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|Category:||Portraits and People|
The highs and lows of lighting - learn what high key and low key lighting is.
The term high key and low key lighting is regularly heard in photography circles but often misunderstood. In it’s simplest terms a high key image is a bright image full of light and mostly white tones whilst a low key image is a dark with minimal lighting and rich in black tones and lots of shadow areas.
So lets start by looking at the mood factor first (because let’s face it that’s the reason to choose either of these lighting styles in the first place) as mentioned high key lighting is bright and light but usually with the intention of invoking a feeling of freshness and optimism. It is often the choice of lighting for many pack-shot and product photographs that require a clean fresh feel to them, or portraits, catalogue and fashion work that need to “play it safe” with their image message. Although it is often a “play it safe” lighting set up, high key lighting is usually far more complex and requires many more lights than low key lighting to be achieved effectively.
So how do we start to achieve the lighting in a high key studio set up? The first thing I do is determine what I would like my shooting aperture to be based on the subject matter, choice of lens and the depth of field needed. I then put two lights (one either side) at even power on a white background and adjust the power until I arrive at just below pure white (checking with the ink dropper tool that the values are below 255 in each colour channel) then I add 1/3 stop in power to bring my light just above white, resulting in a nice pure white background. By shooting a test with just these lights and the subject in place I can then check whether I have a silhouetted subject or if I’m starting to suffer flare (if I have flare I can add flags or reduce the light ensuring I still maintain white). Many photographers make the mistake of throwing all the lights on and not really knowing what’s going on or where problems might be originating. This is usually a big mistake as each light affects the other because of un-calculated bounce off of the surface of other softboxes and reflectors. Once I have established the correct background lighting for my scene I’ll then move to the key light and then the fourth of fifth lights, checking each individually and in combination with my other lights. For high key lighting I will often be using large scrims or softboxes to keep the lighting soft but I prefer a beauty dish and one harder light source to add some sparkle and avoid an image that is too flat or low in contrast which would result in a dull image!
For low key images, less lights are often used but precision is required in the application of the lighting to control important shadow detail. Successful low key lighting is often directed towards camera from behind the subject and is flagged to avoid spill and directed to bring out edge detail or a create a chiaroscuro effect. The skill is in making sure that the areas of importance are either pinpointed with controlled pools of low powered light or the careful application of reflectors. I like to use mirrored sheets or silver foil, shaped to focus light back onto the front of my subject via the lights from behind my subject.
Words and images by Karl Taylor.