The KEY to Telling a Story With Art

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Okay, so the title is a bit of a pun. Obviously, there are many aspects of a scene that tell a story, but the one that I’m going to talk about today is lighting, specifically, the lighting styles known as “Low Key” and “High Key” and how they influence the mood of a scene. These two types of lighting generally involve the two most important lights in your scene, so we’ll talk about those first.

Key and Fill Lights

Vermeer loved to use the light from a window as the key light.
Vermeer loved to use the light from a window as the key light.
(Note: This image links to Amazon)

The Key Light

The most important light in your scene is most often your key light. The key light is the light that defines the forms in the scene. It strikes the subjects of a scene from an angle and defines the edges of your picture’s elements. In outdoor settings, the sun usually acts as the key light. On a stage, it’s the main spotlight on the actors. In an interior it might be the light from a window or just a lamp positioned to define the edges of forms.

The fill light

The fill light is a light that is used to control the level of the shadows in a scene. It generally comes from somewhere around the front of the scene and points back or up into it. It might seem to come from where the viewer is standing, the floor in front of a subject, or perpendicular in the scene to the key light. Generally it is less bright than the key light and softer. In an outdoor scene, the fill light may actually still be sunlight, only rather than direct sunlight, it is the sunlight reflected off the ground or other elements of the scene.

Other Lights

There are of course other possible light sources in a scene, such as back/rim lights and kickers, but they play less of a role in the determining high vs low key. I thought I should mention them though so you don’t get the idea that you only ever have two light sources in a scene.

Low Key Lighting

Woman Facing a Skull
Woman Facing a Skull

In low key lighting, the fill light is generally turned down very low. This creates deep shadows in the scene. The emotional effect is one of drama. Low key lighting tends to be used for scenes in mysteries, thrillers, horrors or tragedies.

In the image “Woman Facing A Skull”, I’ve used low key lighting. Even though she has a neutral expression, there is still a sense of foreboding or even sadness. The skull seems to have an effect on her. The depth of the shadows in such a scene gives the viewer a subconscious sense of the depth of the emotions involved as well.

High Key Lighting

Woman Examining a Skull
Woman Examining a Skull

High Key lighting is lighting where the key light and fill light are roughly evenly bright. In this style, the scene has shadows that are not very dark or even barely exist. This is the kind of lighting you use to portray scenes that tend to be emotionally lighthearted. This is the kind of lighting for comedic, whimsical, or just plain happy scenes.

You can also use it for indicating a sense of clinical detachment. For instance, in the image “Woman Examining A Skull”, I’ve used high key lighting. It’s the same scene as “Woman Facing a Skull”, but now it looks like she is just casually examining the skull.

Wrap up

Now, obviously, there was more I could have done to differentiate the moods of the two images of the woman with a skull. The lighting style is only one element that you can control in a scene. To tell more of a story, you’d probably need to do more. For instance, I could have given her face more expression and changed the camera angles to considerably more effect, but I am trying to show how you can do quite a lot with just lighting.

Also keep in mind that high key and low key lighting are not absolutes. Rather, they represent two directions. In high key lighting the ratio of lighting tends to favor your key light, whereas low key lighting tends to be closer to 1:1, but there are no set number for those ratios. Rather you can determine the emotional depth of a scene moving in one direction or another.


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