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High-Key, Low-Key, Hybrid Lighting in Photography

The Keys to Interesting Lighting in Photography

High-Key Lighting, Low-Key Lighting, Hybrid Lighting in Photography

High-key lighting in photography is what you make of it, today, it's more hybrid lighting.

Ask a group of professional photographers how they achieve high-key lighting and chances are you’ll receive multiple answers to achieve the same results and probably all your answers will focus on a lighting technique used to eliminate shadows from usually a white background. Some will also unknowingly give you a hybrid lighting set-up without consciously knowing they are doing so because they fail to understand the high-key and low-key true meanings.

There is more to high-key lighting than just a shadow-less white seamless paper or cyc (cyclorama), the latter being what most photographers feel is the best high-key lighting photography studio location. Like all misunderstood things in photography, it’s usually because a photographer hasn’t studied the history behind the concept or term, and true high-key lighting is often misunderstood for that reason.

So there is no misunderstanding, first, let’s look at the history of high-key lighting, as it originates from the early days of television and cinema film photography, not still photography. Early cinema photographers in Hollywood used what was termed as three-point lighting—three lights, one on the left, one in the center and another light on the right to reduce contrast on the set that allowed the subject to move around without having to stop and make costly, time consuming adjustments—call it even or flat lighting. Traditional high-key lighting reduced the time it took to film a Hollywood production like a sitcom, where dramatic lighting is not a requirement to establish the mood in a scene. Sitcoms are traditionally the biggest users of high-key lighting, thus this style of lighting is often associated with joy, happiness and fun.

Overtime, Hollywood three-point lighting would evolve into the more flexible and cooler (as in heat temperature, not Kelvin light temperature) fluorescent style of lighting, also low in contrast, due to the light qualities of fluorescent tubes, thus eliminating hard shadows. As lighting fixtures became more portable (less weight) and cooler (less hot in temperature) to handle, Hollywood began adding more lighting patterns to suit the demands of more sophisticated audiences. As more dramatic, cinematic productions evolved, more complicated lighting scenarios in film and television production increased, especially those with larger operating budgets.

High-Key Lighting in Photography, Low-Key Lighting in Photos

Playboy Playmate Holley Dorrough poses in a one-light, high-key lighting photography set.

In the early days of still photography, high-key lighting was budget driven too, especially for early fashion photography clients with limited budgets. Photographers would use Hollywood, three-point lighting, with the center or key-light fitted with a large light modifier (Octabox), aimed at the subject and the left and right lights aimed at the background behind the subject. In essence, the subject is able to move to the right or left without the photographer having to stop to adjust the lights (plus exposure) and the lack of shadows allowed for a more expedient, less costly photography production. This was often called, “the circle of arc” shooting.

Because most of this fashion photography was shot with white backgrounds, high-key lighting became traditionally associated with white backgrounds, though this is not necessarily a requirement, as high-key lighting simply means using a key-light (main light) for the subject then injecting the background with light (background light) and filling the overall scene (fill light) in order to reduce contrast between darker and lighter areas in the overall photograph.

Typical of fashion photography, trends shift, and fashion photography began using a more hybrid (high- and low-key) style of lighting as designers asked photographers to match the mood their products created with the overall photograph.

The Circle of Arc in Lighting
When a photographer moves their main, or key-light around their subject but maintains an equal distance between the light and the subject, the lighting exposure values do not change. This is called the circle of arc in lighting. Think of the subject as the needle of a drafting compass and the light as the pencil as it rotates around the embedded point.

Playboy is a great example, they originally evolved from low-contrast, simple two- or three-light setups in the 1970’s, but as their circulation increased, so did their budgets, thus the current, more dramatic lighting often used to photograph Playmate centerfolds. These more dramatic sets often involve 30 to 50 meticulously placed lights. In fact, today’s traditional centerfold shoot includes both high-key lighting (face and body) and low-key lighting (for the back and sides of the subject). The high-key lighting concept is designed to keep the face and skin smooth by using the angle of incidence to the angle of reflection physics rule to fill micro-pore skin shadows and low-key lighting (high in contrast) for the remaining scene (foregrounds and backgrounds) and to accentuate the body from the back and sides.

Traditional High-Key Lighting
Traditional high-key lighting elements are a brightly and evenly lit photograph, soft and minimal shadows, low contrast and an even, bright tone in the image. Original high-key lighting involved three lights, one from the right, one in the center, one on the left and originated in Hollywood. High-key lighting is also associated with a happy mood.

It’s this understanding of high- and low-key lighting that separates a Playboy photographer from most photographers. As I’ve stated before, lighting is the lifeblood of the image and even as low-contrast as high-key lighting is traditionally, most photographers fail to understand it’s concept and subconsciously blend a high-key lighting set-up with a low-key (high contrast) lighting set-up because their goal is a shadow-less background while still keeping a more dramatically lit subject—basically hybrid lighting.

High-Key Lighting in Photography Lighting Techniques

Often high-key lighting is used for catalog work, try it, as in this photo of Candice, for other fun photography.

Now that we know why high-key lighting is often misunderstood by some and used in hybrid lighting scenarios, sometimes unknowingly by others, along with it’s history from Hollywood, hopefully your only form of high-key lighting isn’t based on lighting used for more traditional catalog photography—trying to sell a product, such as a fashion dress, with a shadow-less, white background. Experiment with high-key lighting, don’t use it as a crutch or for cliché photos. Use high-key lighting to create moods besides the traditional happiness, as non-traditional or rule breaking images can produce masterpiece photographs that will separate you from traditional photographers—besides, audiences are more sophisticated today than ever before.

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  1. Thanks…. this one cleared up alot…..

  2. good overview

    • Thanks, you’re welcome! Please let your photographer friends and colleagues know about Lens Diaries™. Thanks, rg.

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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

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