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Basic Studio Lighting: High Key Portrait Lighting

Shooting high key portraits in a small, home photo studio is easy with this basic four light setup.

If you have a relatively large spare bedroom, you have the makings of a complete home photo studio. If you are handy with tools, you might even want to turn part of your basement or attic into a 12X14-foot studio space. If you want to build a permanent home photo studio you will want to read my Factoidz article Guide to Portrait Photography, Step Two: How to Build a Home Photo Studio.

The Low Down On High Key Lighting

You shoot a high key portrait against a white backdrop. The backdrop can be seamless white paper, white muslin, or even just a plain white wall if the wall is smooth and free of blemishes. The high key lighting will create a shadowless portrait with a blown out background, which will eliminate most small imperfections in the backdrop.

As you can see from this simple diagram, you will need four lights for this setup. A good, starter four light kit is the Lowel DP 4 Light Kit, 4000w Quartz Lighting Outfit. Depending on where you purchase the kit the average street price will be $1,600, but it will be money well spent. If you are on a real tight budget, you can get away with cheap clamp on reflector floods and incandescent photo flood bulbs, but that setup will cost you more money in the frequent replacement of the photo flood bulbs. If you are serious about portrait photography, you will want to invest in the Lowel DP 4 Light Kit or a similar kit.

Set Up The Back Drop

For the small, home studio, go with a nine or 10 foot wide backdrop. For a high key portrait setup, you could use a white wall as a backdrop, but this is an opportune time to start building your collection of backdrops. Many photographers use seamless paper as a backdrop because it is the cheapest to buy, but paper is not the cheapest in the long term. Paperback drops get dirty and have to be replaced. Muslim is a much better choice. The up front cost is greater, but Muslim can be washed when it gets dirty, so you save the cost of having to replace the back drop frequently. Muslim is my backdrop material of choice.

Set Up The Backdrop Lights

Position the two backdrop lights at 45-degree angles to the backdrop, two to three feet from the backdrop. The light modifiers that I prefer for high-key setups are either umbrella diffusers or Brolly Boxes. They are relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and easy to store. Now is an opportune time to read my Factoidz article A Guide to Portrait Photography Light Modifiers.

Set Up The Key Light

Place the key light at a 45-degree angle to one side of your subject, five to six feet from your subject. Your key light provides the overall lighting for your subject and must be positioned and adjusted carefully for the best overall illumination of your subject.

The Fill Light

Position the fill light on the opposite side of your subject at the same angle and distance from your subject as the key light. The purpose of the fill light is to light the shadows created by the key light. Adjust the output of the fill light to remove the shadows without over powering the key light. You do not want your fill light to become the key light.

Adjust The Level Of Your Backdrop Lights One f-stop Higher

As I stated at the beginning of this article, high key portraits are made with a "Blown Out" background. To achieve a blown out background in a small, home studio, set the backdrop light output one f-stop higher than your key light. When I started shooting portraits in a small, studio space, I set me backdrop light levels to f-16 and my key light at f-11. If you are shooting in a larger space, you can set your backdrop light lever 2 to 3 f-stops higher.

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Comments (3)

Another indispensable guide in photography, Jerry. I was just too lazy with the programmed "auto" in today's cameras and leave the rest for technology to work out. I will come back to this post if I have to check anything I have forgotten except just pressing the button.

Hi Deep Blue. You are with good company. I'm always surprised by how many people will go out and spend $1000 to $1500 for a pro DSLR and never learn to use anything but its auto programmed modes. I've often asked them why they do that and I always get the same answer, they want all the different lenses and other accessories that are available for the pro cameras. I feel sorry for those people because they are losing out on a whole world of creativity that only going full manual can give them. All modern digital and film cameras have a portrait auto programmed mode but that mode is for shooting natural light portraits or with the on-camera flash. if you want to shoot studio portraits with studio lighting, you still have to set up and manage the lights yourself.

The natural picture is very nice. and provide all information But I need  to this topic more detail .Catering Sink

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