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Mike, Numbers the dog and Vampire Optimus explain the differences between high-key lighting and low-key lighting.
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The Difference Between High and Low Key Lighting
Hi! This is Mike from Thesubstream.com and today, we’re going to be talking about some basic terminologies and some basic concepts because you're going to need to know as somebody that wants to take pictures of people fighting or smooching or being a transformer, dracula.
The thing we’re going to be talking about today is the difference in terms of concept and execution between two things: high key lighting and low key lighting. This is something that’s always mess me up from the very beginning until today and I hope that by making this video, I can help myself get it clear in my own mind because there is this weird linguistic quirk in the English language.
When you're talking about high key lighting and low key lighting, check this. What comes in your mind when I say the following words? High tension? High drama? What about low impact? What about low key? So, you’d think those words having meanings in the English language would have meanings when applied to cinematography and it’s a high key lighting would be a kind of lighting that you would use to create drama and tension and excitement. And, that low key lighting is something that you’d use when you want to relax, commercial -- or something.
Unfortunately, like everything in life, it’s wrong and stupid and out of the way around that you would encounter intuitive and it’s designed to make you and me feel like an idiot. Okay, so here it is. The difference between high key lighting and low key lighting in practice and terminology and cinematography; in practice, high key lighting is the kind of lighting that you are going to want to use of you are shooting, say, a sitcom wherein a friendly guy is playing as a goofy roommate from down the hall in a game of chess and as a loser, has to take big ugly Donna to the so-called big rose – ha, ha, ha, ha.
Low key lighting on the other hand is what you would use if your name was Clause and you were shooting at German expressionists, silent film about the child molester playing chess against the concept of nothingness on the plain of godless purgatory.
Unlike the linguistic meaning of low key being relaxed and drama-free, low key lighting in cinematography and in filmmaking means lighting that uses high lighting ratios. That is there’s a big difference between the lit side of the face and the unlit side of the face, which creates a bunch of shadows and modeling and chiaroscuro which in turn creates a bunch of drama and tension and anxiety, which is why low key lighting is traditionally used in horror films and the wars and stuff like that or at German movies.
High key lighting, on the other hand, uses really low lighting ratios, often 1:1, which means that there’s basically no difference between the key lit side of the face and the fill lit side of the face, meaning that the light is relatively flat and drama-free.
It was invented way back in the day when cinematographers will had to shoot a bunch of scenes really quickly often for TV, realized that if they took their key lights and put them up high, the key’s high so that you had high keys and put a bunch of them up above the actors, they could create an even field of light on a sound stage, meaning that they could shoot a bunch of shots for TV shows like sitcoms or soap operas relatively quickly because they wouldn’t have to tweak each individual lighting set up all the time
With high keys and high key lighting, they traded off the drama that you lose when you light that way for the ease of shooting a bunch of stuff really quickly. In these days, there’s kind of flat lighting has gone really out of vogues and it kind of screams 80’s Cosby Show but it has its uses especially if you have to shoot a bunch of stuff really quickly.
In low key lighting, the key light is literally low, which shoots across the face of your subject creating a bunch of shadows and a bunch of modeling. And, what modeling does is it helps the viewer understand the shape of something in 3D because there’s contrast in those shadows. And, in turn, that creates drama and anxiety and tension and all that vividness and the good stuff that really gives it an image of punch and an effect.
But, it’s an acquired taste. It doesn’t work for every shot and every kind of emotional sense in a scene and it’s finicky after spending a bunch of time adjusting the light and getting it just perfect and saying to your actor, “Make sure you go like this but not like this because the shadow will mess it.” And, they don’t like that too much so it’s a kind of pain to use.
But, both have their uses and you’ll find yourself working most of the time somewhere between those two extremes unless you're making that German child molester, chess against nothing in this movie, in which case, where do you get the money to make that because nobody’s going to watch it?