3 Point Lighting Explained!

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon1 Comment

Jeff hosts with Connor at the roundtable to talk about 3 point lighting.  They cover key/fill/hair lighting, how they should be positioned, how they should be powered, and why a photographer would want to use a 3 point lighting setup.


Welcome to the Master Photography Roundtable part of the Master Photography Podcast Network!  You are joined by thousands of photographers listening to this show who are all on the same journey to master their photography.  I am Jeff Harmon, the host for this episode and joining me at the roundtable today is my friend and co-host of the Portrait Session podcast, Connor Hibbs.  How are you Conor?

3 Point Lighting

  • Connor, I have wanted to do an episode on this topic for a while now.  I know you and Erica have talked about it a lot over on the Portrait Session podcast, but it is a topic that I continue to see requested over and over by listeners and I have never talked with you about it myself.  So we are going to do it in this episode.
  • I want to have my own personal training session here that we will share with several thousands of our closest friends and have you help me with 3 point lighting.  Even though I know and have played around with some of this I am going to jump in as you help me with this and ask you to explain terms if that is OK?
  • First up, tell me why it is called 3 point lighting and why or when would a portrait photography want to us it?

Key Light?

  • Main light is another word for it.  Going to be the brightest part of the face
  • Which side? Light on the side where their hair is parted good starting point
  • How far up in relation to model? Center of modifier 6” to foot above eye level of model
  • How far away from the model? Varies and should play with it.  Connor likes it right there next to subject, light falls of faster that way.
  • “Quality” is the way the light transitions from bright to shadow.  Smoother transition that doesn’t have harsh lines between the bright and the shadow is higher “quality” light.
  • What modifier? Softboxes over umbrellas because there is a lip to it. Stripboxes are long rectangular softboxes.  Shoot through umbrella to start for sure, least expensive way to get into lighting.
  • Control is so much easier with a softbox vs an umbrella.  Control means that the light just goes everywhere with an umbrella.  A softbox or a strop box or other light modifiers like grids and snoots help you to control where the light goes better.  The direction and the size.
  • To get that dark background (low key portrait), decrease the distance between the light and the model and stop down the aperture (increase the aperture number).
  • On camera flash less appealing because light on direct axis with the camera produces a shadow behind the model and on the background.  Humans used to seeing light above people.

Fill Light?

  • Hesitate calling it a fill light vs fill.  Can use a reflector to do this. Two lights may not actually work well.
  • There to soften the shadows a little.
  • Darkest points on the face aren’t really dark.
  • Reflector just barely outside of the shot.  90 degrees from keylight, make sure some of the light from the key light is hitting the reflector.
  • What kind of reflector? 5 in 1? Use white first, then silver.  Don’t use gold!
  • How to hold the reflector up? Light stand with clamps, just plastic clamps.  Clamps and stand closest to you instead of reflector closest to you to make it easier to move it around.  Straight up and down. Square reflector
  • If using a light, what ratio? 2:1 usually.  Relative power, factors like distance and modifiers play a role.  Play around with it until you get the look you want until it looks the way you want it.


  • Purpose is to separate the subject from the background.
  • Traditionally placed directly behind the person above the head, less favorable now.  Requires a boom arm, which is probably why not favored
  • Brighter than main/key light
  • Should be able to take a photo with just key light and see even lighting on top of head and shoulders.
  • Flash on a foot on the ground? Can use it but not exactly the same effect.  Still worth doing it. Still creates some separation.
  • 1-2 feet behind model and high enough it is not in the photo
  • Modifier? Strip box is preferred here, helps to wrap around the shoulders.
  • Wrap around? Light comes out of modifier, equal directions of all modifiers.  Some of the shoulders on the side will be lit.

How To Setup?

  • When you are setting this up, how do you get started?  Do you setup your exposure without any lights on? What settings do you start with on the camera?  Have heard that shutter speed does not affect the lighting, is that right?
    • No high speed sync on many flashes, so safe speed is 1/125 second.  Just set it there and leave it.
    • Low ISO.
    • Don’t shoot wide open.  Middle apertures look like studio.  f/8
    • Use power of light to get the exposure.
    • If you know you can go faster with your camera shutter should you.  Yes.
    • Faster shutter doesn’t mean more power on the flash.
  • Do you add one light at a time?
    • Recommend if you are starting out is to add one light at a time.  Start with key light. Start at middle of power output. Maybe a step down from there to save power.
    • Use light meter for figuring out exposure.  Histogram can be used if you zoom in on just the model’s face.
    • Turn of key and setup fill, looking for a little underexposed.  Turn on both and validate it looks good. Turn on hair and leave the other two on.  Just want to make sure the hair isn’t being blown.

High Key vs. Low Key Photo?

What is a high key vs. a low key photo?  Do you do anything different with the lights or camera settings?

  • Key, except for the light in 3-point lighting, means background
  • High key is bright background, 2.5 stops brighter than model
  • Low key is a dark background, pretty much everything Connor shoots.  Add in hair light is critical here.

Flash vs. Speedlight vs. Strobe?

  • flash/speedlight the same thing, usually battery powered and less power output
  • Strobe plugged in for power and capable of much more power
  • I have a Photo Taco episode called “Inexpensive Flash” where I outline the gear I recommend for photographers who would like to dip their toes into things like this that I will put a link to in the show notes (https://phototacopodcast.com/2017/10/09/inexpensive-flash/).  Good place to mention that there is a great way to search for Photo Taco episodes on topics by going over to phototacopodcast.com and there is a search bar on the page that will search through all of the shows that I have done since 2015.  I put the word “flash” into that search and came up with 3 different episodes where I talked about flash in different ways. Just a resource I wanted to make sure you listeners all knew about.





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  1. Fantastic Podcast!!!
    This is getting great, usable, information out.
    Really appreciate the show notes as well.

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