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In the world of cinematography, there are certain lighting looks which we attribute to particular types of movies. For example, a noir thriller film will be shot in a very specific way which includes high contrast, dark compositions, and those iconic window shutter shadows across a character’s face.

However, while that look might be right for a black-and-white pulp detective film from the 1950s, it’s going to look much different from a modern romantic comedy, or — you know — a corporate recruitment video.

For many film and video types needed today, cinematographers will often opt to go with a high key lighting look because it has become synonymous with professionalism, cheerfulness, and clarity. (As opposed to a low key lighting look which is often darker, higher in contrast, and harsher.)

Let’s look into this high key lighting and explore how it can be used in your films and video projects.

 

What is high key lighting?

In a nutshell, high key lighting is a lighting style notable for the pronounced use of the key light source as a way to compose a brightly lit scene with soft shadows, consistent lighting, and almost no contrast. 

This look is used across all types of films, television, and high key photography and has been used for decades as a way to minimize dark shadows or contusions in favor of brightness, levelness, and clarity.

For a little bit more clarity, high key lighting is usually thought of in relation to low key lighting which provides the opposite style and effect. Low key lighting makes little use of the key light (and more use of fill lights) as a way to compose scenes to be harsh, inconsistent, and provide lots of high contrast ratios and shadows.

Examples of high key lighting in film

 

 

As you can see in the video above, high key lighting makes heavy use of the key light in a three-point lighting setup (which is where the style gets its name). From there, it also makes heavy use of the fill light and the backlight to compliment the bright key and cover your subject evenly with soft, bright, and consistent light.

And to be honest, you probably see examples of this lighting style in the vast majority of the film, television, and video content that you consume on a daily basis. 

Whether it’s comedies, Hallmark holiday movies, television news programs, or your favorite YouTube vlogger setups, high key lighting is the go-to lighting type for just making sure your subjects are clear on camera.

The real goal is to find the right lighting ratio to simply make sure your audience can see and understand what is going on in each shot of a scene. There can still be a bit of variance in contrast, but that’s only usually done on background elements as a way to make your main subject (or subjects) pop a bit. 

High key lighting vs low key lighting

 

 

Of course, when talking about a high key lighting setup we also have to quickly explore how it compares to a low key lighting setup. While there’s obviously a lot to cover here, it’s also important to note that both of these terms are used loosely to define two distinct mindsets for cinematography.

For high key lighting looking to create a high key image, the name of the game is clarity for the sake of the audience. For low key lighting, it’s also about challenging the audience and using lighting as a way to create a mood, build a theme, and tell a story.

With these different approaches, there will be countless decisions to be made: setup of the spaces being used for a scene; the types of lights actually being used; the proximity, angles, and brightness of these lights; and even how your camera is set up and configured to read the light on set.

Looking specifically at a high key lighting setup though, let’s go over some of the best tips and tricks for getting this particular bright and clear look. 

Working with your key light

 

 

For starters, you’ll want to make sure you have a solid understanding of how lighting in film works in general. That includes having a rough idea of how different lighting types, colors and temperatures, and fill light setups can be used to create lights, shadows, and contrast in your scenes.

From there, it also wouldn’t hurt to be knowledgeable about video editing, color correcting, and color grading (as you can see is the case in the video above from the Wandering DP on YouTube). This will help to give you some insights into how your lighting on set will ultimately be graded and used in the final version of the video.

All that being said, here are some basic tips to keep in mind when working with high key lighting and a bright lighting setup:

  • Start with the key: As always, start with your key light as your first light source and build from there as it will inform the rest of your lighting needs.
  • It’s OK to use natural light: With high key lighting in particular, natural light can actually be your friend for adding light to windows or in outdoor setups. (Of course, it can be fickle to work with.)
  • Consider softboxes and umbrellas: When looking at types of lighting, softboxes and umbrellas can be ideal for their soft shadows and brightly lit scenes.
  • Know your camera’s native ISO: In general, it’s ideal to record video footage at your camera’s native ISO to ensure the highest quality (and least grain) as possible. 
  • There’s never such a thing as too much light: This is an old adage in film and cinematography that is doubly true when working with high key setups that require tons of lighting.

Further reading

If you found these definitions, tutorials, tips, and tricks to be helpful, be sure to check out more great articles on lighting (and filmmaking in general) here on the Soundstripe blog:

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