What Is High Key Lighting, And How Do You Create It? Hi-Key Lighting Explained.

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One of the most important things to consider in filmmaking is how you will light your scene. Different lighting styles can dramatically change the tone of a project, and understanding how to control light properly is integral to conveying the right emotion.

In many instances, the best style of lighting to use will be high-key lighting. But what is the definition of high-key lighting exactly?

High key lighting is low contrast, bright, and full lightning. The meaning of high key lighting is to create or suggests a happy, upbeat, and safe environment. From classic films to YouTube videos to sitcoms and more, high key lightning is often the go-to style.

This article will discuss what qualifies lighting as ‘high key,’ when and where to use it, and how to create this style of lighting for any projects you may be working on.

Not only will this be a useful skill, but knowing how to add and remove lights from your setup to match a variety of tones will massively improve the quality of your work.

What Is High Key Lighting?

As we stated above, high key lighting is bright, upbeat, and full lighting. It eliminates as much contrast as possible, minimizes shadows, and ensures that no aspect of your shot is underexposed.

The term ‘high key’ refers to the main light used in a lighting setup, commonly referred to as the ‘key light.’ In high-key lighting, this light is far more powerful than the rest. There are fewer shadows present because of this, and the subject is evenly and well lit.

There are plenty of benefits to this. For one, most of your shots will be exposed as opposed to darker, more dramatic, low-key lighting situations. In fact, the origin of high key lighting was due to technological limitations with older cameras.

Nowadays, high key lighting is a common stylistic choice. Illuminating all of your subjects and exposing the full frame gives an air of comfort. No dark shadows lurk in the background, and generally, brighter and less harsh images are more happy and comforting.

When And Where To Use It?

The primary benefit of high key lighting is conveying a sense of comfort and a known space. Understanding the impact this has will help inform your decision of whether or not to use it.

Many beginner filmmakers believe they have to use high key, three-point lighting on every set. Three-point lighting refers to having a key light, fill light and backlight, and while this ensures you will have a properly exposed image, it fails to acknowledge the tone of a scene.

Just as much as the set and cinematography inform the story being told, so does lighting. Therefore, in lighthearted, comedic, or comforting settings, high-key lighting is your best bet. If you’re filming a commercial, high key lighting also is a great choice because it will make the product and setting appear more familiar.

Other common applications of high key lighting include YouTube videos. In fact, the ring lights that are so common among YouTubers and influencers function as a key light to illuminate their entire face evenly. They match their lighting to their videos’ tone, be it comedy, vlogs, commentary, or make up.

Remember that it is essential to match your lighting to your scene and that none of these suggestions are rules. If you’re filming a comedic scene at night or somewhere where a strong key light wouldn’t make sense, you will have to find a happy medium.

At the end of the day, lighting is an artistic choice, and it’s up to you to determine how you will implement it. Paying attention to lighting styles in film and TV and recognizing their effect is a great start to understanding what lighting styles you should use in your own projects.

How To Create High-Key Lighting

High-key lighting isn’t complicated to create. However, understanding lighting setups are far more visual than a written article allows. Because of this, we’ve included three great tutorials on high-key lighting and how you can achieve it yourself.

1. Understanding High Key Lighting – PremiumBeat

If you’ve ever looked for online filmmaking tutorials, you’ve probably come across the PremiumBeat blog. It is a handy resource for filmmaking tips and tricks, and their tutorial on high key lighting doesn’t disappoint.

This video does a great job at providing a brief definition of high key lighting and some stills from various films and TV shows as examples.

From there, you will receive a description of how to get proper lighting in your house. This is especially helpful if you’re using a window as the source of your key light. 

Chances are, if you’re an independent filmmaker working on a small budget, you won’t have all the lighting resources available in this video.

However, because each light and its purpose is explained, there is plenty to be learned and applied no matter your circumstances. 

2. High-Key Narrative Lighting – Aperture

Aperture is another consistently dependable source for filmmaking information, and luckily for us, they have a tutorial on high key lighting for narrative productions. Don’t let the title fool you, though. These fundamentals can be applied in a variety of settings.

Much like the PremiumBeat video, a brief overview of high key lighting is provided before getting into the details of how to achieve it. Where this video excels is its explanation of practicals and motivated sources of lighting.

Practical lights are lights that you can see in frame. This could be a lamp, a TV screen, or a fire. Oftentimes they do not function to light a space fully, but they can help make the lighting seem more realistic or add depth to the shot.

This is also where having motivated sources of lighting comes into play. Don’t just throw a bright light into a scene for exposure. If you’re by a window, it’s a good idea to have light coming from that direction. The same goes for if you’re under a street lamp or by any other strong source of light.

If you’re looking to get realistic, motivated lighting, this tutorial will be worth your time. Especially for narrative filmmakers, it’s important to understand how to get practical lights to work for you and integrate natural sources of light.

3. High Key Portraits – Adorama

Our third and final recommendation for a high-key lighting tutorial comes from the camera and gear supplier, Adorama. While this tutorial focuses on high-key lighting for photography, the principles remain the same.

This tutorial is beneficial with its use of diagrams. Furthermore, high key lighting used in settings like a photography studio can often be very similar to corporate and promotional videos.

Adorama’s tutorial also some editing tips for achieving great high key results in photography. Because this is done in Photoshop, it will not be directly applicable to film and video, but understanding the effects contrast, saturation, and sharpness can have on the result is helpful.

If you’re editing and coloring your own video, you must remember that decisions made in post can affect how the lighting is perceived. If you increase contrast too much or bring out too much color, it can negate some of the decisions made on set.

Therefore it’s important to have a clear vision and communicate this to everyone involved throughout the project. Consistency is key, and you have to know when to commit to your decisions.

Conclusion

Now that you understand high-key lighting, you will be able to light most scenes properly. Even if you don’t have a bunch of lighting gear, you can achieve similar results by using the sun as a key light and filling your background with practicals.

Understanding the reasons behind lighting setups is as important (if not more) as understanding the setup itself. Once you know the purpose and function of each light, you will be able to achieve similar results without much equipment at all.

Something that cannot be understated is the importance of motivated lighting. When you prepare a scene to film, it’s important to ask yourself, “what are all the sources of light in this world?”

Of course, you can get away with some things if the whole room or location isn’t revealed, but even so, it is massively important to think about how light interacts with your subjects.

One of the most common failings I’ve seen in low-budget films is a poorly placed reflector or key light coming from the wrong side. While it can be important to light your subject’s whole face, understand that sometimes you may have to make concessions.

Are you excited to try a new lighting setup? Are there any other lighting topics you’d like us to cover in a future article? Let us know in the comment section below, and good luck next time you use high-key lighting!


Cade Taylor is a filmmaker and writer based out of Los Angeles. Originally from Seattle, he continues to work as the Outreach Coordinator for the Bigfoot Script Challenge, where he helps connect up-and-coming writers with industry professionals. When he’s not working on his own projects, helping out with Bigfoot, or covering desks, Cade loves to share what he knows with other filmmakers and promote great content.

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