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How to Set Up High-Key Studio Lighting

One of the best things about shooting in a studio is having full control over the lighting. It’s not always easy to configure your setup for the effects you want to create. In this tutorial, we’ll explore creating and using a high-key lighting setup.

What it Means

Let’s start with a basic understanding of the name. “Key” is a reference to the main, or “key” light in a multiple-light arrangement. “High” refers to the power of the light source in regard to others in the scheme. Therefore, in this setup, the key light is stronger than the fill light(s).

Generally speaking, this lighting scheme produces an image in which the subject is relatively free of dark shadows, leaving the highlights predominant. In portraits and similar shots, the effect is usually combined with very strong lights on the background, to render it solid white.

When to Use It

High-key lighting is useful in creating portraits with a “light and airy” mood. The reduction of shadow areas creates less drama. That makes it an ideal choice for child photography or humorous shots.

This scheme is often used in product photography, to help isolate the subject, remove distractions and give the image a more upbeat and friendly feeling. High-key is a good choice for “happy” photos. It can also be effective in creating a ghostly effect, if modeling shadows are sufficiently reduced.

The Setup

The type of light source used isn’t critical, as long as your exposure settings and white balance are correct. You can mix modifiers as you wish to achieve harsher or softer effects. Large soft boxes work well for portraiture.  Although there are several ways to accomplish high-key lighting, we’re going to describe two basic setups that accomplish the desired effect consistently.

Three Lights

The diagram below shows a simple, three-light setup for a high-key portrait. The same principles apply for product photos, still life shots and similar images.

In this configuration, the key light is positioned close to the subject, at a 45-degree angle. Two lights are placed two to three feet from the background, also at 45 degrees. 

The background lights should be stronger than the subject light, to deliberately overexpose and “blow out” that area. One to two stops of difference should be enough. The key light should be modified and/or adjusted to minimize shadows on the unlit side of the subject.

Four Lights

To further reduce shadows, a fourth light may be added opposite the key light, as shown in the diagram below.

The key light should be moved farther from the subject in order to maintain the correct exposure level. A smaller fill light should be placed directly opposite the main light, again at an angle of about 45 degrees. This light should be less intense than the key light and adjusted to leave only enough shadows to model the subject.

Working Space

Both of these diagrams are based on a fairly large working space. The main advantage in this is the ability to maintain some distance between the subject and the background. That helps eliminate shadows from the background as well as any detail in the backdrop.

There’s no reason that a high-key setup can’t be managed in a smaller space. Poster board or a cyclorama can be used in place of a larger backdrop. A small strobe or continuous light will work for a key light. Smaller or less powerful strobes can be used for fill and v-cards or reflectors can also provide fill or background light. The key is balancing the lighting by placement and intensity adjustment.

Light Types

As mentioned earlier, the choice of light sources for high-key lighting isn’t critical. Flash, tungsten or daylight-balanced bulbs are all suitable. Sunlight, too, can be very effective. Don’t forget to select the appropriate white balance setting on your camera.

It is advisable to use sources with matching color temperatures. Mixing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent, sunlight with room lighting, and similar combinations will create uneven colorcasts in your images.

Metering

A light meter can be very helpful in positioning and adjusting your lights. It’s difficult to judge the differences in light intensity with your eyes, since your irises constantly adjust.

If you only have your camera available, you can adjust the metering mode to the spot setting and check the various areas of the shot to verify. If you’re using your camera’s auto exposure system, you may want to set your exposure compensation a stop or more over normal to achieve the desired result. A little experimentation will go a long way. A patient model will be a real asset, too.

Final Adjustments

If you’re not completely satisfied with your initial results, you can adjust your image in post processing. Luminar offers filters and masking to allow you to adjust exposure in selected areas, as well as presets that may provide just the effect you’re looking for.

Conclusion

A high-key lighting setup is fairly easy to create, even with limited space available. The configurations shown in this article should help get you started. Happy shooting!

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