How to create high key photography in studio portrait

June 5, 2016   13280 views

So many photographers just starting their work in portrait photography attempts to solve the difficulty of creating well-lit high key portrait by increasing the amount of lighting sources. The method to which they attempt to do this is by adding softboxes, reflectors, umbrellas into the fight for glossy and shiny portrait.

Although, one of the main principles in creating high key portrait setups is:

You have to use exact amount of lighting sources, understanding what kind of picture you want to achieve and understanding what kind of work each of them is doing.

Not more and not less.

As I wrote in my articles I like to use hard light to get extensive pictures. And here I will show how I create high-key portrait setup using only hard light sources.

Let’s start!

The first step in creating high key portrait is to put two lighting sources with standard reflectors on each side of the model, directing them towards the background.

High key photography portrait lighting setup

These two lighting units will be both background and rim lighting sources at the same time. To get strong effect I have to overexpose the background. In any case it will be bright in the shot. But using power of light for 2-3 stops more than it is necessary to brighten the background, I can get two strong and nice effects on each sides of the model’s head.

I would like to add that I prefer to work in white studios. Walls, ceilings, floors can work as a source of fill light. If I don’t need fill light I use black flags moving them close to model.

In creating high-key lighting setup I usually start with these two sources of lights. Understanding that they could limit me with their power, I turn them to high power and get the basic level of amount of light to adjust to another lighting units .

In this case I got 11.0 aperture. Of course, you know, I am not saying about shutter speed and ISO. In most situations, when you are shooting in the studio the parameters are 1/200 sec and ISO100.

I had to move the model very close to the background. To have soft effects on both sides of her head. The farther you are to  the lighting source, the harsher the lights get. To create a soft light effect on her face I move the model very close to the background, around 1-1.5 meters. Be aware that these lighting sources should not be direct on the model, I need only soft effects from the background, not direct hard, strong light from the lighting sources.

The next step in this high-key photography lighting setup is to setup key light. I have two symmetrical lighting pattern on both sides of the model’s face, so I need front light also. The light that is put exactly above the model.

I like to use beauty dish for high key portraits. It produces medium soft light if placed close to the model and makes nice round circles inside her retina of eyeballs. You shouldn't place it on high level, just above her forehead. High enough not to see the beauty dish in the camera frame. When you work with a key light in portrait lighting setup you have to remember that it is so very important to find necessary position, necessary level of key light. Very high level of the key light would create very deep shadows, but vice versa very low position would make the lighting pattern very flat. So you have to find the balance. And your aestetic. My aesthetic showed me this position of key light source. Take a look at the result.

high-key portrait lighting setup in studio photography

The next task is to reduce the dark shadows on her neck. I used additional silver light reflector that helped me to extra portion of light to dark, unlit by the key light areas. We are working on a high-key portrait lighting setup, there deep shadows aren't allowed.

I placed a round reflector a little bit lower to the camera frame. When you setup fill light in portrait setup you have to remember that the closer the distance the softer the light we get.

Here it is:

High key lighting setup portrait photography

I’ve got nice circles inside her eyes but haven’t solved our task. The shadow is still there so I need to use one more lighting source.  It stands at the level of key light, exactly above me, and faced to this light reflector. I use honeycomb grid to make the spot of light more narrow because I need (the spot of light) only on reflector’s surface, not on the model’s face.

Great! I reduced the shadow on her face:

High key lighting setup in studio portrait photography

The perfect result. To understand lighting better let’s turn off background light and look how key and fill lights work alone:

High key Portrait photography lighting setup light

Notice that the background had become grey and the lines of light on both sides of model’s face had disappeared.

Nothing to add. Only to show a picture and a diagram of the lighting setup:

High key setup Portrait photography lighting

high key setup diagram

Let’s look at the result in the picture which I chose from this shoot.

High key Portrait setup tutorial lighting

Nice, well-lit high-key portrait. I Made it with only hard light sources. Very bright, very simple, very clear. Showing all the model’s beauty. All we need from this kind of picture.

Good luck!