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High key lighting vs low key lighting photography


Written by Ed G

Published Sep 12, 2022

As a photographer, understanding which strategies to use when you’re working with clients or bringing your own creative vision to life is essential to seeing the best possible results in your work. One great example of this is high key lighting photography and low key lighting photography. Knowing the difference between the two and how each affects your photography is crucial to getting the best final product. 

The good news? While high-key lighting and low-key lighting might seem like a daunting topic for newer photographers, the reality is that they’re much easier to understand and employ than they might sound. In this guide, you’ll discover everything you need to know about low-key lighting photography and high-key lighting photography to become a pro at incorporating them into your work. 

Let’s dive in! 

What is high key and low key Lighting? 

Photography showing the effects of high key lighting photography
Photos by Fanny Gustafsson & Timur Khan

So, what exactly are high key and low key lighting? Aptly named, these forms of lighting can have a massive impact on how your finished work looks. Take, for example, a portrait photograph. If you’re doing headshots for a professional or taking pictures for a child’s yearbook, you’re not going to want to have pictures that are too dark as these don’t serve the right purpose. For these types of photographs, you want high-key lighting. 

High-key lighting photography is photography that abounds with white and light tones, including very few darker tones or greys. While these colours may still be present, high-key lighting lends itself to a brighter, more upbeat image. Continuing with the above example, headshots for professionals or school photos for children are very bright, simple, and achieve the desired purpose. 

Of course, you might also employ high-key lighting photography for advertisements (such as for a drink brand), for blog images, and so on. Put simply, high-key lighting is designed to help you capture images that have a more neutral or positive tone to them. 

It stands to reason then that low-key lighting is a form of lighting that features far darker tones, incorporating very few white or light tones into the final image. So, what might you leverage low-key lighting photography for? Let’s imagine that you’re working on a car advertisement. The brand that you’re working with wants its car to come across as sleek, sensual, dark, and mysterious. 

Rather than capturing the automobile in a bright or colourful background as you would with a more traditional car advertisement, you would use low-key lighting to help you capture the image and tone that your photography client is looking for. Of course, this is just a basic example. Given that low-key lighting photography can capture a wide range of emotions and themes (such as negativity, sadness, sensuality, and beyond), there are so many ways that you can leverage it in your work. 

To recap, the difference between high key and low key lighting is that high key lighting uses far more light and white tones while low key lighting focuses on much darker, greyer tones and shadows. Each has its purpose, and you’ll likely find yourself using both throughout your professional photography career or personal photography hobby work. 

Now that you have a better understanding of what high-key lighting and low-key lighting are, let’s dive into some helpful tips to assist you in making the most of these types of lighting in your work! 

High key lighting: our top tips

A studio setup which might be used for high-key lighting photography
Photo by Joel Muniz

Given that high-key lighting is dependent upon lighting, having the right tools is essential to photos with an abundance of white and light tones. Here are a few tips that will make it easier for you to use high-key lighting photography. 

  • If you plan on shooting outside where you won’t be able to use studio equipment, always pick a location and a time of day that offers you plenty of natural light so that you get the best natural light photography results. While you don’t want the light to be overbearing, you also don’t want to be in a photoshoot location where you have too many shadows or to be shooting on a day when there are too many clouds or rain. For better control of the elements, you can set up your own outdoor photo studio. Planning is essential to getting a great shot, regardless of whether you're working with a model, shooting and editing e-commerce photos, or are simply capturing nature in all its beauty! You can also find a daylight studio hire if you love natural light but want to capture your images indoors rather than outdoors. And if natural lighting is an issue in your location, you can even learn how to fake natural lighting by reading our guide.

  • If you plan on shooting in a studio (regardless of whether you’re looking into a product lighting photography setup for your product photography idea or you’re looking into a traditional portrait lighting setup), making sure that you have the right equipment is of the utmost importance. For high-quality high key lighting photography, you’ll need a fill light, a couple of lights for the background (for best results, these need to be one stop brighter than your main subject light), and a key light, which should be at least twice as bright as your fill. You should also make sure that you’re using a white background or a very light background to get much brighter tones in your images. You can learn more about why equipment is so important in getting the perfect shot in our photo studio equipment guide

  • Much like you need a light background or white background, your model (or product) should have lighter tones so as to get the perfect look when you’re using high-key lighting. This doesn’t mean that everything in your picture is going to be devoid of darker tones or shadows, but they should be minimized as much as possible if you can help it, especially when you’re working with another person and capturing a headshot or other photos. 

Most importantly, once you have everything in place, it’s important to take a couple of test shots to see how they turn out and where you can make adjustments before you start shooting. Should you be outside or in a natural light studio, it’s important to get there a bit earlier so that you have plenty of time to shoot even after testing. As long as you follow all of the advice above and make sure that you’re using natural light or the right studio equipment, you should have no problem using high-key lighting in your own photography portfolio! 

When to use high key lighting

An example of high-key lighting photography
Photo by Alex Starnes

The above is very helpful in understanding what high key lighting is and how to get the best results from high key lighting photography. But it doesn’t tell us when exactly we might use high-key lighting photography either in a personal or professional setting. So, what are some examples of when to use high-key lighting? These include: 

  • Portrait photography (Wedding, newborn photos, family photoshoots, and similar photography sessions are often when you see high-key lighting photography being employed most.)

  • Professional headshots

  • Advertising photography

  • Nature photography

  • Cinematic photography

High-key lighting is almost always going to be used in instances where the mood is neutral, optimistic, bright, or something of a similar nature. You’re only going to see low-key lighting used for photography sessions that fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. This brings us to our next point! 

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Low key lighting: our top tips

An example of low-key lighting photography
Photo by Szabo Viktor

We’ve covered high-key lighting quite extensively, so now it’s time to look at the latter portion of this high-key and low-key lighting guide. What are some helpful low-key lighting photography tips that will allow you to make the most of this lighting in your photo shoot ideas? Let’s take a look at some of our top tips for low-key lighting. 

  • Make sure that you’re using low-key lighting correctly. Understand the purpose of your photography work or, if you’re working for someone else, the client’s goals. Are they looking for something a bit darker? Do they want to convey more complex emotions that can’t be captured with high-key lighting photography? While low-key lighting can certainly enhance your photoshoot concepts, it’s important to make sure that you’re using it properly. Otherwise, you can end up with a final product that doesn’t quite match what you’re trying to convey or doesn’t line up with what your client asked you for. 

  • Shooting outside, whether it be naturally or with the support of equipment like a portable photo studio, is typically conducive to high-key lighting photography. However, you can capture low-key lighting outside. You will need to get creative, balancing available light with shadowy areas or even using natural events like cloudy skies to your advantage. Make sure that you really scope out your area, plan for a day where you’re not going to be overwhelmed by sunlight, and test out how certain things look like with a natural shadowy background or with the support of a photography backdrop. Low-key lighting photography is a bit tricky outdoors, but it’s more than possible. You can also shoot at night, using artificial light sources like the moon, headlights, and other lights to ensure you’re getting the shot without flooding your model or product with too much light and missing the look you’re going for. Additionally, you can always look for a blackout studio hire if you find that everything’s not going exactly to plan. 

  • Much like it is with high-key lighting, the type of studio equipment that you use makes a world of difference in how your shots come out. Whereas you need more lighting for high-key lighting photography, you’re going to want to reduce the lighting in your studio to a single light (you should also have additional equipment like an off-camera flash and a tripod). Make sure that you’re not shining your light directly onto the product or the model. Always go for a darker background and have your model wear darker clothes (or work with products that have darker tones in their design). You don’t need everything to be pitch black, but you will want less lighting, fewer lighter tones, and a darker environment to really capture the look and emotion that low-key lighting photography has to offer. 

  • Make sure to take a few test shots, and don’t be afraid to experiment a little! As with any aspect of photography, experimentation is the key to finding new ways for doing things. Who knows? You may even develop your own style of low-key lighting photography that’s a bit different from other photographers. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at not only knowing when to use low-key lighting but how to get the best possible shots with this type of lighting. 

The best way to describe the best tips for low-key lighting is to essentially do the opposite of whatever it is you’re doing to get the best high-key lighting shots. Whether you’re bringing your sensual and dark boudoir photo ideas to life or you’re getting some stunning nighttime shots of a client that they can add to their modelling portfolio, all of the tips above will help you understand what goes into low-key lighting photography and how you can set yourself up for success regardless of whether you’re taking shots outside or you’re taking shots of people or products in the studio!

When to use low key lighting

A second example of low-key lighting photography
Photo by Sasha Freemind

There is some overlap when it comes to using high-key and low-key lighting. For example, both of these types of lighting may be used to create an advertisement for a product. However, it’s really the tone that will determine which type is going to be the best fit. Some of the instances where you might find yourself using low-key lighting for photography include: 

  • Close-up images of people and places, especially those that have a more serious tone like photos used in journalism. 

  • Situations where drama and emotions are high, like a serious sports moment or a serious political development. 

  • Photos that would look better with darker tones than lighter tones (this may be up to creative interpretation). 

  • When you’re focusing more on a specific aspect of a person or object. 

  • And so on…

Lighting is something that dramatically changes a shot, no matter whether you’re a photographer or a videographer. Knowing how to employ high key and low key lighting will allow you to explore how lighting impacts your work and what little changes you can make over time to really capture the tone that you or your clients are going for so that you get the best results every time. 

Summary: key takeaways for high key and low key lighting 

Someone holding a camera while doing high-key lighting photography
Photo by William Bayreuther

Having a comprehensive guide to reference as you navigate your journey as a photographer makes it much easier to really learn the skills that you will need as you advance in your career or in your hobby. In this case, you have everything you need to better understand high-key lighting and low-key lighting. Here are some of the key takeaways from this guide that will support you moving forward!

  • High-key lighting refers to photography that employs bright lighting and bright backgrounds, producing a final photo that’s bright, optimistic, or positive. 

  • Low key lighting refers to photography that focuses on shadow and contrast, using less lighting and darker backgrounds. This results in a finished product that conveys more complex, dramatic emotions. 

  • High-key lighting is best done in a studio with ample lighting equipment or in natural lighting (studio or outside). Your model, background, or products should be equally light.

  • Low-key lighting is best done in blackout studios or nighttime environments with less lighting and dark outfits, backgrounds, and products.

  • High-key lighting is often used for portrait photography, professional headshots, and advertisements. 

  • Low key lighting is often used for dramatic shots, black and white photography, couple shoots or close-ups. 

Of course, this is only helpful if you’re able to operate in an environment where you have complete control of your lighting and can experiment with your work. Where do you find the right setting for your high-key and low-key lighting photography? 

Ready to start shooting? Tutti can help!

Another example of a photo setup that could be used for high key photography or low key photography
Photo by Emmanuel Acua

Your creative endeavours are dependent upon having the right resources available to you, regardless of whether you’re a novice photographer or someone more experienced looking to build an entirely new body of work with new strategies. One of the biggest obstacles to learning how to leverage high-key and low-key lighting is finding the proper space to do it in. Whether you need a blackout studio or a natural light studio, finding the right space can be a challenge. Additionally, not every photographer may have their own space to shoot in. 

Looking for inspiration? Check out our top London Photography Exhibitions, or the best places to photograph in London.

That’s where we come in! Tutti is dedicated to helping creatives like you find the right places where your creativity can soar. For photographers, this means connecting you with nearby studios that you can rent out so you can put your high-key lighting photography or low-key lighting photography to the test. No matter what type of studio space you may need for your photography, we’re here to help you find it!

All you have to do to get started is to list your location and narrow down the type of space that you need (we support five types of arts, including photography), reach out to the space to learn more about it and how you can book it, and negotiate with the space owner to come to an agreement for renting out the space. We don’t hassle with all of the upfront information that other platforms do like credit card information or having to scour the web for contact details. 

Then, you just show up to the space at the agreed-upon time, work your photography magic, and book the space again (or another space entirely – pool photoshoot, anyone?) when you need it. 

Are you ready to put all of the high-key and low-key lighting information that you learned in this guide to the test? If so, now’s the time to take a look at our list of spaces to find the right studio for your needs. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us!

Hire locations for your next photoshoot with Tutti

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