Lighting Series: High Key, Low Key and Mid Key

Written by Backdrop Express Photography Team on . Posted in Studio Equipment, Studio Lighting

High Key, Low Key and Mid Key Studio Lighting | Backdrop Express Blog

There are three different key levels of studio lighting: low, medium and high – each offering a different look and feel to a photograph. Low key lighting brings out the darker tones in a photo, while medium key highlights the medium tones. Photographs that are dominated by bright tones are created with high key lighting.

High Key

A bright background is needed when shooting with high key lighting, such as a white seamless paper. Other alternative backgrounds include a white muslin background or a backdrop that is nuked with lights. If you are just starting out with various forms of lighting, try sticking with the bright white backdrops until you get used to other forms of lighting.

You can achieve a high key lighting affect by setting up multiple lights. This set up will give you total control over the image. Place the subject slightly in front of your photo background and set your lights on it. Once you have properly lit the subject, start setting up the background lights. Place one or two lights behind the subject pointing toward the backdrop. Use an umbrella to flood the backdrop with an even amount of light. Set the backdrop lights higher than the lighting used on the subject.

High Key, Low Key and Mid Key Studio Lighting | Backdrop Express BlogPhoto by Heath James via Flickr

If you only have one light available to you, you can still achieve a high key lighting affect. Place the light several feet in front of your model and slightly to the side. Adjust the light so it hits both the subject and the backdrop. Set a diffuser panel between the light and the subject to soften the light on the subject, while keeping the light on the backdrop brighter. If necessary, use a reflector to fill in shadows on the subject.

Low Key

One of the most dramatic effects that you can get on backdrop photography is the low key lighting effect. This effect is produced when a subject stands out against a dark background.

It is very easy to understand low key lighting. The idea is to get dark tones while using very little lighting. The emphasis is placed on one spot of the subject as opposed to details everywhere else. There is no better lighting setup for those photographers who only have one light. Even if you have more than a few lights you may find yourself turning them all off to go into the low lighting setup. The only reason to use more than one light would be for shadow play.

High Key, Low Key and Mid Key Studio Lighting | Backdrop Express BlogPhoto by Jon Beard via Flickr

The setup for the perfect low lighting shot includes a dark studio background. Your subject should also be wearing a dark color so that the features that you want to accent work.

The light should not be on the front of the subject, but rather to the side. Set up at 45 degree angle to the subject and then adjust to get the desired effect. The intention when doing this is to keep the light on your subject as opposed to the photography background. To get the best and darker effect, the subject should be on the edge of the light. If the subject has become too dark, then you can use a second light, or a reflector will also work.

Mid Key

Mid key keeps the photograph tones right in the middle of high and low key – not too bright and not too dark. Mid key lighting focuses on the middle tones in a photograph, while still keeping the subject brighter than the background.

High Key, Low Key and Mid Key Studio Lighting | Backdrop Express BlogPhoto by mlp via Flickr

Medium key lighting can be achieved with a single light. Place the subject in front of the photo backdrop and the light in a position where it hits both the backdrop and the subject. Since your subject will be closer to the light, it will appear brighter than the background, achieving the perfect look for medium key lighting.

With mid key lighting you have more room to play with photography backgrounds. Play around with different colored backdrops and where to position them. For example, by placing a bright white backdrop far enough away from the light can make it appear gray in the photograph. Alternatively, if you flood a black backdrop with enough light you can also make it appear gray in the photograph.

Take the time to experiment with lighting, subject and backdrop positions until you achieve the desired look in your final photograph.

What lighting style do you prefer to shoot with?

-Backdrop Express Photography Team

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