Join Eduardo Angel for an in-depth discussion in this video High-key and low-key lighting, part of Lighting Design for Video Productions.
Generally speaking, we want our scenes to display a full range of color tones, from the blackest black to the whitest white. That's how we generally perceive the world with our eyes, and we expect the same in our movies. But as always, there are exceptions. High-key lighting is free from dark shadows. Most of the tones are above middle gray and the background is almost always white. From a production perspective, this is a very efficient way to light, since we don't need too many adjustments for each scene, which really speeds up the shooting schedule.
Low-key lighting is a single direction light. With contrast ratios ranging from one to four and even one to eight, its mission is to exaggerate shapes and objects by throwing areas into very dark shadows. This is a classic, dramatic and very moody lighting approach. Here are both examples, shot in the same room at the same time of day with just a few, but key, changes. The script called for a high-key, shadowless room with the camera following a hand motion of someone setting the table for a formal dinner.
It also required white dishes and highly polished silverware on a white tablecloth. To achieve this look, we only used two daylight fluorescent fixtures, one as the key light and one as the back light. For this exercise we kept the living room's lamp on the whole time, simply to demonstrate that the key and back lights are so powerful, literally flooding the room with light, that the little lamp has no effect on the final image. To create the soft, flat and shadowless look, we simply position both open lights at full power and bounce them off the ceiling.
We were close but still weren't getting a completely white background. The strategy was to decrease the power on the main light and open up the aperture, effectively making the background brighter. The background on the right image is now totally white. By eliminating any sense of space and depth, the viewer's attention goes directly to the hand. For some reason, the producer want to have a low-key variation of the same scene. It is hard to believe, but we used the same exact location and time of day.
As you can see, there was plenty of light outside, but you could never tell from the main camera's angle. We started by using window light, the little lamp, and two small overhead bulbs. It was extremely dark, and we had to really push the ISO on our cameras. The scene was certainly low key. It had a warm look with beautiful long casted shadows from the window, reaching across the entire table. This would have worked out great for a romantic dinner scene. But we wanted to achieve a more dramatic look, with richer blacks, longer shadows, and exaggerated shapes.
With only one of the daylight fluorescent lights positioned next to the table, we lowered its height and brightness and achieved the look we desired. As you can see, you don't need a daylight studio to shoot high-key or work only at night time for low-key. The important elements to consider are the strength and direction of the lights. High-key lighting as a very clean, almost clinical look, and it is often used for fashion, high tech, and medical assignments. Low-key lighting, on the other hand, is much more intense and enigmatic, perfect for a dramatic story or your next horror film.
This course was created and produced by Eduardo Angel. We're honored to host this content in our library.
- Understanding the role of lighting
- Lighting interior and exterior scenes
- Directing the viewer's attention
- Enhancing mood in a scene
- Achieving great light under harsh conditions
- Deciding on the right lighting style for your story