Best Light Modifiers for High Key Lighting

How to Create High Key Studio Lighting for Any Space Without Hot Spots

First, a definition. Basically, high key lighting 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.

Now the set up. For the purposes of this tutorial, I’ll assume you are using 9 foot white seamless background paper and a three or four light setup. See the illustration below.

High Key Lighting Diagram

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.
  • 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.


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. As a matter of fact, its pretty much impossible to get a nicely blown out background without the use of a light meter. I’ve used one like this Minolta Auto Meter for years and have been very pleased with it’s reliability and accuracy. Another good light meter that many people swear by is the Sekonic L-398A light meter.


I prefer soft boxes over other light modifiers for lighting my background in high key lighting set ups. Use the biggest size you can get away with for your space. If the space you’re shooting in is really narrow, you’ll do best with a more shallow soft box, such as these Chimera soft boxes. If space is no issue, then you could try a Photoflex soft box. I have used both of these brands quite happily through the years and have not one single complaint about either. If you’re working in a makeshift studio and lighting with your camera’s dedicated flash used off camera, a lot of people are raving about the Lastolite Ezybox soft box. Or, you could just turn your entire background into a large softbox with the Lastolite LL LB8867 6 x 7 Feet Hilite Background. I’ve got to admit I’m really curious about this one. The reviews are all positive and I just might have to try this little puppy out for myself : )

It is possible to do a high key lighting set up and light the background with shoot through umbrellas or barn doors. However, I find these types of light modifiers produce hot spots and flashing. Flashing (where light washes back over your subject) can be desirable, giving a soft rim lit appearance. Hot spots, however, are rarely desirable.

That’s it. You’re ready. Fire away!

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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