When we talk about "high-key lighting," that means you're lighting a film, TV show, or photograph with low contrast. Simply put, the lighting ratio between your key light and your fill light is reduced in the shot. Your image looks very even, and there are no hard shadows and little contrast.

High-key lighting was used a lot in early Hollywood to accommodate film that didn't handle high-contrast ratios well. It typically utilized the three-point lighting setup, which could be done efficiently throughout a project.

Now, high-key lighting is seen a lot in comedic TV and film because it creates a bright, happy look in projects and helps the talent pop on screen.

Rubidium Wu of PremiumBeat recently created a simple high-key lighting shot to demonstrate what you should consider when you try this in your own projects. Take a look at the video below!

Understanding High-Key Lighting

As Wu explains here, high-key lighting is when one side of the actor's face is lit within roughly a stop of the other side of their face. The bright side is less than twice as bright as the dark side. So, there is a difference on the fill side, but it's slight.

This makes the characters look happy and honest, but could also signal to the viewer that their world is not exactly reality. The characters may do things that exist outside of the everyday. High-key lighting also incorporates bright pops of color and vivid settings. The characters should stand out from the backgrounds, but again the difference in lighting should be slight.

Compare all that with the look of its counterpart, low-key lighting, which enhances shadows and creates lots of contrast to create the serious, scary, or suspenseful moods often seen in horror films, thrillers, and noirs.

High-key lighting in Marie AntoinetteCredit: Columbia Pictures

How to Get High-Key Lighting

In Wu's setup, he was working in a space with natural lighting he needed to enhance. For the key side, he used two lights coming through a window and silk diffusion. On the opposite side, he placed a LED Fresnel slightly behind him to get a halo effect.

For his fill light, he used a LiteMat 2L placed just in front of and above the camera. Wu says it might be your first instinct to place your fill opposite your key light, but this will flatten out your image so much, you won't get any ratio at all.

He then noticed that his background was too dark. He added an Aputure 300D behind him on the key side, again diffused. This brightened the background so there wasn't so much contrast between the setting and the subject.

High-key lighting in 500 Days of SummerCredit: Fox Searchlight

What's next? Learn more lighting setups

Here are 13 lighting setups every filmmaker should know. You should also know about different types of film lights, as well as the five basic lighting patterns.

Can you think of other examples of high-key lighting in film and TV? What are some of your favorites?

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