High-key & low-key portrait lighting

Learn how to create two classic lighting setups for high-quality portraits.
A low-key portrait of a woman, taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © James Paterson

The concept of three-point lighting is crucial to understand for all photographers and cinematographers working on their art.

  • Key light is the main source of illumination and is usually directed straight at the subject.
  • Fill light is positioned to the side, its role being to remove harsh shadows from images and avoid high-contrast scenes (aka chiaroscuro effect).
  • Backlight, like the name suggests, is placed behind the subject, and helps to separate it from the background.

How you work with all three light sources in relation to your subject can dramatically change the look and feel of your image. High-key and low-key portrait lighting setups can help you create moody, professional-looking portraits at home or in a studio. All you need is a couple of Speedlite flashes, like the Canon Speedlite EL-10, and some accessories you often already have or can make yourself from everyday items.

High-key setup

Two Canon Speedlite flashes used off camera on the left side and a close-up of setting on the flash on the right side. © Marcus Hawkins

The term ‘high key’ refers to images that are dominated by very bright tones, often with a completely white background. With portraits, it’s a look that is bright, airy and professional. If you have two or more Speedlites and a trigger to fire them off-camera, you can create a high-key portrait setup in any room with a plain, light-coloured wall. The important thing to get right is the ratio of the light – the background light should be much brighter than the key or main light (on our subject) in order to overexpose the backdrop to white.

1. Light the backdrop

A high-key portrait of a woman, taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © James Paterson

Begin by placing your subject in front of a light-coloured wall, then position one Speedlite behind the subject and direct it onto the wall. Work out an exposure that makes the wall pure white – don't switch on the second flashgun until you've done this. In this example, the camera is in Manual (M) mode, with exposure settings of at f/8, 1/200sec, ISO100, with a Speedlite set to 1/1 power in Manual flash mode. The resulting image gives a bright backdrop, so we can move on to lighting the subject.

2. Lift the face

A front-on portrait of a woman with a completely white background, taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © James Paterson

Position the second Speedlite in front of the subject and slightly to the side to act as a key light. To soften, diffuse and spread the light, use a light modifier, such as a white umbrella or a softbox. This will create a more flattering portrait. Set the Speedlite to Manual mode and take a few test shots while adjusting either the power output (¼ power here) or the distance of the light from the subject until the face is correctly exposed.

Canon Speedlite EL-10 has a versatile power range of 1/1 to 1/1024 for a softer look. Plus, get that extra sparkle in the eye thanks to a catchlight panel.

Low-key setup

A photographer taking a portrait of a woman using low-key setup, with Canon camera, lens, and flash. © Marcus Hawkins

Low key is the opposite of high key, with the image being dominated by dark tones. This can be achieved with a single light source such as a Speedlite fired remotely. Canon Speedlite EL-10 can be set up remotely with the help of Canon Camera Connect app.

With careful positioning of the light, you can even use the same background wall as in the high-key setup. Position the light source slightly behind the subject and off to one side so that the light hits the edge of the face, then ask your subject to angle their face towards the light so that it catches the edges of their cheek and their eyes.

1. Darken the backdrop

A portrait of a woman with the light spilling on to the background wall, taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © James Paterson
A portrait of a woman with a darker background, taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. © James Paterson



A dark background material like black velvet is ideal for low-key portraits, but even a bright wall can be darkened simply by preventing light from hitting it. One option is to move the subject and the light farther from the background, increasing the distance between light source and backdrop. You can also use an object to shield the flash and direct it onto the subject. In the first image here the light is spilling on to the background wall. In the second, a black cloth has been placed between the Speedlite and the wall.

2. Moody poses

A photographer taking a portrait of a woman with Canon camera, lens, and flash. © Marcus Hawkins

Low key portraits have a sombre, thoughtful atmosphere so pose your subject to add to the mood. A side on position like this can work well. At the right angle, the light falls across the face and creates a triangular highlight on one cheek. Referred to as Rembrandt lighting after the Dutch master, this is a classic technique for lighting a face. Canon Speedlite EL-10 has a catchlight panel for that extra sparkle in the eye. You can add to the mood by slightly desaturating the colours for the finished low-key portrait.

Get a friend to help you test those tips or try shooting self-portraits remotely using Canon Camera Connect app and play around with low- and high-key portrait lighting setup to see the effect it has on the look and feel of your images.

Marcus Hawkins & Agi Wojcik

Related products

Related Articles


    Portrait photography tips

    Improve your portrait photography with these top tips and techniques.


    The best entry-level kit for portraits

    Cameras and lenses for every type of portrait photography.


    Inspirational images at home

    Transform your home into a studio with tips from TikTok star Michaela Efford.


    Set up your own home studio

    Discover how to get creative with flash and shoot stunning portraits on a budget.

  • Sign up for our newsletter

    Get all the latest news and product information