High Key Lighting Tutorial

There are many ways to achieve high key lighting and in this tutorial we’re going to cover one of my favorites: the high-key, ethereal look.  Getting this look can be a piece of cake if you keep the basic lighting concept in mind and follow just a few simple tips.  Even with minimal gear, the right combination of light, wardrobe, posing, camera settings, and post-processing can result in dramatic high key lighting images that will make any woman look like a goddess bathed in soft, beautiful illumination.

high key lighting

How to Create This High Key Lighting “Ethereal” Look

In order to build this type of image yourself, it might be helpful to look at what makes it all come together:

1) High Key Lighting:  If I have a big white wall or background surface to work with, I will usually point a strobe directly at it in order to blast the area behind the subject with light.  This is going to be the foundation of many high key lighting setups.

When I only have a small flash unit to work with, I’ll put it on Manual mode and set the flash to 1/8 power or higher, depending on the aperture and ISO I’m working with.  Keep in mind that with wider apertures of f/2.8 or f/1.8, and a relatively high ISO (400, 800, or faster), I can drop the power of the flash unit down a bit. Getting the most from your flash without higher power settings can be good for conserving battery power and it can also boost your recycle times.  If you’re using more flash units, or higher powered strobes, you’ll have the luxury of smaller apertures and lower ISOs to achieve your high key lighting.

I’ll often place my flash at a distance somewhere between my subject and the background, out of frame, aimed toward the background at a 45 degree angle.  A second unit can be placed opposite the first for a more balanced illumination, if that’s what you’re going for.

There are other effective ways to bath your subject in background illumination.  The diagram below shows how I used two shoot-through translucent umbrellas placed almost directly behind the subject.  This was the configuration used for the high key lighting image shown above.

high key lighting wrap aroundThe main idea is to hit your background with plenty of overpowering light, or use light AS the background.  That is to say, you’re trying to overexpose or blow-out your background to desired effect.  You don’t need a tremendous amount of light, because you’ll create the overexposure with your camera settings (see below).  You don’t even need flash if you have enough constant or natural light to work with.  For example, bright natural light coming in through a window just behind your subject might do the trick with the right camera settings.

commercial high key lighting

A more commercial look using a front-side main light in combination with back light.

Do you need a main light or some other type of illumination for the front/visible side of your subject to in your high key lighting setup?  You can definitely do that, if that’s the look you want.  But if you would like something a little less slick and more ethereal, you can do this without adding more light and simply let the background light do its thing as it bounces around the room.  Some of that light will hit your subject on the camera side, too.  Take a few test shots to see where this takes you.

2) Wardrobe:  Wardrobe is always a good place to experiment.  But for this type of high key lighting image, I’ve always preferred light and airy clothing and free-flowing hair.  Makeup shouldn’t be too bold, either.  A light-colored, sheer fabric works great as a wrap-around.  You and your subject can experiment with the way the light plays through it and how much detail is visible under the fabric.  This type of high key lighting can also be flattering for nude subjects.

3) Posing (and expression):  Since this is a softer, quieter look, try poses and expressions that are more introspective, contemplative, or at ease.  As with any portraiture, not every image has to include a smile.

4) Camera Settings:  Naturally, camera settings are going to vary widely based on the type, power, and positioning of the lighting.  If your only real light source is coming in from behind the subject, the settings you use will determine the amount of overexposure you’ll achieve for the background, but it can also determine to what degree your subject will appear as silhouette.  In a smaller room with lighter-colored walls, an overexposure of the background light will allow your subject to be more visible under the lesser illumination of the light scattering back to her from the walls.

As a first step, let’s say your setup is providing you with a good amount of overexposure on the background.  With your camera set to Manual (“M”), you have an aperture of f/4, an ISO of 400 and shutter remaining constant at 1/250, you are successfully blowing-out just about all the detail in your background at your current background flash output settings.

high key lighting example silhouette


Next, you place your subject in the frame to take a test shot which produces a silhouette with very little detail on the subject.  That might be exactly what you’re looking for.  However, if you’d like to get a little more detail (make her more visible and not just a silhouette), you can either either widen your aperture to f/2.8 or more, or you can bump up your ISO to 800 or more.  Again, if using only flash, altering the shutter speed won’t be very helpful.  Keep moving that ISO up to see what you get out of the light and how it illuminates your subject.

5) Post-processing:  For me, this type of shot is only partially complete right out of the camera.  I know as I’m shooting these images (always in RAW), that I’ll be adjusting exposure and contrast in post in order to fine-tune the work.  This is similar to what photographers used to do in the darkroom when they used variable-contrast paper and experimented with exposure times under the enlarger.

post-processing high key lighting

Generally, I will identify some of the images that look great as monotone or split tones.  I’ll also experiment with the amount of contrast the images receive in order to emphasize a silhouette or alternatively bring out more detail in the subject.  The latter, especially when shot with high ISO settings, can produce some intriguing texture because of the noise that becomes visible.  Finally, I will often clone out distracting pieces of the background if it’s helpful to the final image.

If you’d like to get a comprehensive course in working with Flash Photography, my eBook, 100% Reliable Flash Photography will teach you everything you need to know.

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Stacie Frazier

Super cool tutorial Ed and gorgeous imagery! I love this type of look and can’t wait to do more of it based on a lot of your tips!


How do you avoid lens flare? (light hits almost directly)
Great tutorial.

Ed Verosky

The flash is being diffused by the umbrellas, so that helps. However, I’m not actually trying to avoid lens flare. A little spillover and flare here and there is ok with me.

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