Key Lighting for Beginners: What It Is and How to Use It in Your Lighting Setups

Highlights – The main light in your setup is the key light. A key light can be used alone or in conjunction with one or more other lights, but it is always the main one. A key light can be anything from a softbox to a ring light.

When you first start understanding artificial light, it can be extremely intimidating. Various types of light can be used in various lighting setups. They have various temperatures and can be altered in a variety of ways. Lighting can be as intricate and complicated as your imagination allows. 

However, when broken down into its constituent parts, lighting does not have to be overwhelming. So, let’s start at the beginning: what is your primary light, and how do you use it?

What exactly is the key light?

The main light in your setup is the key light. 

It’s crucial to the scene if you will. Your key light serves as the foundation for your entire lighting design, illuminating your main subject, setting the tone for the scene, and giving it shape. Whether you’re building a YouTube lighting setup or a scene from an independent feature film, every light is added on and built around the key light.

A key light can be almost any type of light, including the sun. A candle or a Fresnel light could be used. Regardless of the source, if it’s the main one, it’s the key light. They can be positioned at various angles. Light modifiers can be used with key lights, and they can be colored in any way you want. 

Key lighting can be either harsh or soft. You may prefer a high key or low key lighting setup. If your scene includes movement, your key lighting may need to move as well. Your main light is your key light, no matter what you use or how you use it.

What is the distinction between a key light and a fill light? 

While you can use only one light in a video, you will frequently find that your key light casts shadows that must be lifted. This light is your fill light: it literally fills in the shadows. 

When it comes to key light vs. fill light, your fill light will be 50% less intense than your key light. The fill light serves as a support act for the key light; it is not the main attraction.

The fill light is frequently placed at the same angle as the key light but on the opposite side of the camera. So, if the key light is positioned 45 degrees camera right, the fill light is positioned 45 degrees camera left.

However, this is not always the case. Most importantly, your fill light should be placed to complement the light from your key light. It also does not have to be a light. A fill light, for example, can come from a reflector or bounce card.

4 approaches to using a key light in various lighting setups 

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Given that your key light is your main light and will appear in every lighting setup you design, there are as many ways to use one as you can think of. Here are a few examples of how a key light can be used in video.

3-point lighting

When you first start using multiple lights in a scene, one of the first things you’ll learn is the 3-point lighting setup. 

It makes use of three lights: a key light, a fill light, and a backlight (sometimes called a hair light or a rim light). The primary illumination is provided by the key light. While the positions in a 3-point setup can be extremely varied, a good starting point would be to position the key light at 45 degrees camera-left or camera-right. 

Next, balance the key light’s shadows with the fill light at 45 degrees camera-right or camera-left, depending on the key light, at about half its intensity. The backlight is present to prevent your subject from appearing to float in space.

It gives the scene depth and definition. The backlight is typically located on the same side of the camera as the key light, but it comes from behind the subject.

Hard lighting vs. soft lighting 

Hard lighting vs. soft lighting refers to light with defined and distinct shadows versus light that is diffuse and wraps itself around your subjects. 

The light produced by key lighting can be either hard or soft. You only need to remember two related points to do so: 

  • The further away you place your light from your subject, the more difficult it will be. 
  • The larger the light source, the softer the light; conversely, the smaller the light source, the harder the light’s edges. By bringing your light source closer to your subject, you make it appear larger and thus softer.

Modifiers can be used to help maintain hard or soft light. Flags and barn doors, for example, can keep light hard by preventing it from leaking into the shadows. Diffusers, honeycombs, and grids can help soften the light and create gentle shadows.

Low-key and high-key lighting

Regardless of how different high-key and low-key lighting appear, they both use key lights. You want a lot of soft, diffuse light coming from a variety of sources for high-key lighting. 

Both softboxes and umbrellas are good for high-key lighting, but if you’re not sure which is best, read our softbox vs. umbrella comparison article.

For a low-key scene, a key light may be all that is required. For low-key lighting, you don’t necessarily want hard light, but you also don’t want too much spilling onto your background. This emphasizes the importance of modifiers, such as grids, barn doors, flags, and negative fill. Consider angling your main light to produce unusual shadows or lighting shapes.

Backlighting 

While a backlight is a required component of any 3-point lighting setup, backlighting is a distinct lighting technique in and of itself. 

In this case, your key light will come from behind your subject, creating a beautiful halo of light around them. It works best in natural light, with the sun behind your subject, but you can use any light as your key light.

Consider your options

Consider the angle of your key light, regardless of the setup you choose. It will make a world of difference. Split lighting, with the key light at 90 degrees to the subject, can create a very moody effect. 

Use a ring light as your key light, which comes from the same position as your camera, if you want something very bright and airy. How about lighting your subject from above? Change the position of your main light!

Conclusion

That concludes your introduction to key lighting. Your primary light source is your key light, and everything else grows from it. It establishes the mood and tone of the scene, and it’s the one light you can’t live without. 

Don’t be afraid to play around with where you place your key light, how you modify it, and the colors you use on it. You can always change it if you don’t like it.

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About the author: Trent (IMDB Youtubehas spent 10+ years working on an assortment of film and television projects. He writes about his experiences to help (and amuse) others. If he’s not working, he’s either traveling, reading or writing about travel/film, or planning travel/film projects.

Key Lighting for Beginners: What It Is and How to Use It in Your Lighting Setups

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