High Key Portrait Lighting with 3 Lights

You might think you need an abundance of expensive lighting gear in order to create a high key lighting setup for commercial quality images like those seen in hair and make-up ads. But that’s not true. Sure you need at least two or three lights, but you could work with a set of inexpensive speedlights and light modifiers to achieve the look. New York based photographer Erik Valind shows us his technique, which is easy to set up and involves just a few speedlights:

Main Light

Valind uses a series of Rogue Flash Bender 2 light shaping tools as his main lights here. The key light is a speedlight inside a Rogue Flash Bender XL Pro with a diffuser on. The setup immediately transforms this into a large softbox.

key light for studio portraits

Setting up the key light

This light is placed exactly above the head of the subject giving some nice highlights on the model’s forehead and making her bangs pop-out. The eyes are beautifully lit and you can see some nice catchlights as well (image below). Also notice the nice shadows underneath the cheeks and the chin that accentuate the model’s face.

key light for portrait session

With the key light turned on

Background Light

The white background in high-key portraits are rarely pure white all by themselves. They have to be lit in order to get that effect. In this case Valind uses a Flash Rogue Bender 2 with a black panel on. The flash is turned towards the wall.

background light for studio portrait session

Background light

The black panel blocks light from getting spilled on to the subject’s back or the rest of the frame. All of the light will be aimed toward the wall behind, illuminating it to make it appear pure white.

background lighting for portrait session

With the background light on

Fill Light

The final element that completes this jigsaw of lighting arrangement is the fill light. The fill light helps in removing those last remnants of shadows. Remember, the key light did create some shadows. Although those are nice, some of the shadows have to be removed to complete the high-key effect. Thus the fill light, which in this case is a silver reflector, is brought in.

high-key studio portraits


It removes some of the shadows and adds a bit of catchlight to the eyes to complete the high-key look. If you have an extra light you can use that instead of the reflector. Valind demonstrates how a speedlight, with a Rogue Flash Bender, without the diffuser, when scooped upwards can do the job.

Speedlight as a fill-light

Rogue Flash Bender without a diffuser on as a fill light

Here’s the final image with all the lights on:

studio high key portraits

The final image with all the lights on

Try this technique and let us know how it goes in the comments below.

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