Bite Size Tips: What Is High Key Lighting And How To Set It Up

There is a huge difference between shooting in natural light and shooting in a studio because, in a studio, one has full control over lighting. Although it is not always easy to achieve the lighting you are looking for, you can experiment and change the way the lights are set up until you get the desired results.

There are many lighting techniques used for shooting portraits and each technique is employed to evoke a different mood in the image and it depends on what the photographer wants to show through their image. One of these is the “High Key Lighting Setup” that produces images that are almost free of dark shadows and the highlights are the dominant areas in the image.

Photo by Engin_Akyurt

What Is High Key Lighting?

High Key photographs have a lot of white and light tone areas and very little mid-tones and darks. This is achieved through high key lighting that is set up strategically in a way that the tones nearer to the mid range tones become almost white, while the whites are very white. The lights used are too bright so that they blow out all or most of the harsh shadows and other darker tones; in other words, the aim is to reduce the amount of shadow detail .

Photo by Erwin_1968

Where Is This Technique Applied?

High key lighting is used for portraits and still life photography to deliver a positive or cheerful feeling. It is also applied in product photography as it makes the product stand out and gives it a high-quality look. High key is also the preferred lighting method when photographing humorous and comical scenes.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

How Is The Lighting Set Up?

Key light refers to the main light source that illuminates the subject and there are many ways in which high key lighting can be set up. The basic would be to have at least three lights, where the key (main) light is positioned at an angle of about 45 degrees to the subject, while the other two background lights are positioned to illuminate the background to make it completely white. It is best to use a neat and smooth white backdrop (preferably linen or 9 ft wide roll of white paper, to avoid reflections) so that the background is free of any specks.

Note: You don't have to stick with 45 degrees, experiment with various angles starting from 15 degrees onwards. Some setups even have the light in front of the subject.

Illustration created for Light Stalking – High key lighting set up with three lights

Having only the key light shine on the subject can create some harsh shadows on the other side of the subject and hence to avoid that, you can use a fourth light source (smaller and less intense than your key light) as fill light on the other side of the subject at about 45 degrees to the subject so it can smooth off and brighten the shadow areas. Remember, you don't have to stick to any angle of incidence, but instead, try various angles for both key and fill light and choose what is visually appealing.

Illustration created for Light Stalking – High key lighting set up with four lights

Key Points To Remember For High Key Lighting Setup:

  1. Use a pure white background to help create a perfect white background easily
  2. Have a minimum of three lights – one key light and two lights for background
  3. Best to have four lights – one key light, one fill light and two lights for background
  4. Do not stop with four lights, in fact, you can add more lights wisely to create artistic high key images.
  5. Adjust the angles at which the key light and fill light fall on the subject to create a different effect in your high key photograph.
  6. Practise a lot with the lighting set up as your first shot is not going to be the best. So practise and experiment till you get the look you need
  7. Do not stop with portraits and products, but experiment with other genres as well!
  8. Do not hesitate to make slight final adjustments while post processing although getting the lighting correct in camera is recommended.

If you are looking to make beautiful portraits and are struggling with lighting, here is your chance to truly master light and produce amazing and inspiring images of your own. Discover the secrets to controlling and manipulating light in this ebook Understanding Light by Photzy.

Further Resources:

  1. Getting Started With High Key Portraiture
  2. 12 Unmissable Tutorials On High Key Photography
  3. How To Get Great Portraits With Minimal Equipment
  4. How Does High Key Lighting Technique Work With Portrait Photography
  5. High Key And Low Key Light For Wildlife

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About the author

Dahlia Ambrose

Dahlia is a physicist and self taught photographer with a passion for travel, photography and technology. She can sometimes get obsessed trying new photography techniques and post processing styles using Lightroom or Plugins in Photoshop. She occasionally writes articles on topics that interest or provoke her. You can check out her photography on Instagram, 500px and Flickr


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