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Where Should I Place My Key Light?

  • June 26, 2021
  • Hurlbut Academy
Where Should I Place My Key Light?

Light is to filmmaking what paint is to — well — painting. So, for anyone who might be thinking, “Where should I place my key light?” don’t worry, you’re in the right place. 

The way you place your key will have an impact on your mood, dimension, and color tones, but you probably already knew that. Key lighting is a traditional lighting technique. In many ways, it works as a great starting point. And depending on how you alter your key, it will have an impact on the perceived weight and depth of an object and therefore transform its meaning. 

To put it simply, we’re creating 3 dimensions in a 2-dimensional space

With all that in mind, below we simply define key lighting, take a look at low versus high key lighting, and, of course, answer the age-old question: Where should I place my key light? (Plus, real-life examples and applications are included!)

What is a key light? 

At its most fundamental form, the key is the Simon to your fill light’s Garfunkle. In 3-point lighting, it’s the primary source of lighting that illuminates your subject while the fill light, as your second source, does as its name suggests and fills in other features such as shadows. 

John Alton’s famous book Painting With Light defines keylight as the “principal light” that’s “used to light either individuals or groups.” 

As a lighting source of such vital importance, it’s even more crucial to understand where and how you should place it. 

However, depending on where you place it, let’s say, low or high, has a profound impact on the mood. 

High key lighting vs Low Key Lighting

The first thing you need to identify before placing your key is what exactly it is you’re filming. Are you filming a commercial, sitcom, or an Avengers flick? Or, are you trying to light a moody, dramatic look with a lot of Noirish shadows?

Let’s take a look at the difference between high and low-key lighting below. 

What is High-key lighting?

Placing a high key diminishes contrast and produces fewer shadows. High-key lighting is associated with sitcoms, commercials, pop music videos, and comedies. More light bathes away imperfections and therefore suits lighter and optimistic tones. 

High-key lighting is a traditional lighting technique that was utilized in classic cinema and has its foundations in lighting theater stages. It’s dominated by white tones via bright lights and shows minimal blacks and mid-range tones. 

Even though high-key lighting isn’t as prevalent in dramas and thriller genres, it is manipulated to work in complex lighting situations. One such example is how Tarantino lights Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds

Examples of High-Key Lighting: 

  • Avengers (blockbuster cinema)
  • Moonrise Kingdom (art nouveau style film)
  • Friends (sitcom)
  • Progressive Insurance (commercial)


What is Low-key lighting? 

Sinking your key light low works for minimizing your whites and mid-tones for a more dramatic effect. You probably won’t see this lighting technique used in a commercial (unless for irony or parody purposes), but outside of your film project, a low key could also be put to use in moody music videos, and eye-catching Public Service Announcements. 

Low-key lighting originally helped define the noir genre with its deep shadows and dark, striking contrast that became synonymous with its mysterious aesthetic. This lighting technique is applied today for similar purposes, bringing an ominous air to the scene with a loss of visibility and speaks to our more primal impulses.  

Documentary filmmakers can also use a low-key light when lighting more sinister interviews and recreations. Take, for instance, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line

Examples of Low-Key Lighting: 

  • The Third Man (classic noir)
  • Dracula (horror)
  • Alien (sci-fi)
  • No Country for Old Men (drama)
  • The Thin Blue Line (documentary)


Where Should I Place My Key Light? 

Ah, the age-old question: “Where should I place my key light?” Well, first let’s consider your environment. Depending on whether you’re in a fixed room, an urban night setting, behind the wheel of a car, or wherever else, it will impact the motivation of your lighting sources.  

Remember, we’re painting with light so this is where real artistry comes to play. You need the confidence and ability to move your lighting sources to work best for your conditions. 

In this short excerpt below from The Illumination Experience, Shane Hurlbut, ASC breaks down the use of key light, and why he chose to flip his for a particular shot in The Rat Pack.

Humor your artistic intuition. Whether you have physical obstructions keeping you from lighting from a certain side, or the actor looks better with the key to camera left instead of right, these are just a few simple factors you’ll need to take into account. 

The biggest takeaway for setting your key is understanding how it adds contrast and dimension to your actors and the scene itself. Remember what we mentioned above, filmmaking is a 2-dimensional craft. So, choosing a side of the face to keylight will help you add dimension and determine how to fill in the rest while keeping attention on the action.

Setting Up Your Key for Night 

Lighting night scenes is all about understanding your light sources. During the day, sunlight is typically our greatest source of light. But during the night, depending on where you are, you may be dealing with weaker sources like moonlight, practical lights, and larger urban metal halide lights. 

Positioning your keylight for night scenes can be a challenge when considering that many of your sources are practical lights. 

The video below is from our Learning to Light Night Interiors Series where we deconstruct your keylight placement among other lighting techniques. 

To better manage your light, you’ll need to understand how to match your everyday practical lights. Practical lights can exude a very warm tonality, which you can match with a lighting source like the Wescott Spiderlite with a softbox. That way, you can add honeycombs or opt to dim it down while also matching the warm color temperature of the practical. 

How To Light a High Key Commercial 

The ideal commercial is one that brings you into a world full of optimism, capturing a particular moment or series of moments, that speaks to the human condition in some way. We’re not just selling our audience on a product or service. Instead, we’re communicating to them on their own terms, meeting their worldview, and recontextualizing how they perceive the world. 

In this dreamy, positive world, a high-key light sets our tone. No matter if we’re making that first cup of coffee in the morning, choosing our ideal deodorant, or selling car insurance, we want our keylight high and brilliantly bathing the scene. 

There’s an art to commercial lighting and it all starts with where you place your key. Fortunately, there’s a course in How to Light High Key Commercials that coherently breaks down and articulates hassle-free high key commercial lighting techniques.

The Bottomline 

Your keylight is the foundational block of your lighting sources. When you master how to properly place and light your key source, you’ll notice a world of difference in your abilities to light cinematically. 

High-key and low-keylighting produce a completely different tone from one another. For example, high key lighting is ideal for commercials and comedies whereas low keylighting is better suited for dramas and thrillers. 

When deciding where to place your keylight, you’ll need to consider your environment, time of day, and your available lighting sources. 

Let’s say you’re lighting a night interior scene for a drama. Your low-key might be a table lamp that softly illuminates the profile of your actor while leaving the rest of the room consumed in shadows. 

On the other hand, if you’re lighting a comedy, you’ll want high-placed lights. You might even want to match the sunlight coming in from a nearby window. In which case, you then raise up your lighting sources and angle downward to bathe your shot with light and remove unwanted contrast and shadows. 

If you are in need of additional help learning about key lights, or lighting techniques in general, we recommend The Illumination Experience! 

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