High-Key Lighting vs. Low-Key Lighting In Film

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Photo Source: “Midsommar” Credit: Gabor Kotschy/A24; “The Batman” Credit: Jonathan Olley/™ & © DC Comics

Cinematographers and filmmakers seek to create lighting that not only illuminates their footage but also conveys the subtext of their shots. Two of the most common lighting techniques in film are high-key lighting and low-key lighting, each of which has distinct uses, methods, and purposes.


Why film lighting matters

Scene from 'Ozark'“Ozark” Courtesy of Netflix

Film lighting sets the tone and mood of a film. Lighting often underscores the film’s genre and characters’ emotions. It tells viewers where to direct their gaze.

“For me, lighting is everything really,” says Emmy-nominated cinematographer, Eric Koretz (“Ozark,” “Mosquito State”). “With lighting, you’re creating the look of the movie.” No matter the project, picking a lighting style is essential to setting the foundation for a film.

What is high-key lighting?

Scene from 'Eraserhead'“Eraserhead” Courtesy Libra Films

Well-lit shots

High-key lighting is created through well-lit shots designed to focus on brightness and white tones while reducing contrast, dark tones, and shadows. The degree of contrast and depth of the shadows in a shot is the result of lighting: Intense and focused light creates deeper shadows and sharper contrast. Diffusing the light evenly creates a softer image with higher exposure—this is a hallmark of high-key lighting. 


By increasing the amount of light cast on both the subject (the object or person the shot is primarily focused on) and the background of a shot, you raise the exposure—the level of brightness allowed through the lens of a camera. However, creating high-key lighting in a film isn’t as simple as blasting a set with as much light as possible. A shot may become overexposed, meaning that it’s overly bright to the point where some of the visual details have been lost.

Deliberate use of overexposure can also be an artistic choice that signifies something striking or ethereal. One instance of this is the ending of David Lynch’s classic surrealist nightmare, “Eraserhead,” which ends with a blindingly bright shot.

Why use high-key lighting in film?

Scene from 'Her'“Her” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

  • It shows all: “With high-key lighting, you’re seeing everything—you’re not guiding the audience to a point of view for the most part. It’s more about what the script is saying and what the actors are saying,” says Koretz. 
  • It implies openness: For that reason, high-key lighting is commonly employed in commercials, nature documentaries, news broadcasts, professional photo shoots, and vlogs. It’s a way to ensure an educational or persuasive message is presented without visual distraction.
  • It can signify an emotion: Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romance “Her” frequently uses high-key lighting as a visual cue for passion. Many Marvel movies, especially those with a comedic bent, such as “Thor: Love and Thunder,” use high-key lighting to signify an upbeat tone. 
  • It highlights spectacle: High-key lighting can also be used to emphasize dazzling visuals, like in the first musical number of “La La Land.”

What is low-key lighting?

Scene from 'The Northman'“The Northman” Courtesy of Focus Features


On the other side of the spectrum is low-key lighting, which emphasizes contrast, shadows, and dark tones. According to Koretz, this style can visually convey information about characters and settings. “I can tell stories better with low-key lighting, because it’s all about control,” he says. “You’re guiding the viewer into a point of view more, as opposed to a broad, open light.”

Contrast (or the range between dark and light tones of the subject and background of a shot) is emphasized in low-key lighting. Increasing the contrast of a shot gives it greater depth and crispness. Think of the cinematography in “Whiplash.” The high contrast and low-key lighting create a muted image that complements the tense drama created through the plot and characters of the film.

Low exposure

Low-key lighting uses low exposure—which can risk accidental underexposure. An underexposed shot makes it difficult to see details, since the shadows start to blend in with the background and subject.

Why use low-key lighting in film?

Scene from 'Double Indemnity'“Double Indemnity” Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

  • It creates a darker tone: The noir genre is famous for using low-key lighting to create a moody, mysterious atmosphere. In fact, the term “film noir”—which means “black cinema”—was coined by French film critics to describe the visual style and tone of classics such as “Double Indemnity.” Modern variations of the noir genre, such as 2022’s “The Batman,” have continued the tradition of contrast-heavy visuals that complement their moody atmospheres. 
  • It’s intense: Low-key lighting is also commonly used in horror films, where the scares are not just a result of what you do see, but also of what you don’t. An example of this is the first appearance of the fully grown Xenomorph in “Alien.” The scene is painted with pitch-black shadows, which elicits tension and invites the viewer to imagine what might be lurking in them before the big reveal.

High-key vs. low-key lighting

When deciding between high-key and low-key lighting, consider the tone of each scene as well as the film as a whole. You don’t need to use the same lighting for every scene, but sticking with one style or the other for most of the film helps keep it consistent. 

High-key lighting tends to work best with films that are optimistic and focus on more lighthearted topics and feelings. It’s often used in comedies such as “Mean Girls” and “Superbad” to create a playful atmosphere that matches the mood of the story. 

Low-key lighting is usually used in more dramatic films to create a stark atmosphere filled with mystery and suspense. The mansion in “The Haunting of Hill House” might not have been as scary if there weren’t dark corners for ghosts to lurk in. Similarly, during the iconic opera scene in “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ brooding expression is emphasized by the shadows draped across his face. 

How to create high-key and low-key lighting

Close-up of lightingSona J/Shutterstock

High-key lighting

To achieve high-key lighting for your movie, first familiarize yourself with the three-point lighting system. Increasing the luminance of each of these lights creates a brighter image:

  • Key light: This is the main light used to illuminate the form and dimension of the subject of a shot.
  • Fill light: The secondary light focused on the subject, mainly used to cancel out the shadows of the key light. Fill lights can also be used through clever placement of practical lights, or light sources that are props on the set.
  • Back light: These are placed behind and above subjects to separate them from the background.

Low-key lighting

If you’re going for low-key lighting, you’ll use less sources. These include:

  • Small light sources: Using narrow, strong light sources exposes precise parts of the shot and casts deep shadows.  
  • Fewer light sources: When it comes to low-key lighting, less is more—with this setup, you’ll often only be using a key light. By limiting your light sources, you can make the smaller quantity of light in the shot more impactful. You can also use motivated lighting, or the natural light source within the scene to create a visual style grounded in the reality of the film. 
  • Bounce lighting: If you’re going for softer shadows in your shot, try using reflectors to recast the key light around the subject

If the director or editor decides that the lighting isn’t working, the best fix is to reshoot if possible. If reshoots aren’t an option, you can still make adjustments to the exposure, contrast, and sharpness of your footage through editing. Film editing programs such as Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Final Cut Pro allow you to alter the lighting in postproduction.