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Christopher Grey

High-Key Lighting

By Christopher Grey
Published by Sekonic

Christopher Grey goes into detail about how to set up and meter your lights to create a high-key image.

Photographer Chris Grey is an expert on lighting. He's written seven books on the subject, teaches classes and workshops, and is a strong advocate for precise control in the studio. To see more of his work, or to find his books and DVDs, visit his Web site.






The term “high key” can be a bit misleading. It has nothing to do with overexposure of the subject (although there’s nothing to prevent a photographer from taking 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 the look, and I continue to find variations on scenarios I’ve previously written about, as well as new tricks. Some are impressively simple; others are more complicated. As always, I’ll leave it to you to experiment with them and make your own decisions as to what will work best for you and your studio.

My first scenario falls into the “simple” category and is really easy to set up, using two lights with umbrellas. The first light, the key, 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 2/3 stop brighter than the key. My sample set the exposure value of the background light to be equal to that of the key, 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 non-lit side.


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

I set up two strip light softboxes, one on each side of the background and aimed to the center. The lights were carefully positioned so that there was no more than 1/10 of a stop difference over the five feet of important background behind the subject. The exposure value of the background lights, measured together, was equal to that of the key. Setting the lights in this manner means the white paper background will have some detail, although very minor, throughout.

Each strip light was blocked by a black bookend, to keep any spill light off the model as well as 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 further back toward the background but aimed at my model’s side. This softbox was powered to be equal to the key.

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, more “normal” softboxes would work in place of the strip lights but would require more room.

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 be at all consequential to her look. I also swapped the medium softbox for a large 4'x6' box 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 she was positioned far enough from the background that the light falling on her from the strip light was equal to the light of the key. 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 key at that point.

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 key. Because the effects of light are cumulative it appears there is a highlight along her camera-right arm. Smoke and mirrors.

The most important tool in your arsenal, especially if you want to do high-key photography, is a light meter that’s calibrated to your equipment (using a meter straight out of the box is usually 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. If you have a meter that supports Sekonic's DTS software, you can use it to calibrate. You can also check out my blog article on how to calibrate your meter. The important factor in creating high-key imagery—or any imagery—is confident control over your 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.
Category: How-To
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