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How To: Three-point Lighting with only Six Fixtures!

October 15, 2017

When I was in college for visual production, three-point lighting was a week-one lesson. There's a reason: it's a basic way to make a subject look good. When you grasp those concepts you start to feel special, like you've gained some sort of secret that separates you from the TV-viewing public. You begin to recognize the different lights when you're watching TV yourself. Learning three-point lighting will help you make an interview shot, or almost any shot for that matter, look pretty decent.


After a bit of time using the technique, you find that the three lights are instruments of purpose. Key light: so you can see your subject. Fill: to put a lesser amount of light opposite the Key. Backlight: to separate your subject from the background. Those are the conventions. There are times to follow the conventions, and times to break the rules. Won't dwell on those alternative techniques, here. Just know that your job as a DoP is to tell a story with your image. Think about the direction, intensity, color, and quality of your lights to help you convey a mood.


With this blog entry I want to build upon the three-point conventions and add some depth and interest beyond the subject of the image. If it's done well, your viewer won't have their eyes drawn away from the subject. Rather, the subject will have image context that further conveys mood in the image.


The first step is to consider your subject and their story. With whatever level of control you have, choose or create a background location that helps sell what your subject is trying to say. (It's probably another blog entry, but one thing that will set you apart from the kids that do production out of their parents' basement is demanding a level of control for your productions - just sit and think about that) Next, bring fixtures that will help you tell the story of the surroundings...that will help tell the subject's story. Below is an example of a recent interview shot I did. Quick and dirty shoot on a C100mkII. I'm not going to win any awards for this shot, but I wanna use it as an example to help you think through all the types of decisions you should be thinking about...even when setting up a simple interview shot.


Take a look above. Without hearing a word about this guy, try to imagine his story. Not so much the specifics of what he's talking about. But, the mood, the style, the context. Deduct. Is he talking about Wall St.? Or, is this a medical testimonial? Maybe that's insultingly basic for many of you. My point is to simply think about it.


 Briefly, the three points of light on the subject are pretty simple: Kino 4' 4Bank camera left, with only one tube on, 5600K, about four feet away. The fill is a floppy reflector, silver side. Backlight is a Fiilex LED on a gobo arm, set to around 4200K and 50% intensity. But what I really wanna chat about are the lights in the background. Perhaps you don't have access to an Arri AS18 HMI to use a practical. For this story, it's an important piece. More on that in a sec. You'll also note another practical frame right; a lamp in a waiting area. There's one other light that you don't see, a Mole 650 that's double-scrimmed, casting a slight warmth over the waiting area frame right.


Oh, one other thing you need to take in to account is the edit. What's the b-roll over the interview? Which brings me to his story. Nothing groundbreaking. This is Alex Vinash. A top-tier NYC fashion designer chatting about his new line. To go along with Alex's interview, we have some BTS footage of the on-figure stills shoot...which was a creative shoot in-and-of itself because of the use of a constant source HMI in a stills studio shoot. Hence, it's part of the story. Hence, why it's over his shoulder. Hence why the backlight on Alex was toned quite a bit warmer than the rest of the light on him - to motivate a bit of light coming from behind his shoulder. The waiting area was another choice. We wanted to make Alex appear super elite (even though he already is). Fancy studios have comfy client areas right off set. So, here's ours. 


Point of all of this? Well, I know that there's a bunch of y'all who are plenty talented enough to create beautiful lighting. But, one of the things that creates watchability in our work is the context, the production value, the direction. Go beyond just making something pretty. Make it meaningful. Be thoughtful in all of your decisions, and (like I said, I think this is another blog that will definitely happy soon), demand control over your shooting environments. 


In case you wanna see the shot in context:



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