Light a high-key portrait

Digital Photographer Team

Set up and shoot a vibrant studio image

Shooting a high-key portrait is about creating a contemporary clean image of a person that carefully balances high intensity of light with a dynamic and interesting pose. In our opinion, good high key images are not all about blasting the background to oblivion, which is easy to do – instead, we feel that this type of image should have some slightly stronger aspects underpinning the work. This can be as straightforward as creative makeup, an unusual pose, or a lively expression! When tackling high key images, it’s important wherever possible to work in stages and to shoot tethered. In doing so, it’s easier to control the various lights introduced, and make critical judgements to light intensity as you go – which ultimately will lead to a better shot! An image of this style should be well lit, with fill light in the shadows and some interesting highlights. In our example, we have used a key light, fill light, two rim lights and a background light. We suggest starting by positioning the lights on the model first, in this case the beauty dish, fill and strip soft boxes, then begin to light the background until you reach a light intensity you like!

Step 1 Use a white background

Light a high-key portrait
























The easiest way to start is by rolling out some clean white Colorama. This will take light easily, and quickly begin to reflect light back toward the camera to give a nice white background. Roll out as much as you need and lock it off.

Step 2 Get a good portrait lens

Light a high-key portrait












Using the right lens makes a real difference. The basic requirement is to use a longer (preferably prime) focal length lens. 80 – 120mm is a good start. We’ve used our Zeiss 85mm 1.4 lens with ISO 64, f/4 and taken at 1/160 sec. Try to fill the frame with your composition, don’t waste space as it’s always good to maximise camera resolution. Choose an optimum working aperture and get some depth of field involved – we’ve gone with f4.

Step 3 Position your lighting

Light a high-key portrait












Get a light on the background, usually behind the model, then place the strip lights on either side of the studio, facing in to where the model will stand. Finally, direct the beauty dish toward where the face will be. Ask your model to stand in while you finalise and tweak the setup.

Step 4 Light the model

Light a high-key portrait












Start with the rim lighting. Here we’ve used two strip soft boxes and pointed them back toward and off to the side of our model. They will add a lovely directional rim light across the hair, shoulders and face. This often overlooked lighting technique is highly effective at defining facial features and adding extra interest. Then turn on the beauty dish light and increase the power until you have a soft distribution of light being cast slightly down over the face. Don’t overpower the strip lights and aim for clear catchlights in the eyes. Feel free to use front fill-in or a reflector later to soften shadows under the chin, nose and eyes.

Step 5 Light the background

Light a high-key portrait












Try to keep things simple. Start with a mono block or similar behind the model and begin to increase the light output. Working tethered will help you to achieve a good luminance value for the reflected light off the background. Use your highlight warning, histogram or even the trusty old light meter to get the desired clean background.

Step 6 Adjust the lighting and shoot

Light a high-key portrait












Finally adjust the lighting and check the computer to refine the lighting setup. Ensure you are happy with the key light, fill light, strip highlights and background light levels. If you need to adjust, go up and down in tenths to fine tune the overall look. When all is well, direct the model to create interesting poses and expressions – it’s time to relax and enjoy the shoot!

Light a high-key portrait
Final image
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