What is High Key Lighting and How to Apply Stunning Lighting Effects

Last Updated on November 11, 2021 by Peter Wood

Lighting is one of the most important elements when using visual content to tell a story, create a mood, or connect with the audience. How to take photos with stunning high-key lighting effects, especially when you need to create stunning photos for newborns and wedding? Just learn more details about high key lighting and how to apply stunning lighting from the article.

High Key Lighting

Part 1: What is High Key Lighting

High key lighting was used to improve high contrast ratios started in the film industry. It was referred to describe the main light for a particular scene. The term is still in use but becomes more sophisticated.

However, when you say high key lighting, what you are referring to are scenes that possess a lot of whites and light tones. The high-key lighting photography has very minimal mid-tones and blacks. In another word, the mid-tones or mid-range tones of your photos become white when using high key lighting. Meanwhile, the white areas become whiter. But the high-key lighting won’t remove blacks. It just has very minimal amounts of this tone.

The opposite of high-key lighting is low-key lighting, which produces images with a lot of dark tones, shadows, and blacks. Therefore, these photos have minimal amounts of mid-tones and white, on the other hand.

High Key Lighting Photography

Part 2: How Does High Key Photography Work?

Many ads use high-key lightings, such as food and beauty products. It can create an upbeat mood and a positive message. It makes this technique effective for video interviews or training videos as well. When taking high-key light photos, here are some essential tips you should know.

The Essential Equipment for High Key Lighting Photography

  1. Digital camera, such as a basic DSLR or mirror-less digital camera.
  2. Strobes. It is a must-have for any studio lighting kit and high key lighting photography.
  3. Softbox. It is cheaper than strobe and a good alternative or supplement.
  4. Fill light. It is important to reduce shadows on the subject when creating high key lighting effect.
  5. Background lights. It works similarly to fill light and can increase the amount of light on the subject.
  6. White background. Most studios use a white background in high-key lighting. It decreases the overall contrast of your photos.
Take High Key Lighting

How to Set up Camera for High Key Lighting Photography

  1. Make sure you have set up your camera, such as choose the desired shutter speed, set fast and wide aperture, start with ISO around 100, and other settings before taking a shot.
  2. Spread the light. Use as much light as possible, including fill light, background light, and more.
  3. Pay attention to shadows. High-key lighting just minimizes shadows overall. It does not mean the photos do not use shadows at all. You just need to offset shadows from the main lights. Some shadows are unavailable.
  4. Post-retouching. It is also an important process for a high-key lighting effect.
High Key Lighting Effect

Part 3: 2 Methods to Edit for High Key Lighting Photography

Method 1. How to Apply High Key Lighting with WidsMob Retoucher

When you want to apply high key lighting within clicks, WidsMob Retoucher is a versatile photo maker that enables you to tweak the different parameters for high key lighting and low-key lighting, such as saturation, contrast, tint, brightness, temperature, sharpness, color filter, vignetting, etc. Moreover, you can choose the different rendition profile, such as the color positive film pack for high key lighting.

  1. Provide 28 different camera profiles to apply low-key/high-key lighting.
  2. Tweak the contrast, saturation, tone color, and even film grain filters.
  3. Change the color opacity, vignetting, and color filters as LOMO effects.
  4. Adjust the saturation, contrast, brightness, temperature, sharpness, etc.
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Step 1: Once you have installed WidsMob Retoucher, you can launch the program on your computer. Click the Open button to import the photo you want to apply high key lighting. Moreover, you can also drag-and-drop the image into the program.

Add Portrait Image

Step 2: Go to the ADJUSTMENT menu, you can tweak the different parameters, such as saturation, contrast, tint, brightness, temperature, sharpness, and more others. Just turn on the Before/After mode to check the effects for the high key lighting.

Adjust Parameter Color

Step 3: When you need to apply low-key lighting, you can choose the vignette. You can choose the FILM PACK menu to choose the Color Positive Film option and select the Kodak Ektachrome 64 option. Moreover, you can adjust the color modes and film grains.

Film Pack Lighting

Step 4: Once you are satisfied with the high key lighting effect, you can click the Save button to export the polished photo. After that, you can choose the desired photo quality and format when you need to upload it to social media websites or save it to your computer.

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Method 2. How to Make High Key Photography Lighting with Photoshop

If you have already subscribed to Adobe Photoshop and familiar with high-key lighting photography, you can use the overlay mode to apply the effects with Photoshop. It is great for adding a romantic, magical look to your photos, and wedding portraits.

Step 1: Open the image in Photoshop, you can duplicate the layer, and rename it as the copy photo in the layer panel. Change the blend mode to the Overlay option.

Step 2: Click the Add adjustment layer and adjust the curve according to the image. Then, you can click the duplicate layer icon to activate it. Press Ctrl + Shift + U on your keyboard to de-saturate the layer.

High Key Photoshop Curves

Step 3: Select the copied layer and choose the Add adjustment layer option and select the Hue/saturation option. Choose colorize and modify the values of hue and saturation based on your image. Close it and click create clipping mask at the bottom of Hue/saturation panel.

Step 4: After that, you can select the subject you want to lighten and refine the selection with refine edge tool. Save it as a new layer and click the OK button to save the polished file.

High Key Photoshop Saturation

Step 5: Go to the layer panel and select the Add adjustment layer and choose the Hue/saturation option. Then, change the values of Hue, saturation, and lightness respectively to make low-key lighting photography. Click the Colourize option and then hit create clipping mask.

Step 6: Create a new layer by pressing Ctrl + Shift + N and rename it as white. Then set the foreground color to white and fill the new layer. Select the white layer and add a layer mask.

Step 7: Go to the Toolbar, select gradient tool, and change it to radial blur mode. Drag your cursor from the center of the image to the right corner several times. Now, your photo will achieve the high-key lighting effect.

Part 4: FAQs about High Key Lighting

1What is Important to Take High Key Lighting Photography?

Just as the name of the photography, you need to have the key, fill, and backlight. Of course, you can also use multiple hot light sources that are substituted by much more efficient fluorescent soft lights which provide a similar effect to make high-key lighting photography.

2What are the Differences between Low-Key Lighting and High-Key Lighting?

The high-key lighting is the bright and high lights dominated by ranges of whites that have minimal blacks and mid-tones. In the contrast, the low-key lighting uses a lot of deep blacks, darker tones, and shadows to reduce lighting to produce images with striking contrasts.

3When Should You Use High Key Lighting Effects for Photos?

High-key lighting usually creates an upbeat and positive mode, which makes your photos and videos cohesive and clear. Usually, it can suit fashion, professional portfolios, natural shots, still life, commercial, and more others. In portrait photography, high-key lighting is best for children, newborns, and brides.


You can learn more about what is high key lighting, how to shoot high key lighting photos or videos, and how to create such an effect with Photoshop and professional editors. When you are taking photographs, you are trying to emulate a three-dimensional subject within two dimensions. Light and shadow give the subject weight and depth. The impact the mode and tone of your photos and videos. Fortunately, you can learn all of them from our sharing above.

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