High Key vs Low Key Lighting – Understanding 101 Basics

The lighting is one of the most important features in a picture or a scene. Lighting sets the mood, expresses the details of the scene and sends the general, initial vibes out in a particular scene.

  • The aspect of lighting is highly important if you want to achieve a perfect frame, be it for a photograph or for a video/film.
  • Lighting from different angles and places can drastically affect the picture as lighting grants meaning to it.

High key lighting and low key lighting are the two lighting techniques that are used in film/photography studios to create varying moods and appearances.

  • Particularly high key lighting definition is that the lighting ratio is reduced as much as it can be in the frame. There are no dark spots or shadows present in any corner or space.
  • The low key definition can be, that the scene has particular shadows and many darker areas only area that has proper lights is the one that is the main focus of the scene.

The lighting ratio in low key lighting is high, that is: 8:1.

  • The contrast is high in low key lighting in order to create dark, mysterious spots within the frame.

In this article, we’ll let you know about high key and low key lighting and variation between both.

Table of Contents

The Particulars of High Key Lighting

When you are referring to high key lighting, you are specifically talking about scenes with low contrasts, bright lights and low to almost no dark corners.

  • They contain a high range of white tones with almost no black ones.

The photos or frames of high key generate bubbly, lively and youthful pictures. They usually send positives vibes to the viewers and are bright and well-lit.

The Particulars of Low Key Lighting

The low key lighting is all about high contrast, lots of dark areas and many shadows. They contain lots of grey and black tones and almost no mid/white tones.

  • The frames usually give out mysterious, dark themes. The scenes depict deep emotions and dramatic moods.

The lights are low and dim to create higher contrast.

How to Create High Key Lighting Effect

To create perfect high key lighting effect, a few necessary equipment required, are:

  • White back ground
  • Lights (fill lights and background lights)
  • Strobes
  • Softbox (instead of or in addition to strobes)
  • A high quality digital camera

Shoot the frame with a wide aperture. Set the ISO to the lowest settings. Over expose your image by setting shutter speed. This will ensure high key lighting.

Using the lights correctly:

  1. Use loads of lights.
  2. Fill the frame/scene with as many lights as possible and make sure there are no dark spots in the area.
  3. Diffuser spread limited amount of light into the area efficiently, so if you are low on lights, diffuser is a good option.
  4. Use fill lights to create perfect combination. Tone the lighting in the editing to make sure the focus on image remains good.

How to Create Low Key Lighting Effects?

To create low key lighting effects, necessary elements are:

  • Dark background
  • Avoiding anything with patterns to create the look
  • Only one light source
  • A quality digital camera

By setting the ISO between 100 and 200 you have an ample area to play a little with exposure and aperture. The world is your canvas. You have great opportunities exploring low key lighting as not much equipment is needed and a lot of room to play with camera settings.

  • Make sure that the background you are using is free of wrinkles/textures/scratches (if you’re using cloth, cardboard or anything alike).

Using lighting correctly in low key lighting:

  1. Use a room without any windows. The less natural light coming in the better will be the results of low key lighting.

Or you may want to skip other lighting equipment and only use the natural light from single window coming in to create low key effect.

  • But make sure you do not use both natural and artificial light as low key lighting need high contrast and dark area.

If you use both kinds of lights, you may not end up achieving the desired results.

  1. Using natural lights is a bit tricky when it comes to low key lighting as you have to have control over lighting.
  2. If you are using artificial lights, softbox strips are a great option as you are in full control of the amount of light you will be using on the subject.
  3. If you do not have softbox strips, you can simply block the light from the main light source by placing dark cards in front of them.

The main difference between high key vs low key lighting is the variation in lighting contrast and white/black color tones.

 If you got this right, you can capture perfect high/low key lighting effect shots!!

Attributes of High Key Lighting

  1. Well-lit space
  2. White tones in background
  3. Frame showing lit, positive and lively picture

Attributes of Low Key Lighting

  1. Single source of light
  2. Dark/Black background
  3. Ample amount of shadows
  4. Frame results in mysterious, negative and deep pictures

Places to Use High Key Lighting

  • For professional photography
  • Natural and cinematic shots
  • For brochures, posters and billboards
  • For single portraits
  • Wedding photography
  • Baby photography
  • Marketing or promotional photography

Places to Use Low Key Lighting

  • Dramatic setup
  • Journalism photography
  • Object photography
  • Intense scenes
  • Mystery/dark genre shoots

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is the difference between high key and low key lighting?

High key lessens the ratio of light. It means lowering the contrast between bright and dark areas. Whereas, low key increases the light ratio, meaning there is a high contrast between bright and dark light areas.

Q. What is low key lighting used for?

In Low key lighting principle, we use lighting through a hard source to create shadows. It is exactly the opposite of high key. In high lighting, the contrast decreases. But low lighting tends to have a much greater contrast between bright and dark lighting spaces.

Q. What does low key and high key mean in photography?

When the key tones of an image are lighter than the mid-tone, the result is a high-key photo. The photo is exposed to light and creates bright shadows. Whereas, a low-key photo contains brighter key tones and creates a dim shadow.

Q. Why is it called low key?

Here are two ways to define low key:

One definition is from the photography point of view. The main light is lowered to the ground for creating shadows. It creates an attractive effect in the filmy scene.

Secondly, musicians use the term low keys. These keys are used to generate a breaking or pausing sound. You can browse the internet for more details.

High Key vs Low Key Lighting Conclusion

The high key lighting effect is all about capturing lively and bubbly photos. It can be achieved through not only using correct camera settings but using lots of lighting setups and bright backgrounds. You have a lot of area to play with colors and patterns in high key lighting as you have bright background and a lot of light.

  • You can use high key lighting in many areas and places such as baby photography, marketing and portraits.

Contrary to high key, low key lighting needs large amount of dark background and one or dull lights. Dark areas are necessity for low key lighting and there isn’t a lot of room to play with color and patterns.

  • It is usable in object photography, dark or mystery shots or dramatic shots.

Hope you get to know a lot from our guide to High key vs. Low key lighting. Let us know which thing or contrast was new to you. We would love to hear back from you.

Thanks for making your way till here, See you next, Take Care!!

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