Using artificial lighting is intimidating for many photographers. It’s easy
enough to know good natural light when you see it (though this too
takes practice), but artificial light requires a few extra skills to
create the look you want.
But oh, what a look you can make! To rapidly improve your artificial lighting skills, it helps to understand lighting ratios, or the relationship between how much power (ie., how much light) each light emits. In this tutorial we'll start from scratch, looking first at what key and fill lights are, how they relate to each other, how to be precise
about this relationship, and finally why it makes a difference where your lights
Then we'll see how these concepts apply to the ideas of "high key" and "low key" lighting, as well as adding other lights into the mix.
Artificial Lighting Basics
The Qualities of Light
Not all light is equal! But what is "good" light? For photographic purposes, there are four qualities of light to consider:
Control these four aspects, and you can light just about anything. This lesson from Scott Chanson's course on artificial lighting is a great introduction:
Key Lights and Fill Lights
When talking about studio lighting, there are two main lights to think about: the key light and the fill light.
- The key light is so-called because it's the brightest light of the two, and is doing all the heavy lifting on the illumination. It's the main light.
- The fill lights "fill-in" the shadows cast by the key light; they control how much contrast, or difference in lighting intensity between the highlights and the shadows, there is in the scene and on your subject.
When the key light has illuminated one side of the subject, the other side of the subject is cast into shadows. A the fill light adds light, and stops the shaded side of the subject from disappearing into blackness. So the fill light also helps to define the shape of your subject and provide extra detail.
The key and fill
lights make up the classic two-light setup, but you can add other lights
too. These are things like rim lights—used to provide extra separation
of the subject from the background—and hair lights or other lights.
Additional lights and modifiers, of which there are many, can accentuate or change the look of a light, too.
How to Calculate Lighting Ratios
Now that we've reminded ourselves what the key and fill lights are, how do they work together?
Basic Scenario: Same Lights, Same Distance, Different Power
assume you're using two identical lights, placed the same distance from
your subject with the same light modifiers. In this example, we can
find the lighting ratio by calculating the how much light each light
sends out compared to the other. Like so:
- If the
key light is on 1/2 power, and your fill light is on 1/4 power, the key
to fill ratio is 2:1: for every two rays of light key lights emits, the
fill light emits one ray of light
- If the key is 1/4 power and the fill is 1/16 power, the ratio would be 4:1. The key light emits four rays of light for every one from the the fill
All Light Modifiers Change the Amount of Light
If we're using bare light bulbs it’s easy to calculate lighting ratios. Common light modifiers like softboxes or umbrellas, however, make it more challenging because in changing the light they all absorb a little bit of it, and thereby change the amount of light that actually reaches your scene.
So light modifiers alter the effective power of your strobes: they spread the light around, softening and dimming it. Just because the dial says 1/4 power, doesn't mean you're actually getting that much light onto the subject. Ultimately, you just need to know how much each modifier knocks off your power setting, and adjust accordingly.
You Need to Measure the Light to Know the Ratio
When it comes to artificial lighting, what really matters isn't the power ratio, or "incident" ratio, but the "reflected" ratio. This the measurement of the amount of light that bounces off your subject and back to your camera. Light is altered by all kinds of factors, everything from skin tone, to ambient light, to how much dust there is in the air. You need to use a light meter to find the reflected ratio for your lights as they are really working in your actual scene.
When we're looking at the reflected ratio, what are we measuring? In short, it's the ratio of the amount of light reflected by the highlights versus light reflected by the shadows. So regardless of the exact power levels on your lights, if the light meter or your histogram is saying the highlights are two stops brighter than the shadows, you have a 4:1 lighting ratio.
If the light from your key light and fill light overlap on the subject, then you have an area of highlight that is brighter than either of them alone. This is often called an incident ratio.
To account for this overlapping light, you can either reposition lights so that it changes the area that is "doubly lit", or adjust the power down a little, proportionally.
So far we've
kept our hypothetical lights at the same distance but, of course, that
distance plays a part in all of this. Light dissipates as it travels: it
spreads out in all directions. This means the further a light is from
the subject the less light falls on the subject.
The inverse square law shows
us that a minor change in the distance of a light greatly impacts the
amount of light that hits the subject. It's too complicated to get much
into here, but here are two handy rules of thumb:
- Double the distance between the light and subject and your subject will receive ¼ the light (from that light)
- Half the distance between the light and subject and your subject will receive four times the light (from that light)
Lighting Ratios In Practice
In short: the power of the lights is just a starting point. The light that actually reflects off the subject and onto your film or sensor is what matters for the exposure. Start by choosing the lighting ratios on your lights, and then measure to account for reflectors, skin tone, and more. Then observe your lighting and adjust the power, position, or modifiers to get the look you want.
The terms high key and low key describe two popular styles of lighting. They're only two of many lighting styles, but they are good ones for beginners because you can do a lot with them and they each teach you a lot about how light works. Photographers of all experience levels can apply and adapt these styles to their own purposes, bend the rules, and play with them as visual starting point.
High Key Lighting
High key is bright, soft, low-contrast imaging, where the lighting ratio is around 1:1. This virtually eliminates shadows and a lot of small detail; all that's left is strong details and outlines of forms. The eyes, bottom of the nose, and lips can all stand out. It's usually strongly illuminated from behind, too, whether through backlighting or a bright solid white backdrop.
term "high key" comes from early cinema and TV. The film and sensors
used couldn't deal with strong contrast then, so the actors had three
lights on them to kill the shadows. We've come to associate this look
with cheerfulness, even as many TV shows try to move away from the
"cheap" look. Fortunately for us photographers, it's not considered
cheap-looking in still images.
Making a high key image is not very hard. Even without arranging artificial lights, a combination of sunlight and reflectors can create a high key look.
Low Key Lighting
Low key is the opposite, stylistically: the lighting ratio is unbalanced, usually heavily, producing a strongly affected image. A ratio between 4:1 and 8:1 will usually achieve the low key feel.
Low key lighting creates deep shadows around all forms and structures of the subject. It's a moody, sometimes gritty look used for dramatic portraits.
While we often now generally associate it with film noir, the effect ultimately really comes from the Renaissance painting effect of chiaroscuro (Italian, "light-dark"). Chiaroscuro could be hard or soft lighting, but the intent was always to bring the three-dimensionality of the subject's form to life through directionality and shading.
So while the effect has history in various art media, in stills it sometimes comes across as cheap because of the simplicity of the setup required to achieve it. When done well, however, low key creates a very dramatic portrait.
What About Other Lights?
So what about those other
lights that aren't the key and fill? Primarily what we're talking about
here is the backlight or rim light, used to create a strong outline of
light around the subject to pull them off the background and into the
image. These lights aren't considered a part of the lighting ratio we've
discussed so far, as they add supplementary light and don't usually
change the light falling on the main focus of the image.
stray light and reflected light can change the highlight to shadow
ratio, so you do need to pay attention to how much light your extra
lights are contributing. Mostly you want them at least two stops under
your key light (that's 1/4 the power), because the hardness and angle of
reflection mean that they can create flare in your photos, even at low
Lighting Ratios and Shoot Management
A well-run shoot keeps everyone happy and looking good.
don't have to be a technical expert to create well-lit photos. Many
skilled photographers never think about lighting ratios at all. Does
that mean you shouldn't have a good grasp of lighting ratios? No!
like the inverse square law and other rules of lighting, the more you
know, the better and faster you can prepare. Here's what will happen if
you get comfortable with lighting rations:
- Your shoots will be more directed, with less trial and error, and far fewer mistakes
- You'll start to notice little things about your lighting that you didn't notice before
- You'll start trying to figure out how other photographers did their lighting
- You'll start to imagine new, creative ways to light
As you build confidence, your shoots will start
to move smoothly and feel easy. You will be able to communicate more with your subjects because you'll spend less time figuring out lighting. Your shoots will become more relaxed and your subjects will feel comfortable.
When you're trying to create a specific lighting look, it helps to have knowledge of how to arrange and power your lights. Using your light meter, working with ratios, and using the camera's histogram to reviewing your lighting results as you go is a sure way to create exciting looks.
Keep on Learning
Lighting is a fascinating, fun thing to learn. Here are some more tutorials on lighting from Envato Tuts+:
- A Product Photographer's Guide to Studio Strobes and Small Flash LightingDavid Bode10 Feb 2017
- How to Use a Hand-Held Light Meter to Make Perfectly Exposed PhotographsJeffrey Opp06 Jun 2015
- What Is Light? A Photographer's Introduction to Lighting FundamentalsDavid Bode01 Feb 2017
- A Photographer's Guide to ContrastDavid Bode22 Jun 2017
- A Photographer's Guide to Transmission: Understanding How Light Filters ThroughMarie Gardiner08 Jul 2022
- What Is Brightness? How to Understand Value in Photographic LightingDavid Bode06 Jun 2017