A lot changes when you step outside of a controlled studio setting.
As a lighting professional, what you notice immediately is that you have less control over the ambient light sources around you — whether the production takes place indoors or outdoors.
If you’ve ever struggled to force a traditional three-point lighting setup to work, you’re not alone. It’s not always easy or practical to use all the equipment you want for a shoot, but there are ways to still get that three-point lighting effect even when the actual setup isn’t feasible.
This guide will break down exactly how you can do this for non-studio productions.
Why Three-Point Lighting Matters
The main components of three-point lighting — i.e., a key light, fill light, and back light — give off a really pleasing appearance on-camera when positioned properly.
And that’s because every light in this triad serves a purpose.
Here’s an example of what a traditional three-point lighting setup looks like:
The fill light reduces the harsh shadow cast by the key light, which creates an overall well-balanced lighting effect. And the back light adds some separation between the background and the person or object in the frame.
Using these different types of lighting together is a great way to establish good lighting right out of the gate (especially when you want to accentuate a focal point, whether a person, product, etc.).
Once you make the final adjustments to this setup, you can then use additional practical and motivated light sources to improve the overall image quality.
All things considered, it’s no secret why three-point lighting is a staple for many lighting professionals in or out of a studio space.
The only caveat is that implementing this type of lighting technique becomes more difficult when working in non-studio locations (i.e., outdoor venues, stage productions, event spaces, etc.).
Let’s take a look at two factors that can make it difficult for you to use a three-point lighting setup in any production, but especially one that takes place outside of a studio.
Factors That Make it Hard to Use Three-Point Lighting
No matter where a production takes place, everything comes down to the budget.
If your budget is tight and resources are limited, it might not be possible for you to make any new lighting equipment purchases, big or small. And while renting is a great alternative to buying, there’s a chance that the gear you have now might be all that you can affordably use.
The amount of gear that you need for a production can quickly add up, especially when you consider that three-point lighting alone requires multiple pieces of equipment. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
You also need to account for motivated lights, diffusion material, color gels for correcting mixed color temperatures, and more.
Simply put, your budget is a deciding factor in whether or not you can afford to use traditional three-point lighting.
Using your budget as a guide, the next major factor to consider is location.
Will the production take place in a studio or non-studio location? How much physical space will you have to work with? How many lights will you need to fill this space?
If a production takes place in a large indoor venue, you’ll naturally need more lighting equipment than you would in a small indoor venue. Knowing this, you’ll have to refer back to your budget and decide whether or not it’s actually possible to use all the gear you want.
If it is possible, that’s great. If it isn’t, you’ll have to improvise and follow the tips we’re sharing in the next section of this guide.
How to Get Three-Point Lighting Anywhere
In a non-studio setting, you can lose a lot of the control you would typically have in a studio setting.
That’s because studios are designed to make a lighting professional’s job easier during production. And a non-studio setting that you’re rigging with lighting equipment for the first time isn’t designed that same way.
It can be difficult to set up three-point lighting in the traditional sense (i.e., with the three pieces of equipment), even when you have the budget to do it.
To get the great-quality lighting you want in any location, you need to be able to arrive prepared, know your limits, and get inventive.
First things first. Visit the location for a production ahead of time and do some lighting recon in the space.
Even though the fundamentals of lighting are the same — and things like mixed color temperatures will always be an issue — every location is different.
Maybe one venue already has the basic lighting equipment prepped and ready for use, so you’ll only need to bring along a few pieces of supplemental gear. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you’ll need to bring along any gear that you can based on your budget.
Whatever the case might be, you don’t want to go in blind to any studio or non-studio production.
Know your limits
Once you’re familiar with the production location, the next step is to figure out what you can and can’t do in the space.
Does the venue have regulations that limit the type of lighting equipment you can use? The last thing you want is to start setting up your gear the day-of only to find out that you have to re-think and redo your entire setup.
Is there limited space to set up your equipment? As you prepare for the production, you’ll need to be even more selective about the type of gear you bring. Maybe you prioritize your three-point lighting setup and leave behind any additional gear that you wouldn’t have space for.
If you know you’ll be moving from one location to another — or you’ll need to set up your equipment in an outdoor space — traditional three-point lighting just isn’t doable.
In this case, you’ll have to get inventive and find alternative ways to get the right lighting with less gear.
One of the best ways to do this is to use the sun as your key light. Here’s what we mean.
If you’re indoors, set up your equipment near a big window and take advantage of the natural light coming in. Use duvetynes to have more control over the lighting, like the production team did in the example above.
If you’re outdoors, use a bounce board and diffusion material to get rid of any unpleasant glares and get more control over the lighting during production.
This is all to say that you can use different types of materials and lighting gear to enhance the ambient lighting in a non-studio location and still create a nice three-point lighting effect.
Mackenzie is a copywriter at Soundstripe, a stock music company that provides filmmakers, creators, and advertisers with royalty free background music and royalty free country music (among other genres) for video.