Definition: Key light

Definition: Key light  | Glossary entry

Key light

The key light is the most important light in the range of lights used by a photographer to illuminate a scene. Normally the key light is used as the main illumination of the subject. It highlights the subject from the surrounding objects in the scene and provides a three dimensional aspect for the viewer.

In natural light there is normally one source – the Sun. In multi-light compositions the key light is usually the strongest light – which imitates the natural situation. In order for staged lighting to appear natural it’s best to have one strong light in the scene and other light sources to appear as reflected/diffused derivatives of that main source. So, other lights in a scene are normally made to look weaker or as if they are modified by reflection or diffusion.

The use of a key light on its own will tend to create high contrasts in your scene. The non-lit areas will be darker than the subject in the key light. Use of secondary lights to light other parts of the scene or fill lights to lessen the shadows will help to prevent that contrast from being too severe.

If the key light is not on the main subject, but instead is on the background, the subject will normally be much darker. This contrast creates a silhouette (unless the ambient light overwhelms the camera settings).

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By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

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Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
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