Lighting is an integral part of filmmaking; it helps create the scene’s mood and helps add another layer to the atmosphere. Using a key light setup is one of the many types of lighting setups you must understand to the tee – it can help sculpt your film and take it to the next level.

Key Light

Lighting is essential, and understanding how to light a scene correctly is imperative. In today’s article, we will take a deep dive into key lighting and how you can use it to its optimum.

Let’s check out all things key light below.

What is key light?

A key light is a primary light source for your scene; it’s the main light that shines down onto your shot. The key light is usually placed directly in front of your subject and then angled to get the desired lighting setup. 

The colour, angle and power of the key light is a huge factor when creating the lighting design for the shot. 

This also determines whether you set up your shot with a low key lighting setup or a high key lighting setup. To adjust these, you will use a singular direct light to create the low key effect or fill lights and a 3 or 4 point setup to achieve the high key setup.

Read more on high key and low key lighting setup by clicking on them.  

The two types of key lighting

There are two types of key lighting. You have high key lighting and low key lighting. Let’s have a look at the two lighting setups and how they are best utilised.

High key lighting

High key lighting is a light setup in film, commercials and music videos where the aim is to limit the lighting ratio. 

This creates a much brighter composition with softer lighting, used for happy scenes and comedies mainly. There are minimal, if any, shadows in the shot, a drastic comparison to a scene shot using low key lighting.

The lighting setup means that the ratio of the key to fill lights is almost 1 to 1; this will remove any shadow from the scene to allow you to achieve a high key setup.

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A great example of high key lighting is in the comedy series, The Good Place. They utilise high key lighting to its best, a comedy masterpiece. 

A combination of brightly lit shots with witty humour keeps you hooked as they navigate “The Good Place”.

You may also be interested in: High Key Lighting: What is it? And How to Master it!

Low key lighting

Low key lighting is a prominent lighting setup with shadows, and the transition between shadows and highlights is incredibly harsh. 

Low key lighting is perfect for dramatising a scene and creating tension. You tend to see this lighting setup within a scene where the stakes are high. 

It helps capture the tension within the scene, adding to the atmosphere and capturing the viewer’s imagination. 

The setup for low key lighting tends to be a much greater ratio compared to the high key setup. You will tend to use a 7 to 1 or 8 to 1 ratio of key vs fill light

An excellent example of low key lighting is in the film, The Conjuring

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The Conjuring is a prime example of nailing the low key setup. This isolates the subject and allows the audience to focus on them. The shadows and dark colours create mystery and suspense. 

It’s created using a singular key light to direct the light in a way where it accentuates the subject creating tension.

Master the low key setup by capturing dark tones and shadows with a harsh contrast. 

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

What’s the purpose of key lighting?

This is a question we’re asked all the time – “What is the purpose of key lighting?”. The purpose of it is the key source of light for your DP or cinematographer. 

The key light is integral for properly exposing and highlighting the shapes in the shot. How the cinematographer chooses to use the light will help define the mood of the shot. 

Key lightings used in various different setups, including low key lighting, high key lighting complemented with fill lights and backlights to achieve the look.  

What is a three-point lighting setup?

A three-point lighting setup is a lighting setup that’s often used to complement key light setups. 

A three-point lighting setup is an integral lighting technique. It uses the primary light source of a key light combined with a fill and a backlight to achieve the 3 point lighting setup.

By using this setup you need to understand the relationship between each light to ensure you achieve the correct setup for your shot. 

The three-point setup is all around creating a three-dimensional picture. Each light illuminates a different part of the subject to help create shadows and a contrast that brings a greater representation of light.

It’s generally used within different key light setups, so we thought we would give a quick overview of it.

You may also be interested in reading: Three-Point Lighting Setup: Lighting in Film

How is a key light used?

Key lighting is used in a variety of ways by the director of photography or cinematographer. They tend to make adjustments to the setup based on what they are looking to achieve from the scene. 

Here are a few ideas on how you can use key lighting to the best of its ability!

  • Alter the position of the key light to achieve different effects. The key light position will allow you to build atmosphere and develop different looks for the shot composition.
  • Positioning the key light high up creates long shadows and predominates facial features.
  • Make sure to diffuse the light for softer lighting; we recommend using a bounce board or a diffuser to ensure you soften the light correctly. 
  • If you move the light further away from your subject or subjects, this will create harsh shadows for you to use.
  • Using a singular key light creates a high contrast shot, usually seen within the Low Key Setup.
  • A fill light combined with the key light will help reduce the contrast, a setup you will see commonly in the High Key Setup.
  • Filmmakers, Cinematographers, and DOP’s will use a “soft” (diffused) or a “hard” (focused) key light, depending on the look they want to achieve.  Diffused for a balanced shot and focused for a shot with deep colours and intricate shadows.
  • Remember to bounce the light off a wall, material or use a bounce board to create light diffusion and a greater spread of light in your shot.
  • The key light doesn’t always have to be a white light. You can partner it with coloured sidelights or filtered fill lights to change the setting’s tone and add atmosphere. 
  • Make sure you adjust the angle of the light; this will help you achieve different light compositions for your shot.
  • You don’t have to illuminate your subject with the key light directly, you can light them using intricate setups. For instance passing the light through a window, different screens and even through a plant. This will add to the setup and help create an engaging atmosphere within the scene. 

You may also be interested in: Bounce Lighting – Key Tips and Techniques

Our final thoughts

Key lighting is an integral part of film production knowledge. You can do a lot with this lighting setup, and understanding the ins and outs will give you an extraordinary standpoint when filming your movie. 

Using different sidelight and fill lights allow you to alter the exposure, contrast and develop feeling within the scene. 

Explore the different setups and combine them with other scenes to bring out the most. Try different shadowy setups for tense scenes and a lighter, higher exposure set up for the light-hearted ones. 

Key lighting is the perfect setup; whether it’s low key or high key, this will add to the dimensions of your film and capture the audience’s imagination, leaving them on the edge of their seats. 

We hope this article on “Key lighting” was helpful. Let us know your thoughts down below in the comments and whilst you’re here. Browse our latest articles down below on lighting and all things filmmaking!

Happy filmmaking.