Complete Guide to Three-Point Lighting

Three-point lighting (also known as documentary lighting) is the most basic lighting set up and one that you will use over and over again. I’ve been making videos and shooting documentaries for over 5 years now and this is always my go-to lighting set up. Enjoy this momentscreatives lighting tutorial!

Photo by Emmanuel Acua on Unsplash

The basic premise of the setup is to have:

  1. A key-light that produces the most amount of light and shines on your subject.
  2. A fill-light that ‘fills’ in any shadows left by the key-light.
  3. A back light that beautifies the image with a soft glow on the back of the subject’s head/shoulders.

For any sort of interview or video with someone speaking in front of a camera, this is a great set up. You can even use this setup for narrative videos as well. Now I will go through each of the lights and show you the proper placement.

First set up your camera and actor/interviewee/chair. The interviewee will be either facing the camera directly or looking just off to the left or right of the camera for a standard documentary-style interview. Turn off all lights before starting. This way, you’ll be able to properly see what each light is doing. If you are setting up by yourself and don’t have someone to model for you while you light, you can set up each light and take a short video clip of yourself as the subject. This way, you can review the lighting set up as you go and make any necessary tweaks. Now that you have the camera and subject set up, let’s talk about lighting.

Key Light:

The key light is your strongest light. There is no standard wattage that is typical for a keylight. It can range from 150 watts to 10k watts depending on the situation. But assuming you aren’t trying to replicate the sun with 10,000 watts of light, a good place to start is between 500 and 1000 watts. There are many lights you can choose from from the Lowel Rifa to an Arri 1k. I’m not going to go too much into the different types of lights in this article; I’d rather stick to the basics of the three-point lighting set up.

The key light should be between 15 and 45 degrees to the side of the camera. If this is an interview shoot, the person asking the questions should be standing between the camera and the key light. See image below for reference. Here you see the keylight is to the left of the camera and the subject is looking towards the space between the camera and light. The key light lights the subjects face and front side of the body. The reason we put it at an angle rather than directly in front of the subjects face is so we have a difference in lighting on one side of the face compared to the other. This is very pleasing and creates a more dramatic/interesting look.

Fill Light:

The fill light is used to ‘fill’ out the shadows created by the key light. This light is less powerful than the key light. Again, there are no rules on what wattage should be used for the fill light. But keep in mind it should be less than your key. I use a 500 watt key light with a 250 watt fill light. Sometimes I even diffuse this light with filters if it is too bright. You’ll just have to test and see until you have the right brightness.

This light  is placed on the opposite side of the camera as the key light and shines on the subject at a similar angle. Because the key light is placed at an angle, you might get shadows on one side of the face or body. These shadows can be created by a person’s nose, cheek, eye-sockets, chin, or really any other part of the body. If you want very dramatic lighting, you don’t even need a fill light. Moving the fill light further or closer to the subject can also assist in increasing or decreasing the amount of light it gives. The objective is to not cancel out the shadows created by the key light, but just to reduce them so you have a softer transition of light from one side of the face to the other.

Back Light:

The back light is my favorite lights. It can seriously increase the quality of your image ten-fold. Place the back light as close to directly behind the subject as possible. Of course you have to be aware of what your camera is seeing though. If possible, you can hang the back light from above the back of the subject or rig up some sort of light stand so it hands directly above. Or just place it off to the side (either side is fine depending on the look you want to have) out of range of the camera. The wattage of this light should be similar to that of the fill light or even less powerful.

This light creates a nice ‘halo’ effect around the subject’s shoulders and head. This separates him or her from the background and gives the shot more depth. While the back light is not necessary, I believe it improves the quality of your video and separates you from amateur video creators.


Sometimes you may have a light that is too powerful. While using my 500 watt key light, putting a 250 watt back light is often too bright and the halo effect becomes more of a glaring mistake than a beautifier. Having a set diffusion gels or a large round diffuser is always good to have. See the image below where I put the diffusion in front of the back light. This softens the light and makes it look a lot more natural.


Having a bounce card or sphere is also a good thing to have, especially if you don’t have a complete light kit. Bounces can easily be used as the fill light by placing it next to subject and ‘bouncing’ the light from the key onto the subject’s face. This way, you only have carry around two lights.

Windows can be your friend or enemy. They might as well be called a video creators best frienemy. Sometimes they get in the way of your lighting or cause problems because of the different light temperatures. Other times, you can use them to your advantage. As the image below shows, you can use them as your fill light. I often use windows as my keylight when I don’t have my lighting kit. So don’t be scared if there are windows around. Use them to your advantage!

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