High Key Lighting Techniques for Professional Photographers

I’ve written many times about high key lighting techniques and how to achieve them. The term “high key” is a bit misleading. As I’ve often said, high key has nothing to do with overexposure of the subject (though a photographer can opt to take that approach if it suits the subject); it merely means the vast majority of tones are above middle gray and that the background is almost always white but may show some detail.

The nice thing about high key is that there are many ways to create it; I continue to find new tricks and variations on scenarios I’ve previously written about. Some are impressively simple; others are more complicated. As always, I’ll leave it to you to experiment with them and decide what will work best for you and your studio. I wish it were practical to include each and every technique in this book, but I’d be critiqued for repeating myself (and there isn’t enough room in this book, anyway). In a heartless bit of shameless promotion, I must advise you to buy all my other lighting books, now and in the future, to learn every trick.

My first scenario falls into the “simple” category and is really easy to set up, using two lights with umbrellas.

Simple High Key Lighting

The first light, the main light, is set on a stand in front of and to the side of the subject. The second light is set slightly behind the subject and aimed at the background. It’s best, in my opinion, to mount it on a boom so it can be centered over the subject’s head, but it will work nicely if mounted on a floor stand and feathered over the background. If you want a completely white background, the exposure behind the model’s head should be at least 2/3 stop brighter than the main light.My sample set the exposure value of the background light to be equal to that of the main light, and the result is a pure-white background behind her head that gradually falls off to light gray toward the bottom of the image.

I also set a white bookend at camera right and quite close to the model to open the shadows on her unlit side. See image 10.1 and diagram 10A.

I liked the look produced by the bookend fill card, but I wanted something with a bit more snap. I also wanted to get more contour to her face.

I set up two strip lights—one on each side of the background—and aimed them to the center. The lights were carefully positioned so there was no more than 1/10-stop difference over the 5 feet of important background behind the subject. The exposure value of the background lights, measured together, was equal to that of the main light. Setting the lights in this manner means the white paper background will have some detail (though slight) throughout.

Both strip lights were blocked by a black bookend to keep any spill light off the model and the camera’s lens.

The umbrella at camera left was swapped out with a medium softbox placed in approximately the same position. The white bookend at camera right was removed and replaced with a small softbox that was moved a bit farther back toward the background but aimed at my model’s side. This softbox was powered to be equal to the main light. See diagram 10B.

With all lights powered equally, I ended up with a series of images with a definite high key feel but with detail everywhere. Although I didn’t try it, I think this scenario would work equally well using umbrellas for the two subject lights. Larger, “normal” softboxes would work in place of the strip lights but would require more room. See image 10.2.

I thought it might be interesting to see a graded background, from the top down, so I turned off one of the strip lights and mounted the other on a boom, centered over the subject but far enough behind her that the light would not impact her look. I also replaced the medium softbox with a large softbox that was set at the same position to produce a broader, softer light. There is some spread of light from any modifier, of course, so I made sure the model was positioned far enough from the background so the light that fell on her from the strip light was equal to that of the main light. It took a few minor adjustments in her position, but the extra minute or two was worth it. Notice how the light from above defines her shoulders without being overly bright. It was metered to be equal to the main light at that point. See diagram 10C.

Look at the diagram and you’ll see that I also turned the small softbox toward the background. Because of its distance from the paper, it doesn’t add much more than a little extra gradation from the right to the left side. I powered it so the little bit of light that splashed to her side was equal to the main light. Because the effects of light are cumulative, it appears there is a highlight along her camera-right arm. Smoke and mirrors. And physics. See image 10.3.

The most important tool in your arsenal, especially for high key photography, is a light meter that’s calibrated to your equipment (using a meter straight out of the box is sometimes a mistake). No doubt you noticed that my model was wearing white clothing against a white background but there was detail wherever it was important. That would have been difficult to pull off if I had to guess at the exposure or use my camera’s LCD as a light meter (both are poor decisions). If you don’t know how to calibrate your meter, look at my blog (www.chrisgreylighting.com), where the process is described quickly and simply. The key to creating high key imagery, any imagery, is confident control over the lighting. If you know your meter is right on the money, you can set and power your lights exactly how you want them. Your camera will then do its job correctly.

Another approach is to use a large softbox (at least 3×4 feet, but bigger is better) as a background. Meter it by retracting the dome of the incident meter and pressing it flat against the fabric. The reading you will get will equal what’s needed for a perfect shot of a white surface. In other words, if you use that reading you will see detail in the fabric of the softbox, something you probably don’t want. Make note of the reading; it will become important when you set the main light. I set my large softbox on the floor. I would normally set it on a stand, but I wanted the posture that my model would give me if she were on her knees. When kneeling, the transfer of physical power from the legs through the torso and shoulders is subtle but different enough to use to one’s advantage.

My main light was a basic 36-inch umbrella, set directly over the lens. I powered the umbrella’s light to be 1 stop less than the reading I made from the front of the large softbox. This lesser reading would be the working aperture on the camera. In other words, the background light would overexpose itself by 1 stop, becoming completely white. Also, the full-stop overexposure would negate any shadow thrown by the umbrella while allowing some light to wrap itself around the model. Image 10.4 presents a practical overview of the lighting scenario, a very simple setup.

My main light was a basic 36-inch umbrella

When you crop in to the image, the beauty of this setup becomes evident. Facial features are nicely defined, while the background is pure white. There is detail in almost every part of her clothing, even those areas that intrude into the pure-white background. Working with calibrated equipment is essential to pulling off tightly controlled shots such as this. See image 10.5.


Set two white bookends on each side of the large softbox, angled parallel to the subject. Set a bare-tubed strobe on a boom, with the tube directly over the camera, powered to 1 stop below that of the softbox. You’ll still get the wraparound effect of light from the softbox, while the two bookends will soften the effect of the bare-tubed strobe. See diagram 10D.

wraparound effect of light from the softbox

You’ll notice immediately, if you’ve measured the light with a calibrated meter, that the model’s white dress is perfectly represented, with detail in all areas except those affected by wraparound light. This is beautiful, simple, beauty light. It’s high key, but with important detail throughout.

Here’s an easy way to vignette a high key image to a white border, a very effective way to enhance the high key effect. Begin with your favorite image. Image 10.6 was made with a medium softbox in front of a larger softbox, powered 1 full stop less than the big box.

In Photoshop, use the Lasso tool to create a freehand shape around the subject. The intent is to make everything outside the line feather to white. Personally, I think this works better if the shape is a more irregular, organic shape than a basic oval or circle. See image 10.7.

Once you’ve drawn the shape, go to Select>Modify> Feather and set the pixel amount to soften the edge. Larger files require a larger pixel spread for a soft boundary; play with your files to determine what you like. This file (image 10.8) was rather large, about 45MB when opened, so I feathered by 150 pixels.

Next, go to Select>Inverse. This means you will affect the area outside the line, rather than the interior of the selection. See image 10.9.

Fill the selection with white. If you have other colors in the Foreground/Background palette, choose White from the menu. Check to be sure the Blending Mode is Normal and Opacity is at 100%. See image 10.10.

You’ll probably have to go back and re-draw the Lasso pattern a few times before you get the perfect effect. It takes only a minute or two to get through the procedure, and the result will add a great deal of visual interest to your final image, making it look even more high key than how it was shot. I think it’s an easy jump to see how effectively this trick would work on other forms of portraiture, such as seniors or bridal portraits. See image 10.11.

Lasso tool to create a freehand shape around the subject

re-draw the Lasso pattern a few times before you get the perfect



Silhouettes and Backlight

There are few lighting effects more evocative than the silhouette. While showing line and form to great advantage, and without the visual detraction of many body “flaws,” it’s the very fact that so much of the image is left to the viewer’s imagination that makes the silhouette so successful.

Just as there are many ways to approach a silhouette, there are many ways to light it. Let’s begin with the simplest approach: lighting a white wall or background sweep. In my opinion, it’s best to do this with softboxes because parabolic reflectors throw uneven light, usually with a slight hotspot, and we want to light the background as evenly as possible. Umbrellas can be used, but they tend to spray the light more than softboxes. If you use umbrellas, be sure to place gobos between the lights and the model.

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In most lighting scenarios, it’s difficult if not impossible to light the foreground as brightly as the background if you’re using a simple paper sweep. Once you add light to the foreground, some will spill onto the model, ruining the silhouette effect. With a flat foreground/ background, you’ll have to do some Photoshop work to get an even white. (Don’t worry. It’s not difficult, even if your model is wearing white clothing.)

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For a perfect silhouette, you’ll also need to keep spill from the background off the model by placing her as far from the background as possible. It’s also a good idea to use gobos between the lights and the model, and my preference is black bookends. While it’s almost impossible to avoid all spill, more control will allow for the darkest silhouette. Personally, I think a little wraparound spill light makes a more believable silhouette, as it lends some dimension to an otherwise visually flat surface. If you prefer a darker silhouette, the easiest way to accomplish it is to move the model farther from the background, so any spill will fall off before it reaches the model.

Begin by placing two lights with identical softboxes about 18 inches to 2 feet from the background, with the height of the strobe heads equal to 3/4 the height of the model, and at equal distances from the edges. As a starting point, aim the two lights at each other, rather than at the background. The idea here is to feather the light across the sweep, to get as even an exposure as possible. This will be easier if you can figure out how much of the background width will actually be represented in the image, which will depend on the focal length of your lens, how far the subject is from the background, and how far the camera is from the subject.

Begin metering at one end or the other, moving the meter in 1-foot increments and making a mental note of how the light falls. You may see distinct differences in the exposure readings of the light as you move from one side to the other, which indicates that one light or the other will need to be angled differently. Feathering a light takes practice and is usually best accomplished in small movements, but the result will be an evenly lit background. If you’re feathering lights for the first time, you’ll be amazed when you see the final angles of the light; it appears their placement defies logic, as you can see in diagram 5A.

Once you have the lights balanced and blocked off, set your camera 2/3 to 1 stop brighter than the meter reading. If your meter reads f/11, for example, an extra 2/3 stop means f/9, which will ensure that most of your evenly lit background will be too bright to register as a flat surface or to show any texture.

An easy way to get a more perfectly white foreground is to buy at least two sheets of shiny white tile board, a Masonite-based, 4×8-foot panel typically used as a bathroom wall covering. It’s a tough and inexpensive material found at major hardware or remodeling stores. Lay the sheets on the floor so they overlap toward the background, to maintain a visually unbroken white surface. The tile board will reflect white light from the background better than any paper surface. You may also use sheets of white Plexiglas, but you should lay white paper underneath them as they are somewhat translucent. They will give you a cleaner, whiter reflection than tile board but cost about three times as much. Neither will present a “perfect” solution, however.

If there’s any downside to using tile board or white Plexiglas, it’s that you may pick up a reflection of your subject in the surface. Usually this extra reflection is desirable because it’s somewhat unusual and something many photographers don’t know how to achieve. You’ll get the deepest silhouette with both gobos in place, but the foreground will show a shadow. You can easily fix this in Photoshop. See image 5.1.

If you remove the gobos or reposition them to allow more light on the foreground, you’ll add detail to the image as light wraps around the subject. Again, there will be some darkness in the foreground. I removed the camera-left gobo, adding detail to that side of the model and brightening the foreground. See image 5.2.

When both gobos were repositioned, the foreground was brightest, but the silhouette effect was diminished. Light spilled over and lit some of the model’s face. The effect is not necessarily unwelcome, but it does change the look. See image 5.3.


You can make slightly gray background areas in your images white by taking the time to make some quick adjustments in Photoshop. Here’s how it’s done:

First, select the light-gray areas using the Magic Wand tool. See image 5.4.


Once the area is selected, go to Select>Modify> Feather, and set the Feather radius from 1 to 3 pixels (the latter will provide a softer transition against clothing and may even help hold an edge). See image 5.5.

Use Levels to increase the brightness of the whites. If your subject is centered against the light, the brightest area of the image will be directly behind her and already be perfectly white. Feathering the selection will help retain detail in many of the delicate areas, like stray strands of hair. See image 5.6.

This trick will work with any silhouette technique, provided the spill light and exposure are controlled. See image 5.7.


A large softbox (a medium softbox will work for tighter compositions) or a modifier such as a Halo may be easier to deal with than trying to evenly light a large expanse of background, although they present their own problems. If your softbox can be equipped with an interior diffuser, please attach it if it’s not already in place. You’ll want the extra diffusion to even out the light as much as possible.

Begin by metering the flash output directly from the softbox fabric. If your flash meter allows it, retract the dome so you can lay the meter flat against the fabric. This will give you the most accurate reading of the light’s strength since there are no opportunities for even the mildest shadow along the contour of the dome.

For accuracy and control, power your strobe to read to a whole stop or a perfect third, as doing so will make any testing easier to document and understand.

I’d recommend you set up a test, beginning with the metered aperture value and shooting one image per 1/3- or 1/2-stop aperture increase. Examination after downloading will give you an excellent idea of how your subject will be affected by various exposures. This image was made with an exposure 1 stop greater than the metered value of the softbox. Notice there is a slight vignette at the corners, where the spread of light out of the box is weakest, but that’s a minor problem that can be easily fixed. See image 5.8.

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One of my favorite lighting tricks for partial silhouettes is to hang a 4×8-foot sheet of 1/8-inch thick milk-white translucent Plexiglas about 4 feet in front of a large softbox (a medium softbox will work but may confine your composition slightly), then place my model directly in front of it. The Plexi acts more like a large fiber optic, spreading the light more evenly and consistently than a fabric diffuser itself. It will flare, but not as much as a standalone softbox, and will produce nice edges with wraparound light. See image 5.9.

You don’t need to buy an expensive background hanger mechanism to hang the Plexiglas or seamless paper. You need two light stands (extendable to at least 8 feet), four squeeze clamps, and a 10-foot length of aluminum fence tubing (available at any major hardware store). Place the clamps over the tops of two light stands and place the aluminum tube across the handles. With the stands set just below 8 feet, simply hold the Plexi against the tube and use the other two clamps to anchor it to the tube, and you’ll be in business.

My preferred exposure for almost everything I shoot this way is 2/3 to 1 stop over the meter reading, which is made as it was for the softbox, with the dome retracted and flat against the plastic, aimed at the light, and metering the light that comes through the diffusion panel. At +2/3 stop, the background is perfectly lit, almost totally white, and with enough wraparound to illuminate the inside edges enough to see skin tone and add dimensionality. The Plexiglas is difficult to hang (it’s easier with a second pair of hands), but it’s worth it for the quality of the light you’ll get from this setup. At the time of this writing, a 4×8-foot sheet of 1/8-inch Plexiglas cost about $75.00. Look under “Plastics” or “Plastics Supply” in the Yellow Pages for the nearest vendor or check the Internet for availability in your area.

You may, of course, make silhouettes against any other color background, including colored Plexiglas, or cover the source with a colored gel. You may also place white tileboard on the floor to reflect whatever color comes through.


Regardless of the method used to create a silhouette, detail can be easily increased by moving in a white bookend or other reflector to catch some of the light coming through the background and send it back to the model. The amount of light will vary depending on the type of reflector used, its distance from the subject, and how much of the form you wish to reveal. See image 5.10.

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Another of my favorite methods for producing beautiful silhouettes, as well as perfect high key backgrounds, is a super-large softbox made by Lastolite, the HiLite. Available in a number of sizes (mine is 6×7 feet), it’s a softbox that works like none other. For example, lights are loaded into the side of the 18-inch deep unit, so the footprint on your studio floor is smaller than what you’d expect for such a large piece of gear. Also, the fabric is different from that of a typical softbox and will disperse the light more evenly. The best part? It collapses into a shape that’s 1/4 its setup size and comes with a carry case for location shooting. See image 5.11.

When it’s used without any reflectors or bookends, the silhouette effect is fantastic. Image 5.12 is from a series of shots for which the aperture was set 1 stop brighter than what was read off the background. The special fabric of this box spreads light so evenly that it produces a perfect, clean white, from corner to corner when used in this manner.

You can re-create, to some degree, the look of a supersoft softbox by hanging a large sheet of cotton cloth, as tightly as possible to avoid wrinkles, from light stands and/or supports. You will almost certainly have to do some Photoshop work when dealing with fabric in this manner, but it’s simple. The only problems you’ll see are minor wrinkles in the fabric at the edges and, perhaps, a slight shoot-through view of the light behind the fabric.

I once bought a huge bolt of fabric, about 8×40 feet, which I used to ring 75 percent of a large machine. I lit the machine through the cloth, using the next technique in reverse, creating soft highlights and even light over its entire surface. I’ve used this piece of cloth many times as a makeshift background. While I can’t use its full length in my studio, I have used it to create backlit backgrounds larger than the HiLite. I’ve also found that, if I double it up, I won’t have the same problems with shoot-through light, though the amount of light coming through the cloth will be significantly reduced.

I used my largest traditional softbox (4×6 feet) and set it about 8 feet behind the sheet of fabric so the light would spread evenly over the back of the cloth. The model and the foreground were set immediately in front of it to appear as if a stained and finished piece of plywood, the “stage,” was butted up against a pure white background.

The exposure was measured, into the cloth, at the center of the set. I opened up my camera’s aperture 1 stop over that reading. Even so, One other note: because the background was so much larger than the HiLite, there is more wraparound light in play. The result (image 5.13) is a somewhat diluted silhouette, but it’s still gorgeous.

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We choose our models for a number of reasons, both physical and social, and we’ll often structure the shoot to highlight their physical attributes. Depending, of course, on what it is we wish to accent, a strong backlight can become a remarkable background, especially when paired with an additional accent light that will create a partial silhouette.

The base exposure for image 5.14 was 1 stop over the measured meter reading at the fabric of the HiLite. An additional light, a beauty bowl (without a grid), was attached to a boom and positioned at a slight angle over the model’s head to light her beautiful red hair. It was powered to the working f-stop of the camera, 1 stop over the power of the HiLite.


You could certainly use a translucent diffuser as a light source. Smaller sources, such as some made by Photoflex, will work well because of their size. Smaller sources mean less wraparound light, so the silhouette will be more intense and show less detail.

Begin by hanging a translucent diffuser from a frame or from a boom arm. The diffuser may be circular or rectangular, that’s up to you, and you may need to retouch some edges if you want the diffuser to appear as if it’s not supported. I used a large, circular diffuser for image 5.15, hanging it off a boom arm and digitally removing the strap and support in my final image. I set a strobe with a 40 degree grid on a stand about 4 feet behind the diffuser, aiming the light dead-center to the white field, illuminating the diffuser completely, but without spill. It was a smooth and easy solution to create a silhouette with minimal wraparound light, mostly because the source, the diffuser, was relatively small compared to others that you’ve seen, but also because the fabric of the diffuser is different from that of regular softboxes or the HiLite. As you’ve seen from these samples, every fabric, like every modifier, has its own personality.

The diffuser was clamped to a boom arm by its strap and lit with a 40 degree grid, aimed at the middle of the diffuser from about 5 feet behind. All traces of the strap and light stand have been retouched out. The camera’s aperture was set to 1 stop over the actual value of the light coming through the material.