Three-Point Portraiture Lighting and Beyond


Collecting studio lights can become an addictive vice for the adventurous portrait photographer. Once you realize all that can be done with one light, you will soon want to add another, and another, and another. With each additional light come new techniques and creative possibilities. For portrait photographers, one of the most commonly used multi-light setups is three-point lighting. This tried-and-true approach to lighting people, in the photo and video worlds, is a skill set with which every portrait photographer should spend some time experimenting. This article breaks down three-point lighting to its basic components before considering some of the creative possibilities beyond its traditional setup.

The Basics

As its name implies, three-point lighting uses three sources of light to illuminate a sitter: key, fill, and back lights. For the images in this article, we used a Profoto D1 500W/s Monolight with OCF Octa Softbox (2') and Softgrid as a key light; a Profoto B10 with OCF Softbox (1 x 3') and Softgrid as fill; and a Profoto B10 with OCF Softbox (1 x 3') and Softgrid as a back light. To demonstrate the effect of each light as clearly as possible, the model was photographed wearing a black turtleneck against the black background and the images are monochromatic. Since we did not have a grid on hand to manage spill from the key light, we set up a flag to keep the background dark. Exposure was held constant across comparison images.

When lit with only a key light, a hard shadow from the model’s nose falls across her cheek and parts of her hair and sweater are lost in the black background.

Key Light

A key light is the primary source of light in an image. In a basic three-point setup, this is positioned at a 45-degree angle to your sitter. You will notice in the image above that a key light alone will leave a significant portion of your subject in shadow. While one side of the model’s face is illuminated, the other side is left in harsh shadow. Likewise, her black turtleneck melts into the dark background behind her.

With the addition of a fill light, shadows are opened up across the model’s face and there is some degree of background separation.

Fill Light

A fill light is used to open up shadows, complementing your key light. It is positioned opposite your key light. When setting up your light, it is important to pay attention to the key-to-fill ratio of your lights. Note in the images below how increasing the power of the fill changes the appearance of the model’s face.

Notice as the power of the fill increases, shadows decrease, and the shape of the model’s face begins to lose a bit of dimensionality.

If you set your key and fill light to the same power, you will end up with a shadowless and rather flat image. Photographs where the key and fill are similar power are described as “high key.” Where present, shadows are muted. Images with higher key-to-fill ratios are described as “low key.” These feature more defined shadows and greater dimension. There is no perfect ratio; it depends upon what look and mood you are trying to create in your image.

Note that in these images, the model’s hair and turtleneck still have barely any separation from the background until the image becomes high key.

With the addition of the back light, we are able to achieve separation while avoiding a high key image.

Back / Rim / Hair Light

The third light in this trio is the back light (aka rim light or hair light—when used to light hair). This is used to boost separation between your sitter and the background. It is especially important when working with a subject against a dark background. Under most circumstances, you do not want your sitter’s hair, clothing, or skin to blend into the background of your image as in the images above. For this seated portrait, the back light is positioned above the model and opposite the key light. Notice the splash of light on the model’s hair and a boost of separation between her sweater and the backdrop. The inclusion of a back light ensures background separation independent of the power of your key and fill lights.

Building on the Three-Light Setup

The nice thing about the three-light setup is that once you become comfortable with the basics, you can start to get more creative with your setups. Think of the standard three-point setup as the starting line, not the finish line. Sometimes you will want minimal fill to achieve a more dramatic effect. In other instances, your key light can do most of the illuminating. Using an un-gridded softbox or umbrella as your key light can often illuminate much of your subject. How precise you want your light placement is a matter of personal preference and style. Experiment with the positioning of your light source until you achieve what you want. As cliché as it sounds, there are no firm rules to lighting. What matters most is that you accomplish the image that you want. Take notes of what works—or, even better, behind-the-scenes shots so that once you land on a setup you like, you can repeat it in the future.

Notice the light separating the model’s hair, clothes, and arm from the background.

The example above uses two gridded OCF Softboxes (1 x 3') positioned at 45-degree angles as backlights, accentuating the model’s hair and providing necessary separation for her black jumpsuit against the black backdrop. A Profoto Deep White Umbrella (65") with Diffuser was positioned slightly camera left, providing little need for fill to achieve the desired effect for the shot.

This image kept the same setup as above, but added a rounded, white reflector beneath the model to wrap fill around her face.
This image kept the same setup as above, but added a rounded, white reflector beneath the model to wrap fill around her face.

Adding Reflectors into the Mix

Reflectors are extremely useful (and comparably cheap) tools for adding fill to images. You can even use a carefully placed reflector to replace a back or fill light. You won’t have as much control as you would adjusting the settings of a light, but you can still achieve excellent results. In the photograph above, Westcott’s Eyelighter 2 Reflective Panel is used to bounce the key light and wrap fill around the model’s face. Notice how this reduces the shadows under her chin compared to earlier images.

What is your favorite three-light setup? Share your tips in the Comments section, below!



Photographer: Cory Rice
Assist/Grip: Robert Sansivero
Behind-the-Scenes: John Harris
Model: Luz Lopez


Outstanding Article, indeed!!! I Love everything as being mentioned, from now on!!! Keep the Faith & Stay Blessed!!!

Thank you, James! I'm glad you found it helpful!

Great article. It reveals many subtleties that, to me, don't appear at first, but really make the portrait.

But you should have the model smile! She's very pretty, and as the photos progress from one light to the three light setup, she should be smiling!!