Key Light Placement – A Guide For Practice

It wasn’t that long ago the I observed a Hollywood cameraman teaching a lighting class at a film school in Aurora, Colorado. The students were working with many lighting kits and larger units of greater intensity. Quite frankly, it was a hodgepodge of confusion. There were many lights set up with no sense of direction or purpose of where the key light should be placed.

I assumed some day if I were to teach a class, how would I go about teaching lighting. In order to bring things down to the simplest form, I developed a key light exercise. It involves 13 choices that one could consider before actually setting a light in place. Keep in mind, a light does not have to be more than a floodlight from a hardware store with a 300 watt bulb. Robert Rodriguez used a similar light in his now famous movie, “El Mariachi”. He was a genius at placement of his key light to reach the maximum dramatic value.

The 13 choices are also inclusive of modification of the intensity of the light source. Please note, there are many variations of the 13 suggestions that you can create on your own.

Let’s assume you are setting lights in an average size room. There is a window to one side. The window does not necessarily affect where the key light is placed. There are two people sitting at a table near the center.

1. Hard light with no diffusion.
2. Hard light source with diffusion
a. spun
b. opal
c. flag with white or black net
d. other: (create your own)
3. Reflected light from shiny reflector
4. Reflected light from foam core
5. Reflected light from white poster board

The height of the key light will be:
6. At eye level (3 to 5 feet)
7. Above eye level (6 to 8 feet)
8. Below eye level (under 3 feet)
9. Directly overhead

In relationship to the camera master scene, the light will be from which angle.
10. The side
11. 3/4 angle
12. Frontal angle (sometimes referred to as the paramount lighting)
13. The rear as backlight

As an example one set up might be reflected light from white board at eye level from a side view. Think about it first, then put it into play.

Keep in mind, the angle of the key light can change as one moves in closer for shots of the actors. Drastic changes in the key light angle are seldom noticed unless you look very closely. A master scene from a 3/4 angle of light may have a side angle lighting on the actor’s face when shooting a close up. Abrupt changes in lighting can appear smooth if there is no jump cut.

Your practice time will be well spent. Please comment on how you are doing!

James Prange has been lighting for forty years. He has filmed hundreds of lower budget commercials and functioned as camera operator, gaffer, and director of photography on low budget features. Jim has found the need to create unique ways of producing quality while saving money. He has taught film production in many trade schools in the Colorado area. Please go to: