What is High Key Lighting? How The Popular Lighting Technique Works With Portrait Photography

High key lighting is a technique that has been used for many, many years now. For the most part, you can associate it with a certain Amazon patent, but high key lighting has been used year after year for portrait photography and cinematography. Essentially, it gives your subject this sort of angelic, bright and airy look. These days it is typically more associated with backlighting a portrait subject. So if you love working with natural lighting, then you’ll probably really like high key lighting.

What is High Key Lighting?

High key lighting at its basic nature is overexposure. You’re exposing for the shadows and there’s a ton of white, blown out areas of the photos. But more or less, your subject is perfectly exposed and there is a sufficient lighting on them. It isn’t one of the more HDR styled images that seem to work these days with soft, consistent lighting but instead it is of a different contrast level. Do you see how pretty much nothing behind the subjects in this section is visible but they’re clearly visible? Yup, that’s high key lighting and it’s using a lot of white.

Model: Bec Fordyce

How Does High Key Lighting Work in Portraiture?

There are two ways that high key lighting typically works in portraiture. In the more traditional, cookie-cutter-white-background style, you’re essentially using two light sources. The first is your main light, which illuminates your subject. But then there’s a back light illuminating the background and that light is metered to be a stop more powerful than the key light. That’s it.

Of course, this has more to do with portraiture and not a whole lot to do with standard, more common backlit portraits.

Essentially with backlit portraiture involving the use of natural light, you’re backlighting the subject and either overexposing the scene by a stop or you’re spot metering for the skin and eyes of the subject. Generally speaking, most photographers tend to go for the former option because it’s faster, easier and it means that you and your subject can just focus on shooting more often.

How Do You Make High Key Lighting More Effective?


Whether you’re shooting this in a studio or not, high key lighting can be made more effective by doing one thing: helping your subject choose their clothing. Making the clothing and skin tones stand apart from the very otherwise white background really helps in putting more or an emphasis on them. Essentially, think about it as creating contrast through colors.

Gear Recommendations

Yes, that’s me.

If you’re shooting outdoors with natural light, all you need is the sun behind your subject, your camera and your lens, That’s it. However, what I sometimes like doing is working with large, translucent umbrellas and overexposing the subject by just a bit.

But if you’re working in a studio, you can use a whole variety of light modifiers. Again though, I really like using umbrellas. This Westcott triple pack of seven foot umbrellas has been my mainstay for a while now.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.