High Key Lighting Techniques for Professional Photographers

Lighting Techniques

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