High Key Lighting

What is High Key Lighting? [Complete Guide]

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Have you ever seen a shot from a film and instantly felt a sense of happiness, balance, and connection? Well, there’s a name for this style of cinematography and it’s called high key lighting.

In this article, we’re going to discuss what high-key lighting is, why it’s used, where you’ve seen it, and how you can use it in your next project.

The relationship between lighting and story goes hand in hand so having a better understanding of it will help you make creative decisions. Also, effective cinematography will help your story be felt before it’s understood.

What is High Key Lighting?

You’ve most likely seen high key lighting used time and time again in sitcoms, commercials, comedies, and various films. This popular film lighting technique is used on both interior and exterior scenes. It’s also referred to as beauty or wrap-around lighting 

In a nutshell, high-key lighting consists of a bright and evenly lit frame with minimal shadows and low contrast ratios. This means less dimension and less definition.

In turn, this creates a positive and uplifting atmosphere for a scene. Nothing to hide, all in the open, for the viewer to see as a whole. 

High key and low key lighting comparison

High key lighting in film conveys simplicity, truth, openness, joyfulness, and glamor. This is the opposite of low-key lighting which produces stark shadows and high contrast, creating dramatic tension and fear.

Additionally, high key lighting not only addresses the main subject of the scene but also deals with the contrast between the foreground subject and the background.

Why Use High Key Lighting?

There are many reasons to use high-key lighting in film. However, it’s helpful to clearly define your intention in pre-production.

For example, what emotions are you trying to evoke from a scene? What are you developing within the character? What look accurately expresses the essence of the story?

Uses for High Key Lighting in Film

  • Create a positive atmosphere
  • Establish a balanced mood
  • Provide insight into a character
  • Create a surface-level impression
  • To contrast upcoming drama
  • Ideal future world
  • Dream sequences

Short History

I Love Lucy high key example

Originally, high key lighting was made popular on the TV show I Love Lucy (1951) by the Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Karl Freund. His idea included using multiple cameras to film at once without adjusting lights. In turn, this saved both time and money while filming in front of a live studio audience.

It was a big risk for his career but he did so with success. Generations of show creators owe him a great deal of gratitude as this same technique is used on broadcasts and sitcoms today. 

High Key Lighting Examples

You’ve probably seen high key lighting examples over and over again without realizing it.

Most often, you’ll find this style in comedies, light-hearted films, and commercial projects. That being said, high key lighting is also a very creative tool which we’ll get into later.

Even without the context of knowing what’s taking place within each scene, you get an overall sense from each shot.

Below are some classic high key lighting examples. Take note of the bright subjects, even backgrounds, lack of shadows, and overall tone.

Asteroid City (2023)

Asteroid City cinematography screenshot

Wes Anderson is a regular user of high key lighting. He’s made it a trademark style of his that can be seen throughout his films in addition to his own distinctive color palette and production design.

Films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).

Barbie (2023)

Barbie cinematography screenshot

High key lighting in this film is used to showcase the squeaky-clean existence of Barbie and Ken until they decide to venture into the real world.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine cinematography screenshot

This example differs from others because it uses evenly lit frames to portray positivity on a superficial level. However, this creative tactic allows the viewer to discover that this loving family has many flaws below the surface.

Midsommer (2019)

Midsommer cinematography screenshot

In a similar way, the horror film Midsommer broke new ground with how high key lighting can be used. The seducing and blissful setting takes you from a heavenly environment to a disturbing dimension.

They are all great examples of how visuals can be used to help influence the narrative and lead the viewer in a certain way.

How To Use High Key Lighting

Depending on the scenario, a high key lighting setup can be very simple or complex. As you can probably imagine, you’re going to need plenty of light to achieve a soft and brightly lit scene.

Using high key lighting in film requires you to pay attention to all the details. Everything needs to be evenly lit to create a balanced look. Whereas, in low key lighting, certain areas of the frame can go unnoticed because they are hidden by shadow.

To get started, softbox lighting is going to be your best friend in creating the best high key lighting in film. Also, remember, a smaller light source will create harsh lines, sharper edges, and shadows. Whereas, a large light source will create soft and feathered edges.

In short, the bigger the light source, the closer you’ll get to perfect high key lighting. 👍

Step-by-Step Guide

To create a soft and evenly lit shot, simply follow the 4 steps below.

  1. Start with the fundamental 3-point lighting technique; key, fill, and backlight. Position your key above the eye line and angled downward towards your subject.
  2. Adjust your fill light to nearly a 1:1 ratio. Generally, you’re aiming for 1 f-stop or less between the key and the fill on your subject. Not sure about light ratios? Check our other article on light meters where there is an easy to understand table on light ratios and f-stops.
  3. Next, inspect all the details of the frame, your goal is to identify and brighten any dark areas or shadows. to achieve a balanced look you might need several fill lights and reflectors.
  4. Now it’s time to light up the background. Generally, the lighting ratio between the main subject and background is 1.5 stops or less. Big muslins or silk diffusers placed in front of your fill lights do a great job of distributing even light.
  5. Lastly, always be sure to test your setup. It’s important to see the camera and character movement within the scene. These adjustments can introduce unexpected shadows or loss of intended exposure on your subject.

Pro Tip: If your camera or monitor has a false color feature, use it whenever possible. This advantage gives you the ability to see the actual evenness of your lighting.

For more tips check out this quick tutorial video about high key lighting on a budget.

Essential High Key Lighting Equipment

As mentioned, in order to achieve high key lighting you’ll need some serious firepower. This would ideally include the following kit:

  • 3 x high power lights (minimum combined power of 200w)
  • Honeycomb grids to help direct light and prevent spilling into unwanted areas
  • Softboxes or large diffusion sheets (muslin or silk)
  • Reflector discs or bounce boards (4×4 or 8×8)
  • C-Stands, sandbags, boom arm, Cardellini clamps, and sandbags

However, by all means, don’t allow limited equipment to get you down. Always work with what you have. Again, natural light and reflectors can be extremely useful when on a tight budget.

Budget Lighting Options

Along those lines, there are some simple budget-friendly ways to illuminate your scene. First off, try bounce a key light off a white ceiling. This gives you a similar effect to a large softbox from above your subject.

Secondly, place the reflector underneath your subject to fill the subject’s eyes. Another useful tool is a ring light. These are great for zero-contrast lighting. Lastly, use natural light whenever possible. Cloudy days are the cheapest natural diffusion.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, the way a scene appears is the way a viewer experiences the story.

Remember to ask yourself simple questions like what’s the goal of your scene? How does the tone reflect the character? How does the mood fit into the bigger picture? The answers to these questions should give clarity on how to light each shot.

Now, get out there and experiment with various lighting setups. This way, you’ll be able to create the look and feel for your next project with confidence.

Marcus VanWormer
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus is a freelance director, cinematographer, and video editor based in Brooklyn. He has a diverse background in film production working with companies like ABC, CBS, Jeep, Harley Davidson, and Levi's. His passion is storytelling. Follow him on Linkedin.
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