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High Key vs. Low key


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#1 Aaron Solomon

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 09:26 AM

Does high key vs. low key lighting refer to the intensity of the lights in general, or the angle at which the key light is placed?
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#2 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 11:08 AM

Refers to the ratio of Key light to Fill Light. For example a High Key Lighting has a smaller ratio of key to fill (they are closer in terms of luminance) than does Low Key. For High Key, you might be at a 2:1 ratio, wherein the Key Light is 2x as bright as the Fill (or 1 stop brighter). With Low Key, you may be at 8:1 or far higher!

It has naught to do with height.
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 11:34 AM

I don't think it's specifically about key-to-fill ratio, it's more about the overall effect.

"Low Key" means that the scene has a predominance of dark areas with very small amounts of highlights.

"High Key" means that the scene has a predominance of midtones and highlights with few dark areas.

Now of course often that means that a low key scene is high in contrast and a high key scene is low in contrast, but there are exceptions. You could have a light-toned set with with a single hard frontal key light, no fill, which would look high key and be high in contrast... and you could have a soft-lit, low-contrast scene that is very underexposed and dim and be considered low key.
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#4 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 11:48 AM

Quite true, but I would still say that on the whole, it's closely related to contrast ratios. That's just me though.
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#5 Aaron Solomon

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 01:40 PM

Thanks! So a high key image would have more bright spots?
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 03:02 PM

Thanks! So a high key image would have more bright spots?


Yes and no -- a night exterior could be low-key but have a number of bright spots in the frame surrounded by darkness. It's really more of an impression of the overall light quality, is the frame mostly well-illuminated at full exposure or does it feel on the dark side?
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#7 Aaron Solomon

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 03:03 PM

And "well illuminated" = high key and "dark" = low key?
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#8 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 05:11 PM

And "well illuminated" = high key and "dark" = low key?


Traditionally comedy was high key and thrillers were low key.
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#9 Aaron Solomon

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 05:33 PM

Traditionally comedy was high key and thrillers were low key.



Like the darkness and stark contrasts create suspense?
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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 08:08 PM

I think you're trying too hard to nail down a vague term. It's more of an general impression of the scene as to whether it is low key or high key. A Hollywood musical like "Singin' in the Rain" would be considered high key whereas a movie like "Seven" would be considered low key. The issue is whether there is a pervasive feeling of lightness versus darkness in the imagery.
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