Setting up Flat and Three-point Lighting

The dramatic shadows created by three-point lighting have been a staple of movies and television production since their inception, and three-point lighting remains highly touted in most tutorials, articles, and books on video lighting. However, a quick survey of news sites such as ESPN and CNN, both online and on TV, confirm that most newsrooms eschewed three-point lighting in favor of flat lighting years ago. Perhaps not surprisingly, business-oriented, online-only sites such as BusinessWeek and also use flat lighting.

With two very different shoots coming up — one a physician seeking to go online with some pre- and post-procedure advice, and the other a local band wanting interviews for a promotional DVD and YouTube and MySpace videos — I had some decisions to make. What’s the best lighting technique for streaming videos: flat or three point? If flat, what’s the best technique to achieve it?

For those new to lighting, the goal of three-point lighting is to “model” the face, showing off the edges to make them more distinguishable and add character. As mentioned above, mood is another goal — an example being the mysterious tension created by hard lights with deep shadows, à la Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

As you would suspect, three-point lighting uses three lights: a key, fill, and rim (or back) light. The key light provides the primary lighting in the scene, and is typically placed about 45 degrees to the left or right from the direction the subject is facing and about 20 degrees above the subject and pointing down.

When placing the key light, you should note that the guidepost is the shadow created by the subject’s nose, sometimes called the nose caret. Slide the key light away from center until the shadow reaches, but doesn’t cross, the “smile” crease that extends from the subject’s nose to the edge of his mouth. The shadow becomes very obvious once it reaches into the cheek. Adjust the height of the light so that the shadow is slightly below the nose, but doesn’t extend into the lips or mouth.

The fill light moderates the shadow created by the key light, and is placed on the opposite side of the subject. Typically, the fill light uses about half the power of the key light or is placed farther away to simulate the same effect. Finally, the rim or backlight creates contrast between the subject and the background wall, which is critical when using either three-point or flat lighting.

In contrast to three-point lighting, the goal of flat lighting is to minimize or eliminate shadows. Most modern TV newsrooms use banks of fluorescent lights that evenly light all subjects on the set, even when they turn or move around. I’ve always produced flat lighting by essentially using two key lights, both of equal power and placed at opposite angles in front of the subject.

Here’s a video on lighting fundamentals you may find useful.

Lighting Fundamentals