Why Are We Still Teaching 3-Point Portrait Lighting?

How often are people in the real world lit with a key light, fill light and a kicker? Does it make people look like they belong in a portrait studio or a 1950's movie? Are people in well-photographed movies or TV today lit 3-point? Or is it just the way film and video books and schools have been teaching it all along?

People in most interiors are lit with soft light, light from a window or bounced off the ceiling or a wall. Outside the 45 degree rule for sunlight or backlight works most of the time. People may or may not need fill or a kicker. Often we want women to look good, men macho, bad guys, bad and people not squinting. That is appropriate lighting.

I propose that we teach student photographers, videographers, D.P.s, cinematographers or what ever they want their credits to read, to record images appropriate to the story, lighting that feels like the scene would look to the human eye. This isn't accomplished by teaching them to light every scene key, fill and kicker.

I recommend that student photographers study well-lit movies frame by frame and try to figure out how each scene was lit and ask themselves "does the lighting feel appropriate to the story". Once the student can reproduce lighting that feels appropriate to the story, he's there. Once he has learned to control contrast to fit his recording medium he's there. "Message In A Bottle" shot by Caleb Deschanel is a great film to study. Study any of Caleb's work or Haskell Wexler's films.

Many locations already have a camera angle and actor position that will record well with no additional lighting or a minimum modification of light. Finding those positions is a good start. Learning to deal with the moving sun is important. The photographer has to plan to shoot the master shot when the light is best or lighting can be modified to look good. Then he must plan how and when during the day to get the necessary coverage (close-ups and inserts) so that the lighting will match the master shot.

News and run-and-gun documentaries need only adequate lighting; the best possible under the conditions before the event is gone forever. Often wisely selecting a good position for the tripod will provide a good background and lighting. Interviews hopefully have more time for the cameraman to select acceptable light with an appropriate background. So the practiced photographer, and a lot of practice is crucial, will know where the subjects and camera should go according to the existing light and background before he sets the tripod down.

Approaching a lighting problem to create a natural and appropriate look can end up as 3-point lighting, but should not start there.

I propose that we first teach student photographers how we see and that our eyes / brain can "see" about 13 stops contrast range in a scene, that is from no detail in black to no detail in white. Next we explain that most films have less contrast range than the eye and video much less yet. The venerable Zone System is one way to look at contrast measurement and control and reproducing scenes, as we perceive them. Today we don't have to learn all of the complicated Zone System process today when we have the camcorder that processes the "film" for us. We see our "dailies" even before we shoot the scene. If we can reduce the contrasts of real world scenes to 5 stops of the camcorder, we have learned real contrast control. Film with it's larger contrast ranges then becomes a lot easier.

Another important reason to learn natural and available light is that the beginning cameraperson will probably face those situations in their first jobs. Once he gets a chance to work on a stage he will probably have an experienced gaffer to help him out. His experience with natural and existing light will then be invaluable to create realistic lighting.

In the mean time the photographer should learn the path of the sun, which way is north, the hard light / soft light issue, color temperature, the I-Squared R Law, and when there is enough light for a decent image.

I recommend that students try my No Camera-Camera Course in rondexter.com.

Thanks for comments by Jon Fauer.

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