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CG Lighting Myth #1: 3 Point Lighting is good

When I am teaching a lighting and shading class whether it is for 3d animation students or digital visual effects students, I enter the third or fourth class and, without speaking, write big words across the whiteboard that say “3 POINT LIGHTING SUCKS”.

This usually results in an emotional response. It is, after all, a pretty bold statement in an industry where 95% of all artists rely heavily on this technique. Sometimes I think the class is going to lynch me for making a statement that flies so directly in the face of convention. After all, they have spent a year or more being told that 3 point lighting is the be-all and end-all; that it is THE technique from which all lighting begins. All the other instructors taught them 3 point. All they have read about on the forums is 3 point. Who’s this new guy walking in and saying something completely opposite?

Well it is certainly true that most lighting is currently created using this technique. That really helps explain why most CG renders are so bad that they have to be broken down into 25 render passes so that the compositor can try to cobble together something that looks decent. It helps explain why visual effects are so expensive. And it explains why there are always job openings for good lighting artists. So let’s start at the beginning and explore WHY this technique, while so stinking awful, is so popular.

Back at the dawn of CG, when all we had for lighting tools were point lights, spot lights and directional lights, it was very difficult to create lighting that looked very good. These tools are extremely limited and none of them really behaves the way a real light behaves. But most artists are not well enough trained in the visual arts to understand the nature of light, so they can’t really tell whether or not the lighting tools work properly. They trust that the software engineer who wrote the tool knows what he’s talking about. They trust that, although that software engineer has probably spent his mature life learning software engineering, he is also so expert a visual artist that he knows the nature of light intuitively. He trusts that the tool DOES work properly and DOES represent visual reality which, of course, it does not. So now we have artists who don’t really know what visual reality is trying to recreate visual reality with tools that they don’t know don’t work very well. Quite a recipe for disaster, neh?

Then, one day, someone who has worked in film, TV or Theatre, comes along. That person has studied the McCandless method of lighting and understands how to light theatrically. You see, on stage, most lighting comes from small directional light sources similar to those available in CG. This person applies the McCandless technique of Key, Fill, Rim and gets a nice result. Other artists look at this nice result and, having previously had enormous difficulty achieving anything nice themselves, ask about the technique, learn it, and then hold on to it like it is the holy grail.

3 Point lighting is a revolution to a whole generation of artists who are not well enough trained to analyze and recreate lighting through their own devices. 3 Point lighting is a recipe that makes any object look “cool”. 3 Point lighting sweeps the globe. Suddenly anybody can make a model look “nice” or “cool”. 3 Point lighting saves the day! It doesn’t really matter that the lighting doesn’t look “right” or “good” as long as it looks “cool” or “nice”. Cool is better than bad…..isn’t it? Nice is better than bad, isn’t it? Well sure it is.

Suddenly artists who couldn’t light their way out of a paper bag are hailed as lighting gods using this paint-by-numbers technique. So many people find success using it that they teach it to others who teach it to others. Eventually it is taught by every school everywhere as THE lighting technique. Every school I have ever taught at does this. I usually discretely query the class about lighting technique early on. I ask how they would light this, or how they would light that. The answer is invariably “Well, 3-point lighting, of course,” and with a little incredulity, I might add.

So now you must be wondering what my beef is. If so many artists worldwide (the vast majority in fact) use this technique, and so many great pictures are made, then how can this be a bad technique? A million artists can’t be wrong, can they? Well of course they can. Just because most people in the past believed the Earth was flat didn’t make the Earth flat. It didn’t pop into a spherical shape the day the majority realized it was spherical. So obviously a large body of people believing something that is wrong doesn’t make it right. So here is my simple objection to the 3 point lighting technique:

Most lighting in the universe is not key,fill, rim. That’s it.

So what’s wrong with that?

1) Like any other compositional element, there is an infinite, beautiful and diverse variety of light. Using only one technique is damn boring. It’s like always plinking one note over and over on a grande piano with 88 keys.

2) It is ridiculous to presume that rim lighting always exists or is necessary

3) it ignores the reflective nature of the surrounding environment.

4) it is ridiculous to presume that key and/or fill lights and/or rim lights are always (or often) highly directional

5) it is beyond absurd to presume that there must always be three light sources (4 if you include a ground bounce)

6) most real lighting is not even remotely similar to 3-point, therefore it is impossible to light most VFX marginally well using that technique.

7) most lighting artists use 3-point in VFX anyway, which makes compositing a nightmare, which makes VFX very expensive.

8 ) 3 point has become a cult. Many production artists actively argue against other techniques, mainly because without 3 point lighting they would be out of a job.

9) 3 point, like HDRI lighting, is the refuge of the incompetent or the desperate. Great lighting artists do not need these techniques to create spectacular lighting. They need a deep, rich understanding of the nature of visual reality, and they need a deep skepticism of their tools.

So by this point, you are most likely:

1) disgusted and incredulous at my idiocy.

2) frightened and confused by an obvious reality that you had missed previously so you reject my reality and substitute your own.

3) interested and curious about how to get past paint-by-numbers and become something greater.

If you fall into categories #1 or #2, then carry on. Nothing to see here. Thank you for being courteous enough to get this far. Goodbye.

If you fall into the #3 category, then start by:

1) learning what high-range light is and understanding how bright lights really are

2) studying lots of photographs and always using photographic reference when lighting

3) always looking for the light sources. There are two kinds, direct and indirect. Everything you can see is a light source.

4) figuring out the light properties of real lights. (there is only one light type in the universe)

5) don’t “light” the scene. Put appropriate lights where they belong and then let THEM light the scene. Then tweak.

6) seriously distrusting your tools. Try to figure out what each parameter is supposed to represent in reality.

Don’t be impatient. Like any worthy visual art this is a life-long study.