What is high-key lighting and how can you use it?

Whenever you are shooting video or taking a picture, you always want to create some kind of mood. High-key lighting can help you create a feeling visually. It’s important to know what high-key lighting is and how you can use it to add depth to your film’s atmosphere and style.

There’s a lot to understanding and mastering high key lighting. While it does involve white backgrounds and high contrast, that isn’t all there is to it.

What is high-key lighting?

High-key lighting is a style of lighting that can be used for film or photography. The word “key” in the phrase refers to the main light in a multi-light arrangement. As for the word “high”, it refers to the power of the main light compared to other lights being used. When you look at the phrase together, it means that when you use a high-key setup, the key light is stronger than the fill lights.

The key characteristics of high-key lighting usually include homogeneous and free from dark shadows. So usually, the shot has very little to no shadows present. The primary reason why you would use this technique would be to reduce the lighting ratio that’s present in a scene. It’s ideal for isolating the subject and removing any surrounding distractions. It’s also effective at creating a ghostly effect when the modeling shadows are reduced. Traditionally, high-key lighting was utilized for technological reasons. Back in the early days of film and television, high contrast ratios were not dealt with well. Additionally, the technique was used in classical Hollywood cinema because it worked well for three-point lighting. In more recent times, the technique is more often used to suggest a more upbeat mood.

There is an advantage to using high-key lighting. It doesn’t require adjustments for each scene. This allows the production to complete shoots a lot quicker. Shoots that might take days would only take hours. However, there is a drawback. High-key lighting usually isn’t adequate at adding meaning and drama to a scene. It lights certain parts of a scene more prominently than other parts.

Why would you use high-key lighting?

Usually the mood high-key lighting coveys is more upbeat and is used in funny, lighthearted projects. It’s a go-to for many sitcoms and comedies. It’s also regularly used for portraits and weddings. The technique is great for making shots look active and energetic. It’s an effective way for reeling showcasing a subject’s positivity. That is why it’s often used when shooting weddings and couples. It highlights the positive, romantic feelings between the two subjects. It’s also often used for baby photography.

Wedding photography
High-key lighting is used often for wedding photography. Image courtesy: SLR Lounge

High-key lighting is also a staple in production video and photography. Usually, when a product is shown on white, people tend to think of the product as high quality and upscale. Objects look very attractive when shot in this way. The entire shot looks airy and light. It also gives consumers a positive feeling and focuses their attention on the product.

How to setup high-key lighting

High-key lighting is a lighting design that uses fill light and backlight to create low contrast between brighter and darker areas. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the lighting technique was done through multiple light sources when lighting a scene. Crews usually used three fixtures per person on the left, right, and central. It results in a uniform lighting pattern with very little modeling. However, today things are different. Multiple hot light sources are replaced with more efficient fluorescent soft lights. They create a similar effect.

The ultimate goal when creating high-key videos and images is to use large light sources and soft shadows. Large softboxes or diffusers are effective at brightly lighting a scene while keeping shadows soft. There are a few ways to create high-key lighting. Here are two basic setups that can be achieved fairly easily inside a studio.

Three-light setup

For this setup, you want to position the key light up close and at a 45-degree angle from the subject. Next, have two lights facing the background. These two lights are placed two to three feet from the background and are also at a 45-degree angle from the subject. The lights you use for the background should be stronger than the key light so they can overexpose and glow out the area. To do this, have the lights about a one to two stops difference. At this point, there should be little to no shadows on your subject. Modify your key light if there are still strong shadows.

Four-light setup

In a four-light setup, you will be able to remove even more shadows. This setup is similar to how the three-light setup is, however you add a fourth light opposite to the key light. The key light should be moved further from the subject. This is important because you want to ensure the exposure is correct. The fourth light being added should be a smaller fill light. Same as the other lights, this should be 45 degrees from the subject. Also, this light should be less intense as the key light.

It’s important to leave just enough shadows on the model to make sure the model isn’t overexposed. Never put your light source directly in front of your subject. It’s going to flatten the subject. Shadows give dimension, so while you should try to keep the shadows to a minimum, you should still shoot for some soft shadow on the subject.

High-key lighting in film

“Bruce Almighty”

“Bruce Almighty” contains a scene that is the prime example of how high-key lighting can be used. In this scene, Bruce (Jim Carrey) meets God (Morgan Freeman). It takes place inside of an empty, yet well-lit warehouse. God offers Bruce his powers after Bruce complained that he should be fired from his job. God wants to prove to Bruce that he’s doing a good job.

Video courtesy: Spyglass Entertainment, Shady Acres, and Pit Bull Productions

In the instance where God is face to face with Bruce, both he and Bruce have little shadows on them. There is a light source shining above them to indicate that Morgan Freeman’s character came from someplace holy, indicating that he is God.

“Moonrise Kingdom”

Wes Anderson is likely one of the most famous directors of modern cinema. He’s also one of the most consistent users of high-key lighting. There are many instances where he utilizes the technique. For instance, in “Moonrise Kingdom” we can see both subjects are evenly lit despite the scene is outside. As stated above, this lighting technique is associated with positivity and is very effective at converting the purity of childhood. “Moonrise Kingdom” focuses on the make-believe world of childhood. He is visually able to convey that through his use of high-key lighting.

Video courtesy: American Empirical Pictures / Indian Paintbrush

Try it out for yourself

While high-key lighting isn’t right for every project, it can be used in many unique and creative ways. Try it out for yourself. This technique can be used to make a scene feel energetic and happy. It can also be used to make a scene feel ghostly and holy, as we saw in Bruce Almighty. High-key lighting is an important technique that all videographers and photographers should have in their arsenal. Practice the technique on your own so you can use it whenever you might need it for a future project.

Image courtesy: Imagine Entertainment

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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