Lighting Techniques #1: Three Point Lighting

This is the first in what I plan to be an ongoing series of quick techniques you can apply to your own cinematography. The first few are going to be from The Gong Fu Connection. If you find this post useful, please consider supporting the film over at or even just sharing the link.

Let’s start at the beginning with three point lighting. The idea is that you should light a person using three sources:

  1. The KEY light models the face. What does that mean? Well, a face is a weird, lumpy object with lots of sticky-out bits and inny bits, and as a result it looks very different depending on where the main light is coming from. Light it from the front and it will seem flat – noses seem smaller, wrinkles and spots are reduced. Light it from the side and the nose will cast a huge shadow, as will every pimple. See my blog post on key light angles for more on this.
  2. The FILL light prevents the shadows cast by the key light from being completely black. Ideally the fill should be a soft, directionless light so it doesn’t cast its own shadows. The dimmer the fill light (i.e. the greater the key-to-fill ratio), the moodier your scene will look. Sometimes I like to not use any fill at all.
  3. The BACKLIGHT creates a rim of illumination around your subject, cutting them out from the background. It makes the whole image look slick and sparkly.

That’s all very well in theory, but here’s a practical example. This is a close-up of actress Marién Enid in The Gong Fu Connection.


Marién’s keylight is an Arrimax M18 – a super-efficient 1.8KW HMI. It has a Straw gel (Lee no. 103)  to warm it up a bit. Why such a powerful lamp? I was using it as backlight on the wide. For this CU it needs to be much softer, so I intercept it a couple of metres from Marién with some tough-spun diffuser (no. 214). I have a roll of the stuff which I carry around. Frequently I slide it like a giant toilet roll onto a C-stand arm, unroll it to the desired length and peg the other end on another stand.

The Kinoflo Tegralite that provides the backlight
The Kinoflo Tegralite that provides the backlight

You can see that the keylight hits all of the lefthand side of her face (known as the downside, because it’s the side away from camera) but pretty much just her cheek on the righthand side. For my money, this is the optimal key position because it gives the most shape to the face.

The backlight comes from a Kinoflo Tegralite (a 4ft 4-bank kino with a built-in ballast) shining through the doorway behind her. Again, this is a source that had been previously established on the wide shot. You have to think through your set-ups before you set your lamps for your wide, so that they will work for your other angles without so much cheating that everything looks completely different.

Fill is provided by a silver reflector out the bottom left of frame, bouncing the kino back onto the upside of Marién’s face. The ungelled kino gives a nice bit of colour contrast with the straw-gelled M18.

Look out for more lighting techniques coming soon.

Sketch 2014-08-15 07_07_38

Lighting Techniques #1: Three Point Lighting