High Key Portrait Lighting Tutorial

Studio Lighting for Small Spaces – Part 1

This is the first in a series of lighting tutorials. I think it’s a good idea to understand the basics of a thing. Learn the rules first and then break them with impunity later.

I offer this lesson freely from the bottom of my heart to the world at large, because frankly, bad lighting makes me cranky.

I have been setting up functioning, working studios in sometimes surprisingly small spaces over the span of two decades. My last camera room measured approximately 12’x16’. This lighting ‘recipe’ worked great there:

High Key Lighting Tutorial

What is high key lighting? Wikipedia and I basically agree on the concept. High key lighting produces relatively shadowless images with a “blown” bright white background.

At this juncture, perhaps it is prudent to bend an old adage by saying, “another picture is worth a thousand words”.

High Key Lighting Tutorial

Basically, high key is shot on a white background, typically seamless paper or a cyc (cyclorama) wall, but can also be against a simple white wall or other similar white background. The focus of this tutorial is on lighting small spaces, so a cyc wall would not be part of the equation.

First the set up. See the illustration below.

High Key Studio Lighting Tutorial Diagram

For the purposes of this tutorial, I’ll assume you are using 9 foot white seamless background paper and a four light setup. You can, if you wish, do this with a 3 light setup, and I’ll discuss that at the end of this lesson.

  • You need two lights to illuminate your background. Place them approximately 2-3 ft away from the background and aim them at 45-degree angles toward the background, as shown in the diagram.
  • Place your key light, which is the light providing the overall lighting on your subject, to one side of your subject, approximately 5 ft away, also at a 45 degree angle to them.
  • Place the fill light opposite the key light, at the same distance away from the subject and at the same angle.
  • In order to achieve a truly blown, white background, you should set your background lights at least one f-stop over your subject lighting. For example, I prefer to photograph my subjects at f/11; therefore, I set my background lighting at f/16. In larger spaces where your subject can be further away from the background, you can go 2 or even 3 stops over your subject lighting. In smaller spaces there is always the danger of strobe flare degrading the edges of your subject. There are ways around this problem, such as gobos etc, but these are often hard to use in a smaller space.

I personally meter the lighting for my subject to produce an overall setting of f/11, which usually means my key light is set at f/8-8.5 and my fill light is set at f/5.6, respectively. Of course, all these settings depend on the type of lights you have and the degree of control you have over their output. This is where a really good light meter comes in. I’ve used one like this Minolta Auto Meter for years and have been very pleased with it’s reliability and accuracy. Sekonic light meters are another good option.

That’s it. You’re ready. Fire away!

  • For a three light setup, you will still use two lights for the background, but you will not use a fill light on your subject. The modifier for the key light should be as large as possible and positioned closer to the front of the subject.

If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

Low Key Lighting – Tutorial

Photographing Young Children With Low Key Lighting

Studio Lighting for Headshots – Tutorial

How to Set up a Photo Booth in Your Home

How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio

Photographing Babies, Birth to One Year – Tips and Techniques


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  1. Great Information.. I have been playing with more studio lighting and I found your tutorials very helpful.. Oh and I got here from cafe mom.. Thank You for shareing

  2. Nicole Pellegrino says

    Hi – great info. Just purchased a new white vinyl from Denny Man. and can’t wait to get it. My follow on question is how exactly you meter the backdrop 2 stops over your subject. Sorry for the back to basics question.

  3. deborahwolfe says

    Hi Nicole,

    I love the basics! That’s what it’s all about, in my book. Learn the basics, then bend or even break the rules with confidence.

    Okay, how to meter a backdrop to be 2 stops over your subject. First, decide what f/stop you are shooting your subject at. I usually start with f/ll. Set your key light and fill light to give you a combined reading of f/ll. That usually means your key light will meter at f/8-f/8.5 and your fill light will meter f/4.5-f/5.6. If you are only using one light for your subject, then set it to meter at f/ll.

    For the background, the first thing you need to understand is what constitutes a stop. One stop over would be f/16, two would be f/22. So, aim your background lights at your background (review the tutorial for this info) and take a meter reading from the center of the background. When the meter indicates the lights are set to f/16, do some test shots and see how you like the lighting ratio. Next, kick your lights up a notch, until you get a meter reading of f/22. Do some more test shots and review. Decide which effect you prefer. Party on!

    Hope this helps!

  4. deborahwolfe says

    “Thanks! My only remaining question is whether the background lights should be on when I take the main/fill reading (as I wonder if any spill would affect those readings) and vice versa when I take the backdrop readings (do I keep the main and fill on for that).”

    Hey Nicole,
    Yes, make sure your key/fill lights do not fire when you are metering for your background. Same goes for metering your subject, make sure the background lights don’t fire.

  5. This is an excellent post. I have a 3 light kit and am using it to try high key. These tips helped a lot and I will try them soon. Previous works I think I was using the wrong bulbs and had too many lights on my subject and not enough on my background.

    I am using a Tungsten light kit and did do some excellent photo work against our white shutters about 2 years ago. They were nice and bright. I have been unable to recreate it with my background so hopefully the “problem” is solved now. Thanks!

  6. Amy Michelle says

    Beautiful pictures and helpful tutorials! I was wondering if there were any brands that you would recommend for the lighting. I don’t have any now, but would like to invest in some that will last me for years. I did have continuous lights, but found them too dark and the bulbs too hard to find for replacement. Plus, they were really hot! I appreciate your input for a system made for quality. Thanks! Amy

  7. deborahwolfe says

    Hi Amy. So glad you’re enjoying my articles and tutorials. I have used the same line of lights for decades and couldn’t be happier. They are manufactured by Paul C. Buff and I have written a little blurb about them on my gear page and in How To Set Up A Photo Booth In Your Home.

    Just hit their website and take a little look around or even call them. They’re great, friendly folks with a superior product at a surprisingly good price. And no, I don’t receive any affiliate money from them, just like their product and have used them HARD for years!

  8. Hi
    First of all thank you for the helpwith some of my previous questions about promotion etc… They worked…

    My next question regards high key lighting using two heads and a white back drop (cloth).
    I have a sitting to do on Weds just before Christmas, I was wondering if there are any tips you can give and any posing ideas you have found usefull? The sitter is a female aged 22, and wants some lovely shots doing for her fiance, although she doesn’t know hes gonna pop the question at Christmas… ;~]

  9. deborahwolfe says

    Hi Chris!

    High key lighting with only two light heads? Hmmmm…..the only way I can see that working, is if you have a cyc wall or big sweep of seamless white and enough height to use a REALLY BIG softbox placed high and aiming down the very center of the sweep, at about a 45 degree angle. In effect, you will be ‘washing’ the background with light. Even then, you will likely have issues with light drop off and shadows.

    If I were you and had only the two lights, I would probably elect to shoot medium key. You can basically use the same ‘recipe’ from my Low Key Portrait Lighting Tutorial. The difference of course, is that your background is white, not black. The final result will be a light to medium gray with beautiful light fall off.

    As to posing, you will have to use your own creativity. Amateur aka non-professional models can often be nervous and a bit uptight. My best advice is to have a phone conference with your client and get some real feedback from her as to what she has in mind. Put her to work for you. Trust me, she’s a woman and she has some definite ideas about how she would like to look. Draw her out on the ‘feeling’ she wants the images to have.

    Visit DeborahWolfe.net and hit the studio|commercial portfolio to see an example of medium key lighting (the pregnant woman and baby on towels).

    Good luck!

  10. I have been shooting large groups of dancers (sometimes as many as 20 in a group) for several years. I mostly use a white background about 12′ high and as long as 24′. It does not seem possible to light it evenly from the sides. I use monolights with barn doors and then light the kids with monolights in large umbrellas. I usually shoot at f16 and light the background to about f32. I get bright spots on the backdrops and can’t seem to get it even. Do you have any suggestions for proper background lighting? Thanks for any help you could give me.

  11. deborahwolfe says

    Hi Randy and thanks for dropping by. I have answered your very valid question with a new tutorial post. Check out Best Light Modifiers for High Key Lighting and while you’re at it, you might be interested in How to Photograph Large Groups in the Studio.

    Good luck!


  1. […] my last post I discussed a classic four light, high key on white, lighting […]

  2. […] make sure you’re blowing out the backdrop enough to get a fairly solid white. Deborah Wolfe from Studio On a Shoestring recommends that you keep your background lights at least one f-stop over your subject lighting and […]