Photography Glossary

What is High Key Lighting? Why is it Used?

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Written By Jon Ross

Imagine you’re walking through a gallery filled with stunning black-and-white photographs. As you stroll through the exhibit, one image catches your eye.

It’s a portrait of a young woman, her face illuminated with a soft, glowing light.

You can’t help but feel drawn to the image, wondering how the photographer was able to capture such a perfect moment.

What you may not realize is that the photographer used a specific lighting technique called “high key lighting” to create this beautiful portrait. High-key lighting is a style of lighting used in photography that involves using bright, even lighting to eliminate any harsh shadows in the image. This creates a soft and bright overall look to the photograph.

In this article, we’ll explore what high-key lighting is and when it’s used in photography. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a beginner, understanding high-key lighting can help you take your photography to the next level. So, let’s dive in and discover the secrets behind this captivating technique.

Knowing how high-key lighting influences a 3-point lighting setup and how to use it can step up your photography game.

With that being said, let’s dive into it!

What is High Key Lighting?

High-key lighting is a photography lighting technique that involves using bright, even lighting to create a soft, bright, and almost shadowless image.

This technique is achieved by using multiple light sources, diffusers, and reflectors to eliminate any harsh shadows in the image and create a bright and airy look.

High-key lighting is often used in portrait photography, fashion photography, and product photography to create a clean, bright, and polished look. The result is a photograph with a predominantly white or light-colored background that gives the impression of a cheerful and optimistic mood.

“Key” refers to the main light in the high key lighting setup. At the same time, the term “high” refers to the main light’s intensity/power compared to other lights in the setup. The phrase altogether refers to a high key lighting setup, where the key lights are much stronger than the fill lights.

Why is High Key Lighting Used?

The style itself is something people enter after mastering the basics and getting used to the camera. It is pretty unconventional and seems to be breaking some fundamental rules.

But in reality, high-key lighting has been present in photography for quite a long time.

The image itself is in its entirety a very bright portrait, presenting little to no shadows.

This method of photography is not some unorthodox over-exposing by the photographer, it is more of a creative decision to evoke certain moods.

Images that use high-key lighting have a more upbeat and lighthearted feel to them.

Your favorite sitcom and comedy show will most likely be using high-key lighting and your wedding and those baby photographs.

The technique is best at making shots more energetic and active. It is pretty effective at highlighting positive aspects of your subjects or objects.

It highlights positive, clean, and even romantic feelings.

The method also uses a quite interesting bias that people have towards the color white, especially those on buildings and clothes.

White is commonly associated with cleanliness, high quality, and also upscale.

Cafes and restaurants often make the most use of these associations. The most infamous one is the Hamburger restaurant chain, White Castle.

High-key lighting creates a clean focus on the center of attention, whether it is the married couple or a clean dining area.

high key lighting examples
using high-key lighting

Why is it Called High Key Lighting?

High-key lighting is called such because it involves using a lighting setup that creates a high ratio of light to shadow in the image. This means that the image will have more highlights and fewer shadows, resulting in a brighter overall look.

The term “key” in photography refers to the tonal value of the image, where low-key images are dark and moody, and high-key images are bright and airy. So, high key lighting is called that way because it creates an image with a higher key or brighter overall tonal range.

The concept of key lighting itself originated from the film industry. Camera people often use this term to refer to the main light in a particular scene.

Key lighting is also accompanied by the backlight and fill light to create the effect that they had in mind.

Combinations of these three elements are now referred to as the three-point lighting technique:

three point lighting

When is High Key Lighting Used?

The main reason photographers attempt this kind of lighting style is to reduce the lighting ratio in your scene.

The technique makes it ideal for showcasing since it isolates the subject and any visible distractions around it.

Yet, the high key lighting setup is traditionally used for technological issues. Because back in the old days, high contrast ratios were quite tricky and hard to deal with.

The lighting style is also used in many Hollywood cinemas. The main reason is its effectiveness for the three-point lighting method.

The style does not need many adjustments for various scenes, allowing the production team to finish their shoots much faster.

Despite its use in Hollywood movies, there are some situations where high-key lighting cannot be fully utilized. For example, scenes that need some drama and meaning will rarely use high lighting.

One of the most iconic high-key examples that illustrate the style beautifully is that one scene in Bruce Almighty. A classic age-old film where Jim Carey becomes somewhat of a God.

The scene starts with Jim entering the building with little to no shadow, the light coming from above and making the area look “Holy” in a sense. This lighting indicates to the viewers that Morgan Freeman is truly God.

In addition, since photography is easier to access nowadays, people use it to convey more upbeat feelings. Either it is for commercial purposes for food, beauty products, etc.

The look also implies a sense of truthfulness and openness. The high-key lighting examples for this are video interviews, training videos, or even an advertisement for the company.

Avoid using the high-key lighting setup when shooting dark-colored objects, it may look insincere to the viewers.

The usage of this style should work in tandem with the content, with the goal of making it cohesive and clear to the audience.

food photography high key lighting
using high-key lighting

High Key Lighting vs Low Key Lighting?

There is high-key lighting and low-key lighting. So, what does the low-key lighting do?

Is it just the same but with less light?

Well, if you thought that it is just the same but darker then you are correct! It is not entirely wrong that low-key lighting is the darker and edgier brother of the two.

Being the opposite of high-key photos is not easy.

The technique itself requires much darker tones, shadows, and really deep blacks. All of this is done to create a photo with very minimal amounts of mid-tones and whites.

Photos taken using this technique will often look mysterious and dramatic. People use this in many ways to highlight a certain aspect of their subject or object.

Maybe display a negative side of a character. The magnitude of this effect depends on the cohesion of your scene, subject, and also theme.

Here are the main characteristic differences between High key lighting and Low-key lighting:

High Key Lighting

  • Dominated by a range of white, caused by bright lights.
  • Has a minimal number of blacks and mid-tones.
  • Each image has an upbeat, playful, optimistic, and clean feel to it.
  • Extremely common in wedding, commercial, newborn, and portrait photography

When to Use High Key Lighting

  • Portrait Photography: This includes taking photos for business professionals, fashion shoots, or close-up shots. The usage in weddings is particularly popular for the photos of the bride.
  • Professional
  • Nature Shots
  • Cinematic Shots
  • Advertising and commercial photography (booklets, posters, brochures, etc.)

Low Key Lighting

  • This style incorporates a mostly dark-colored image. Images consist of darker tones, shadows, and deep blacks.
  • A minuscule number of whites and mid-tones.
  • Plays around with striking contrasts.
  • Images in this style feel more dramatic, serious, and mysterious.

When to Use Low Key Lighting

  • Dramatic close-ups: Journalism and Documentary photography will commonly use low-key lighting to emphasize the emotion of their subjects. Such as someone looking depressed or sad.
  • Emphasizing a certain part or product: Your subject or product has a certain feature you would like to highlight. For example, your subject’s tattoo or eyes.
  • Dramatic images in black and white
  • To encapsulate intense action moments.

Despite these guidelines, I recommend you try various scenes with different key lighting.

Be creative and stay curious folks, you never know what would look weird at first glance but in actuality works well.

To explore the subject of high-key vs. low-key lighting even further, check out this in-depth guide by Aputure:

How is High Key Lighting Done?

In general, to shoot proper high-key photography, you should grasp the three-point lighting and some handy tips when photographing.

Three-point lighting involves the key light, fill light and backlight.

If you don’t know what three-point lighting is, check out this visual representation:

three point lighting
3-point lighting setup

This is the secret recipe for creating a high-key image or even videos in the light and the shadows. If possible, I recommend using a large light source and soft shadows.

To achieve this effect, you can simply use large soft boxes or diffusers. This equipment is quite effective in adding lighting without including harsh shadows.

Remember about soft light and harsh light? The larger your light source, the softer the shadows appear.

While the smaller your light source is, the harsher the light becomes.

The scene of a high-key lighting setup itself would favor the lighter-colored backgrounds. These types of backgrounds help in amplifying the ambient light in a scene.

To create fewer and softer shadows, I recommend not putting the light directly in front of your subject/object. From my experience, such placing of the light will make anything appear flat.

Try placing the light around 30-45 degrees from the camera.

Combine the said angle with a well-lit scene, and perfectly angled fill light, and voila! Your subject/object is now looking more dimensional than before!

To further explore the subject of how high-key lighting is made, check out this video by Brady Bessette:

High-Key Lighting Tips

After studying the basics of three-point lighting, here are some tips to help you get started on those first few shoots.

1. Spread Out the Light

The best-case scenario is to have your subject lit from 360 degrees.

By having lights hitting your subjects everywhere, it becomes much easier to reduce shadow and contrasts.

2. Use Your Shadows

While the style reduces shadows, completely eradicating your shadows would be detrimental.

Incorporate soft shadows to add enough depth and detail.

You may encounter situations where shadows are nowhere to be seen, like when shooting outside.

3. Post-Processing

I cannot stress enough the importance of post-processing and editing. Despite some schools of photography that reject the idea.

High-key lighting meaning is a method of bathing your subjects with light.

Use post-processing and editing to tone down lighting just enough to show details.

As for the settings, you will need high exposure. To achieve this, set your shutter speed at a setting that overexposes your shot.

Then choose a fast, wide aperture to accompany it. Do not worry too much about ISO, I recommend starting with the lowest choice available.

Final Remarks

Today we have learned about the high key lighting meaning, its name, and some high key lighting examples. Let me recap them for you:

– High key lighting meaning is essentially overexposing your subject.

– The goal of high-key lighting is to provide an image that can be perceived as upbeat, playful, romantic, clean, and professional.

– Popular high-key lighting examples are portraits, weddings, and commercial photographs. Each uses them in a slightly different way, but with the look in mind.

  • Weddings commonly use this style on the groom to make them appear more romantic, beautiful, and captivating.
  • Companies use it to make themselves appear more professional and cleaner.
  • And the list goes on folks.

– Low key lighting is the complete opposite. The style produces shots that are mysterious in nature and look more serious than others.

  • Photographers often use this style to capture intense moments of actions or emotions from their subjects.

– High-key lighting can be done in any environment, preferably indoors or in a studio. But you can still do it outside you know! You can use nature to provide you with light and diffuse it as well.

  • Going outside for a photoshoot around 1-2 hours after sunrise or 2-3 hours before sunset can help provide you with great exposure.
  • Clouds can also help as a “natural light diffuser” giving you a softer look for that outdoor portrait.

– Do not forget the 3 tips to get you started too, there is no shame in using post-processing apps.

That’s pretty much it! I highly recommend you start practicing these tips whenever you can, either indoors or outdoors (if possible).

Practicing will make you comfortable with the style, and you become more perceptive about what is right or wrong in a shot. Best of luck.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you get high key lighting?

To achieve high key lighting, you need to use a lighting setup that produces bright, even lighting with minimal shadows. This can be achieved by using multiple light sources, diffusers, and reflectors to create a soft, even light that illuminates the subject and the background evenly.

How does high key lighting make us feel?

High key lighting often creates a cheerful and optimistic mood in the viewer by giving the impression of a bright, positive, and polished image. This makes high key lighting an ideal choice for photography genres such as fashion, beauty, and product photography, where a bright and upbeat look is desirable.

Is sunlight high key lighting?

Sunlight can be high key lighting if it meets the criteria of producing bright, even lighting with minimal shadows. However, sunlight can also create harsh shadows, depending on the time of day, weather conditions, and other factors, which would make it unsuitable for high key photography without additional lighting and modifiers to soften the shadows.

What lighting ratio is high key lighting?

High key lighting is typically achieved with a lighting ratio of 1:1 or 2:1 between the subject and the background, which means that the amount of light on the subject is similar or slightly brighter than the background. This creates a bright and even lighting across the image with minimal shadows, resulting in a high key look.