High Key Lighting: What is it? And How to Master it!

It’s essential to know how to light a scene correctly, and in today’s article, the main focus will be that of the “high key lighting” setup. Warm, happy, fun and laughter are just a couple of words associated with the high key lighting setup.

When shooting a scene, you want to create an atmosphere and want to develop a mood that will captivate the audience. A well-lit scene, combined with a well written and constructed scene, will capture the audience’s imagination and create a strong feeling visually.

Scenes lit with high key lighting are usually upbeat, fun and happy scenes, and you can capture an atmosphere within this using this setup. 

Today we will delve into what high key lighting is, how you can achieve this brightly lit phenomenon, oh and an award-winning example. 

Let’s check it out!

What is High Key Lighting?

What is High Key Lighting?

High key lighting is a style of lighting used in film and is used commonly in photography. It’s the opposite of “Low Key Lighting”. This refers to the main light, usually a powerful light that will light up the shot. 

It means in terms of lighting setup; the high key light will be much brighter and stronger than the fill lights. It’s free from dark, dull shadows, so a key reason to use this setup is to reduce the lighting ratio, lighting up your shot well. 

It was originally used for technological reasons; high contrast ratios were not dealt with well, so the high key technique was implemented to combat this.

There are two ways to setup high key lighting correctly; this is the three-light setup and the four-light setup – we will delve into these later on in more detail. 

Unfortunately, high key lighting doesn’t add itself to adding drama or tension to a scene, so you may have to look elsewhere if you’re looking to create a highly tense scene.

You may also be interested in Low Key Lighting: How you can create a dramatic atmosphere immediately.

When do you use High Key Lighting? 

Funnily enough, when it comes to film – a lot of the time, high key lightings used in commercials and music videos. It’s also used a lot in comedies and other scenes depicting happy, funny moods. 

A great example is the use of high key lighting in “The Good Place”.  It’s primarily white tones from bright lights and lacks darkness.

The brightly lit scenes give off a happy and fun place that plays into The Good Place’s story. It is also a great way to convey truth; that’s why a lot of interviews are lit using a high key lighting setup.

How to create High Key Lighting

High key lighting in Harry Potter
High Key Lighting – Harry Potter

Achieving high key lighting is an incredible skill, but not impossible! To master this look, you must use significant light sources and soft shadows – soft shadows are key to nailing the high key lighting setup. 

One way to soften the light is to use a diffuser; this will help reduce the coarseness of the shadows. The larger the light source you have available the softer the shadows look as the light has a much larger surface area, that combined with a diffuser, will help give you the “High Key” look. 

Here are the two methods of setting up high key lighting these are the Three-light Setup and the Four-light Setup

Let’s dig into them.

You may also be interested in reading: Film lighting techniques EVERY filmmaker must know

Three-light Setup

The three-light setup is where you place the key light up close to the subject, preferably at a 35 to 40-degree angle to the subject. 

Then place the two supporting lights around two feet back and have them angled similar to the key light. These should be much stronger than the key lights so they can overexpose and glow out this area. 

There should be absolutely no shadows now; if there is, you need to modify your key light until it sits correctly and produces soft shadows. 

Four-light Setup

This setup allows you to remove even more shadows, basically as you have more light to direct towards the subject. However, it differs slightly. The fourth light is placed opposite the key light and positioned directly at it. 

Now the key light must be moved further back from the subject, and the fourth light will have to be identical to the two other fill lights. 

You need to have a play around with the setup and ensure you have a little shadow. It can be a soft shadow to complement the light setup but enough to stop the shot composition from being overexposed. Always keep the shadows to a minimum, but remember these add dimension. 

You don’t want your subject to be an overexposed floating head, do you? 

Our favourite example of High Key Lighting in Film

Our favourite example of High Key Lighting in Film

Here’s the perfect example (In our opinion) of high key lighting in film. It’s from the movie Moonrise Kingdom, and it doesn’t disappoint. 

Let’s have a look at the breakdown and watch the clip to immerse yourself in this brilliance. 

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson has been a mainstay in filmmaking since his first masterpiece, Bottle Rocket. Here we will dissect Moonrise Kingdon and its brilliance. 

The reason we’re here is to marvel at this scene “were you followed” and Wes’ use of high key lighting, and how it brings the scene to life in its own way. 

In this scene, we see both subjects lit evenly – even though the scene is shot outside. The high key lighting technique used is to show positivity and warmth. 

Moonrise Kingdom is focused on the world of childhood and all the brief and dreams that come with it. 

Expertly lit and helps build on the warmth and happiness of childhood, or how we see it should be in an ideal world. Perfectly presented by our old buddy Wes.

We hope this article on high key lighting and how to master it was helpful and informative. Let us know down in the comments your thoughts. 

Scroll down a little further to read our latest articles on filmmaking and most importantly, the art of lighting!

Happy filmmaking.

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