Simple high key lighting tips


I get asked a lot about my lighting sets ups, specifically high key lighting set ups.  There are a few different ways to achieve a nice high key image done with studio lighting and natural light. I will tell you, I always try to make sure my exposure is near perfect in camera and try not to resort to photoshop to fix my backgrounds.  I want to keep this as simple as possible for all of you who would like to try out my methods of high key imagery.

First we’ll start with studio lighting which most find a little overwhelming.  I typically shoot with 3-4 Alien bees to create a high key image. I don’t want to get too technical with the ratios as most new photographers start to get a little lost here.  A 1:1 or 2:1 ratio are common ratios for this type of lighting, which means your key light is twice as bright as your fill light. One stop is twice as bright.  I prefer a one stop difference.

high key photography with studio lights

These images were created with studio lighting:

high key studio lighting photography tutorial

You can also create beautiful imagery using natural light.  Settings may vary depending on your studio space.  In my studio, I have windows everywhere.  I most often use an 8×8 window that faces south west for my high key images.  Lighting settings are different depending on the time of day.

This is the window that I shoot in front of. I have a sheer that covers the window to create a white background and to eliminate photoshop work.

natural light high key photography tutorial

Same rules apply, I try to overexpose the background by one to two stops over my subject.  For example, If I metered and I get a reading of F8, I will set my camera to 5.6 or even F4 depending on how much light is coming through at that time of day.  If you’re finding you’re subject is too dark, bump up your ISO or drop down your fstop, try using a light modifier as well.

These images are all created using window light:  I love the look of natural light as always gives a nice soft backlit glow to my subjects.

natural light high key photography tips

natural light photography tutorial

I hope you found this tutorial useful and will be able to give this a shot!

Memories by MarieMarie Murray, Canada
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Marie is a photographer based out of Burlington, Ontario Canada and photographs her clients with both studio and natural light.  She has a 1000sqft home studio that she is currently working out of and mainly photographs maternity, newborns and young families.  Marie shoots with a Nikon D700 and loves her 50 mm 1.8 lens.


  • Crystal says:

    this is super easy to understand, and I love the examples with natural light! Thank you!

  • Danika says:

    Great tips, and thanks for including natural light!

  • Okay, so I have attempted High Key and not gotten bad results, but I know I can get better! SO my question is…the high key lights…you said 5 feet away, is that placed next to the background but 5 ft toward the camera or 5 feet away from the background going the other way? Does that question make sense? Also wondering how far away from the camera you place your subjects. And what kind of modifiers you use. Thanks!

  • Jerilynn says:

    this is awesome!! and you made it so easy to understand.

  • Jodi says:

    Thank you for sharing your tips! The natural light images are especially beautiful!

  • Bria says:

    Definitely going to try this!! Thanks for the easy instructions!

  • Those natural light images are dreamy!! Thanks for sharing!

  • NewCastle says:

    I just became a member on Clickinmoms and the first thing I do is go to the blog site and find your article on High Key lighting. It has been one of the new things on my list to learn and there it was.

    Thank you for the easy to follow instructions.

  • Janean says:

    Thank you; I appreciated your examples and illustrations. I am an aspiring hobbyist :)

  • Colton says:

    Man i do need to up my lighting skills. Right now I might suck.

  • Sean Kelly says:

    I LOVE your portrait of the pregnant mom in front of the window! Also the mom kissing her baby in front of the window. Outstanding!
    I you are open to a correction, however, you are using a 3:1 lighting ratio, not 2:1. Yes, your key light is 2X stronger than the fill, but “lighting ratio” refers to HIGHLIGHT vs SHADOW ratio, not the ratio of one light to another. The shadow areas are only lit by the fill, so get one unit of light; the highlights receive 3 units: one from the fill and 2 from the key light, thus a 3:1 lighting ratio.
    I know that’s splitting hairs, and it’s a common mistake among even professionals, and it doesn’t affect how you take pictures, it’s just good to use proper terms.
    I find it unnecessary to overexpose the background by 2 stops; this only causes flare and washed-out looking subject outlines (especially in the mom kissing baby portrait). Think about it: the background IS already white! To make it look white in the photo, you only need to expose it for the f/stop you’re using, not overexpose it two stops. So in your example, I would meter the background lights to be f/8.
    But that is my personal preference. Many people don’t notice or even prefer washed out subjects. Here is a sample of my work. Compare the skin tones to the samples here.

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  • megan says:

    @Sean Kelly. You clearly have different tastes. But your picture pales in comparison to the quality photography above. Your subject’s skin tone is not even slightly desirable. The above pictures show a beautiful creamy skin tone. The pictures are beautiful. Don’t leave such comments unless you know that people appreciate your work. I for one absolutely love Marie’s work.

  • Michelle says:

    Hi Marie! Gorgeous work! I love high key set ups and always love the look they give. I came across your site and was wondering what type of modifiers you used on the lights specifically the ones lighting the background. When I have done high key before I typically do a similar set up with 2 lights lighting the background but setting up two reflectors (pieces of reflective polyboard from Home Depot) to block and unwanted flare from the lights spilling on the back of the subject. Also, I only have one available light Alien bee light for lighting the subject and use a Paul C. Buff medium soft box on that light.

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