Essential one light portrait guide

Create high-key and low-key lighting

The way you use a single studio light can completely change the mood and overall feel of your portrait, and mastering both high-key and low-key effects can really help your work have a very professional, high-end feel. Creating a high-key or low-key portrait is a good way of ensuring that the focus is on the subject.


A high-key image is generally dominated by highlights and sometimes errs on the side of overexposure, whereas a low-key image mainly consists of shadows and lowlights. Low-key images are usually more dramatic and can be used to create a more mysterious or sensual image, whereas high-key shots are vibrant and engaging.

The challenge with creating a high-key portrait with one light is that this style typically demands that there is lots of light. Two lights are normally needed just to ensure a brightly lit background, but the image below was created by positioning a large softbox behind the model to take the place of the background, with the light reflected back onto the model’s face with a reflector creating a luminous glow around her.


If you’re shooting portraits at home, a low-key style doesn’t necessarily require a dark background. Instead, use the inverse square law to produce a dark backdrop in-camera. You must position your light far away from the background and angle it down towards your model to ensure the least amount of light will reach the background – the goal is for the light to ‘fall off’ sufficiently so that it does not light the wall behind the subject at all. Best of all, these effects are fairly easy to replicate.