High Key Lighting/The Commercial Look

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  • #214712

      Hi all,

      I’m a young DP and I’ve recently made some connections in the commercial world and wanted to get some advice on returning to the basics, so here’s something I’ve always struggled with a bit. How do you get that bright white high-key look? I see it constantly in commercials and comedies and don’t feel I’ve ever gotten it 100% right.

      So my first issue is how do I get a source to look totally invisible? I try to make my source as large as possible but this is only so effective in small spaces. In this past project, (We were in a very tight room, maybe 4m x 8m) I sent an Aputure 1200d through 216 (we needed a big light to balance out an open door) then bounced off the corner of the far wall/ceiling. I still ended up with a pretty visible shadow on the shelves behind my talent. So I tried filling with another hard source bounced off the ceiling closer to the subject and this helped but it still didn’t get to a nice even fill around the space. I placed a tube up high behind the subjects, again bouncing off the ceiling and again this helped but wasn’t enough to push enough light to fill in the subject. When we turned around I had to add a fourth light bouncing off the ceiling in the exact direction of talent’s face to fill in a shadow left by the other three. This feels like just blindly throwing up lights and made for a lot of dancing the frame around to avoid them all.

      So now I know what kinda works but isn’t clean at all and only gets 60-70% of the way. So, what’s the formula? What do I need to put in my rental package? Is the secret lots of strong lights? If so panel lights or hard sources (open face/lensed)? What kinds of bounce/diffusion are you using? How deep focus do those of you who shoot comedy/commercials typically look for when lighting like this since I think that’s another essential part of the look? How are you balancing out windows or doors with direct or indirect sunlight?

      I know that that is a plethora of questions, but I’m looking for some true mastery of the basics as I’m looking to move up/branch out and my typical style for narrative has been very contrasty and directional. Thank you in advance!

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    • #214713
      Andrew C

        Perhaps some stills of the look you are going for versus what you have been getting could be useful for us to break down. I don’t think there is a formula or secret per-say. A lot of it comes down to preference, experience, and what the commercial calls for. Maybe for the fill side, rather than using a light you can use a bounce board.

        Typically I like to have a key that is soft and use a 6×6 Magic Cloth or 216, and will either try to double diffuse or book light it. Since you were working against an open door, you probably needed most of the output you could get from the 1200d, which prevented you from softening it more. Are you controlling your lights with floppies? That may help with the hard shadows behind talent. Also I’ve found that the more lights I had, sometimes can work against you, adding double shadows and complicating things.

        Rather than bouncing off the ceiling to lift the level, have you tried going straight through diffusion on the background or bouncing?

        I’ve heard of softening filters used for some beauty work, where you can use something like ProMist or a UV filter with vaseline on it to take some of the sharpness out of modern lenses. Also, for working in tight spaces, recently I bought the Aputure F22c and it’s been great for a decently soft source when working in small spaces. I often pair it with a roll of 216.


          Big part of the look you are looking for is how you expose for it.
          Big soft omnipresent light is usually used for that commercial look but exposing faces hotter than usual for that super bright skin will get you there.


          M Ryan

            Looks like a smaller soft source close to the talent is used alot – also occured to me that greenscreen/matting could be a quick way to get this look (if appropriate)


            Tyler F

              Yea I think that’s an interesting question because I think off the bat, you’re boxing yourself into a style: Comedy needs to look like this or that. Rather, you should do what comes natural to you rather than try to do something because it’s some “established” look to a genre. I was just speaking to a DP whom I respect that shoots according to his taste no matter the setting. Roger Deakins is a perfect example of being able to shoot comedy (albeit dark comedy) with the Coen Brothers, yet still have the traditional look of drama. I think Bradford Young is also another prime example of this. I’d say motivate your main key from the door then use practicals to balance out your interiors. If you need to give extra level, then maybe bounce a light that is “motivated” by the practicals throughout the room.

              Last I might say is hire good gaffers/grips that can take your ideas and make them work for you in a tasteful way.


                I agree with Andrew, that a few stills of your work vs. the look you’re hoping to achieve would be really beneficial. Tiny spaces create a lot of challenges. If you light from within all the lights have to be very close to the walls or subject and therefore the fall off is pretty quick as well. I think that’s what creates a more sourcy look and potentially harsher shadows. In this setup two things would help in my opinion:

                1) A large top light. Lots of commercials are sets and instead of a real ceiling they have a huge soft source overhead, often stretching out to the entirety of the room. This makes for a very evenly lit room and lots of level everywhere (that’s how the typical high key look defined, I guess)

                2) Use blocking and placing the light to avoid such shadows. Similar to the point above, try to light more from above so the shadows naturally fall on the floor more than walls, also maybe block in a way that there isn’t an empty wall behind the actor?

                A third idea, if you have a window in the room is utilizing the window as the main light source. Since you can place one or more lights further away outside, the falloff in the room will be less and it’ll spread around more evenly.

                Hope this helps a bit or at least gives you food for thought.


                  Hi all,

                  So sorry I didn’t check up on this until now, I didn’t appear to get any emails letting me know about the replies and got busy. Thank you all for your guidance, reading through has been very helpful! I love some of the tips you’ve been able to provide and can’t wait to try them all out next time I shoot. I appreciate the practicality of you solutions and how specific you were able to me.

                  Thanks again and sorry for the delay!

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