Three point lighting is a lighting technique widely used in photography, film, animation and computer graphics. As the name implies, it has three components. This article will cover what 3-point lighting is and how to create it in Blender (manually and with a free plug-in).

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What is 3-Point Lighting?

As the name implies, 3-point lighting uses three light sources to illuminate whatever we are trying to focus on in a scene. This can be an object, a character or the entire scene itself.

It’s very noticeable in product mock-ups and modeling, but it’s used almost everywhere.

Each light in the three-point lighting system serves a different purpose. When any of the three light sources is missing, an image feels incomplete or dull. Below are the three types of lights used in the technique and what each one does.

Three-point lighting is one of several topics covered well in Visual Storytelling by Morgan Sandler – a book I highly recommend for artists.

Key Light

The Key Light is the main source of lighting for the scene. It provides the most light overall (although it may not be the strongest) and is placed in the front and to one side of the object in focus.

The key light will also cast most of the shadows (shadows are very important in lighting as well). If you look at an image and ask yourself which direction the lighting is coming from, you’ll probably figure out where the key light is placed in the scene.

A key lamp added to a Suzanne monkey in Blender.

Someone new to 3D rendering may place a key light and think they’re done lighting the scene. But it’s the next two light sources that really make the lighting look professional.

Industrial 3D Models in the Blender viewport.
Industrial greeble assets in Blender 3D viewport.

Fill Light

The “Fill Light” is placed front of the model but on the opposite side of the key light. It is generally the least powerful light in a scene. This light serves to fill in some (not all) of the shadows cast by the key light. It softens the shadows so they are not overwhelming or distracting.

A fill lamp and key lamp added to a Suzanne monkey in Blender.

The fill light’s strength compared to the key light’s strength is how we balance the overall strength and impact of shadows in the scene.

Rim Light / Back Light

The third light source in a 3-point lighting system is called the “Rim Light” or the “Back Light.” This is usually a very powerful light and is cast from the rear of the object in focus.

A rim light added to a Suzanne Monkey in Blender.

The role of the rim light is to cast sharp light around the outer contour of an object. This results in what appears to be an outline of light separating the focus object or character from the background.

Manually Add 3-Point Lighting in Blender

We can of course simulate real-world three point lighting easily in Blender. In a simulated environment we actually have even more control than in the real world. We may use point lights, spot lights, sun lamps and area lighting for this.

A basic three point lighting system diagramed with key, fill and rim lights in the Blender viewport.

Above is a basic three point lighting set-up with two point lamps and a spot light for the rim light. To learn more about the basics of lighting, see my full introduction to lighting in Blender.

A quick and easy way to set up a three-point lighting system is with an add-on that’s already installed when we download Blender…

The Free 3-Point Lighting Add-On for Blender

When we download Blender, there are several add-ons that come pre-installed and just need to be activated. One of these add-ons is called “Tri-Lighting” and it automatically sets up a three-point lighting system in Blender.

Add-ons are a great way to increase functionality in Blender. I have lists of my favorite free add-ons for Blender and the best paid ones I’ve found.

Two 3d human models
Human Generator Add-On for Blender

Activate Tri-Lighting for Blender

To activate the tri-lighting add-on in Blender, go to the User Preferences and in the add-on tab search for “Tri-Lighting.” Then select the box next to the add-on to activate it.

The tri-lighting add-on activated in the Blender user preferences.

Add Three Point Lights with Tri-Lighting in Blender

With the Tri-Lighting add-on activated, we have a new option when we add lamps to our scene.

Before We Add Lights…

The add-on adds three lamps based on the camera’s angle and which object is actively selected. So before we add lights, we want to be sure our active camera is in the position we want it.

We also need to left click to select the object that will be the focus of our three-point lighting.

A camera pointed at a suzanne monkey which is selected in Blender.

Add Tri-Lighting to Scene

Hover the cursor in the 3D viewport and press “Shft+A” to add a new object (see my full list of Blender shortcuts). Alternatively, we can choose from the “Add” drop-down menu at the top of the viewport.

In the “Lights” category, select the new option labeled “3 Point Lights.”

The 3 point lights option in the add object menu in Blender.

The plug-in automatically adds three lights. They are arranged around the actively selected object and oriented based on the position of our camera.

These lights are parented and tracked to the active object. This means when we move the active object, the lights will follow it.

Three lamps added to a scene with the tri-lighting add-on for Blender.

Adjusting Three-Point Light Settings

By default, the three-point lighting system may be too dim or too bright for our scene. There are settings that can be adjusted immediately after the lights are added.

When we add the lighting, an operator panel opens in the bottom left corner of the 3D viewport. Click the arrow to expand the operator panel and see the available settings. These settings are no longer available after we perform another operation in Blender.

The tri-lighting operator panel settings in Blender.

Position

The position settings control the height and distance of the three lights. Adjusting the height moves all three lamps up or down while keeping them focused on the target object.

The distance setting moves the lights closer or farther away from the subject object.

Light

The light settings control the “base energy” and contrast of the three-point-lighting. Increasing or decreasing the base energy will proportionally increase and decrease the strength of all three lamps. Their relative strength compared to each other will remain constant.

The contrast setting controls how much contrast exists between the three lights. Increasing this for additional contrast gives a starker difference between lit and shadow areas. Decreasing it softens the shadows.

A beach scene with nature assets
Geo Scatter Add-on for Blender

Orientation

In the orientation settings are three settings for “Left Angle,” “Right Angle” and “Back Angle.” Each of these controls the angle of one of the three lamps. The orientation is limited to one axis for each lamp.

As we rotate the lights, they will remain focused on the subject object.

Light Types

One of the most important settings is saved for last. We may choose a type of lamp to use for the key light and a different lamp type to use for both the fill and back lamps.

The options for these lamp types include the four main lamps in Blender: Point, Spot, Sun and Area. Each lamp will produce a significantly different lighting effect. Play around with different combinations until you find the one you like best.

Conclusion

Three point lighting is a common and effective lighting principle in many forms of art. It’s easy to set up manually in Blender or with the tri-lighting add-on that comes pre-installed with Blender. I hope this was helpful content.

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Brandon Stocking

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