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Key light in film: Everything to know

Key light in film is the main source of illumination for the subjects. It has the most influence on the mood and helps capture the audience’s attention. In this article, we will talk about the following topics to help you learn more about it.

  • Key light definition in movies
  • Why is it important?
  • Two common types of key lighting in film
  • Three common ways to set up key light in filmmaking
  • More ideas for using it

The key light is set at warm color temperature to illuminate the subjects and the scene.

What is key light in film and its purpose?

A key light is the main light that shines down onto your shot; it is the main light source for your scene. Typically, it is directly placed in front of your subject and then angled to provide the appropriate lighting setting. The color, strength, and angle have influence on the lighting design in filmmaking.

Key lights draw attention to the shape and depth of on-screen elements and allow filmmakers to alter the mood of a scene. The number of light sources, the light quality like brightness, color temperature, etc.), and the placement may produce a broad range of moods, from secretive and tragic to light and hopeful.

And here are some tips for you to have more understanding:

  • Key light in film is not a specific lighting equipment. It might be anything from a flash unit placed on a camera to a bulb.
  • When a cinematographer employs more than one artificial light source in a shot—for example, adding a "fill light" to eliminate shadows and/or a "backlight" to outline subjects and give a feeling of depth—the key light has the most influence on the image, accentuating the subject's proportions and form.
  • In a scene, a cinematographer may employ many professional LED key lights for film to spotlight a moving subject at appropriate moments.
  • It is also widely used in photography.

Why key light is important in film?

Key light is vital in film because it illuminates the subject and the scene. It aids in the creation of depth, the definition of features, and the establishment of visual hierarchy within the shot.

The location, intensity, and angle have a considerable influence on the atmosphere and tone of a scene, as well as the film's style and genre. High-key lighting, for example, generates a bright and cheery environment, whilst low-key lighting creates a dark and ominous ambiance. Different forms of key lighting, such as Rembrandt lighting or split lighting, can also be used to highlight the subject's character and emotion. It is one of the most basic components of film lighting and may be utilized creatively to convey a visual tale.

Use softbox to soften key light in film.

What are its types?

High-key and low-key lighting are two common types used in film production. They creates different moods and are used in different types of films.

High key lighting

High key lighting in film employs a palette of whites and bright tones with few mid-tones and blacks. The mid-tones turn white, and the whites turn even whiter.

Traditionally, filmmakers used three-point lighting—key, fill, and backlight (sometimes known as a "rim light")—to produce a consistent lighting pattern.
The high key setup features a considerably lower lighting ratio, with a fill/key balance that can approach 1:1.

It is helpful since it eliminates the need for correction for each scene, allowing productions to go considerably faster. High key lighting, on the other hand, does not lend significance or drama to shots in the same way that low key lighting does since it does not highlight some sections more brightly than others.

High key lighting produces an enthusiastic, young, bright, and airy mood. It can be found in sitcoms and comedy.

Low key lighting

Low key lighting makes extensive use of shadows, darker tones, and blacks, with only a few mid-tones and whites.

Filmmakers usually use merely a key light, occasionally controlled by a fill light or a reflector, to get the effect. This emphasizes the outlines of the subject while producing shadows.

When using fill light, filmmakers ensure that the key light is dominant, resulting in a high lighting ratio such as 8:1.

Using low key lighting in film produces a dramatic and mysterious atmosphere and can reveal a variety of deep negative feelings. It usually increases the viewer's sensation of alienation. It is frequently used in gloomy dramas, thrillers, horror films, and film noir.

High key vs low key lighting in film: Which to use?

Consider the tone of each scene as well as the overall tone of the film while picking between high-key and low-key lighting. You don't have to utilize the same lighting for every scene, but adhering to one style for most of the shots helps to ensure consistency.

High-key lighting works well in films that are positive and focus on lighter subjects and emotions. It's frequently employed in comedies to create a fun atmosphere that fits the story's tone.

In more dramatic films, low-key lighting is typically employed to create a stark environment filled with mystery and suspense.

Key lighting setup in film: Three common ways you can use

Getting the perfect key light setup is crucial for appearing amazing on camera. There are several methods to illuminate a subject on video, streaming, etc. Some creators prefer a single key light, while others like two or three for extra effects.
While one quality key light might suffice, we propose a two or three point illumination system.

A key and a fill light are used in the two-point system. The key light directs the main light source onto the subject, while the fill light serves to decrease shadows and spreads the light more evenly. This is ideal for avoiding shadows that might change a chroma key when using a green screen.

A three-point light system adds one more light, commonly shining down on the hair or behind a person, to provide dimension and sharpness to the hair.

If you decide to use only one key light in film, you can check the video from YouTuber Ed Prosser to see how he uses COLBOR CL220 LED constant light to light up the subject.

Video by Ed Prosser

More ideas for using key light for filmmaking

Film key lighting can used in various ways to achieve what you want to achieve from the scene. Here are some ideas on how you can make the most use of key light in filmmaking.

  • To produce different effects, move the key light around. The position allows you to create a mood and experiment with alternative styles for the image composition. 
  • When it is placed high up, it casts lengthy shadows and emphasizes facial features. 
  • Moving the light away from your subject or subjects can generate harsh shadows.
  • Using a single key light produces a high-contrast photo, which is commonly seen in the Low Key Setup. A fill light mixed with the key light will assist in minimizing contrast, which is a common setting in the High Key setting.
  • Depending on the style they wish to achieve, filmmakers, cinematographers, and directors of photography will utilize a "soft" (diffused) or a "hard" (focused) key light. Focused for an image with deep colors and complex shadows, and diffused for a balanced shot. For better light dispersion and a wider spread of light in the filming, bounce the light off a wall, material, or utilize a bounce board.
  • It is not always necessary for the main light to be white. To vary the tone and create mood, use it with colored sidelights or filtered fill lights.
  • Make sure to modify the light's angle; doing so will allow you to produce varied light compositions for your filming.
  • You don't have to directly illuminate your subject with the key light; you can illuminate them using elaborate setups. For example, sending light through a window, various screens, and even a plant. This will assist in completing the setup and create an interesting mood within the scenario.


Key light in film is an essential part. You can accomplish a lot with this lighting setup, and knowing the ins and outs can offer you a unique perspective when filming your movie. Using multiple sidelights and fill lights allows you to change the exposure, contrast, and atmosphere of the scene. Explore the various sets and blend them with other scenarios to get the most out of them.