Production Lighting: How To Do High Key Lighting

High key lighting is a style that creates a very unique, high contrast look. It is achieved by using very large bright lights as the key while not having any fill so that one side of the face is covered in shadow while the other is bright. In fact, sometimes a flag is placed on the fill side to cut the ambient light so that the ratio between light and shadow is greater.

Block Your Shot

Before you can start lighting any scene you need to have the actors block it out so you know where they will be standing and where they will move to. By doing this you will know where you can and can not place the lights. After the actors have blocked out the shot they can step away and stand ins will come onto the set. These people will stand at the actor's marks so that the crew can light them while the actors are off set either with the director rehearsing or going through hair and make up.

Develop a Strategy

Now that you know what the shot will be it's time to think of a lighting strategy. Decide what lights you want to begin lighting with and where you want to place them. Remember, your initial ideas might change once you see how it looks so create a plan that has flexibility.

Find a Power Source

The lights used in high key lighting are bright and consume a lot of power. They're usually at least a 1,000 watts. If you're using the location's power for your lights then you need to be very careful that you don't consume too much power. Assume that every circuit has a 15 amp fuse. You can calculate how many amps the light will use by dividing the lamp's wattage by the power's voltage (120V). If you over amp the circuit then the fuse will trip and the power will temporally go down until it is manually switched on at the breaker. 

Run an extension cord into another room if you need to do so. Doing that is a lot faster than finding the location owner and having him reset the circuit. 

Set the Light

Once power is up, it's time to setup the light and plug it in. Now that the light is up and running a precise placement can be found and adjustments can be made. You should have a set of scrims standing by the light in case the intensity needs to be brought down but it is unlikely that that will be a problem in high key lighting

Make Adjustments

The goal in high key lighting is to have a lot of contrast on the face between the area that is lit and the area that is in shadow. You might find that if the difference is not dramatic enough you may have to switch out the light for a bigger one. You may also have to position the light so that it comes from the side instead of being frontal. 

You can also place flags just out of frame so that you can make the unlit side of the face even darker. If you're using a light meter then you should make a 5:1 key to fill ratio at the very most. The more dramatic the difference, the better.

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