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Placing a Hard Key Light
  • By Art Adams

    The most important thing you will ever learn about lighting is this: LIGHTING IS NOT A FORMULA. Learning about lighting, though, is a process of becoming aware, and in this first of many articles I’m going I’m going to try to increase your awareness of one specific thing per article. The more awareness you have the more easily you’ll be able to adapt your lighting to your circumstances because you’ll see, with your own eyes, what you need to do to make an image that satisfies your inner artist.

    I think the best place to start is with classical key light placement. This knowledge is not something you will use verbatim as this is not a style that is in vogue at the moment. The underlying principles, however, should be of daily benefit.

    In film school we all learn about the key light, fill light and backlight. We’re typically shown a setup where a key light is placed 45 degrees to one side of the camera and raised high and tilted down toward the subject at a 45 degree angle. The fill light is placed in the same position on the opposite side of the camera. The backlight, or hair light, is opposite the camera, behind the subject.


    This is a great way to learn the basics of lighting as long as you can grasp what the lights do and then completely forget everything about this formula. Lighting is not about formulas, it is about seeing. Formulas can be a trap. Learn from them, but don’t rely on them.

    There are almost infinite variations of this setup and other setups that deviate completely from this plan. The goal in my upcoming “Lighting Strategies” series is to open your eyes to some lighting techniques and strategies that I had to learn the hard way—because there are very few people who can communicate what they do artistically to another person. There are a lot of DPs who can tell their crew what they want, but if they had to tell another DP how they did it they’d fail miserably. I find that really frustrating, so I’m going to try to fill that void.

    One of the hardest things to do is to light a face well with hard light, because hard light brings out details that not every face wants revealed: bumps, pores, imperfectly-formed noses, wrinkles… everything that can go “wrong” with a face shows up really well under hard light.

    A hard light is defined as a light source that appears small in relation to the subject and casts a sharp shadow. This can be a small light up close or a big light far away. (I’ll go into soft and hard light in another article.)

    I believe that the origin of the “traditional” hard key light placement came from the old studio days of the 1930s when it was most common to light from a lighting grid placed over the set. Film speeds were quite slow and the lights used were quite big, and the easiest way to power them and keep them out of the shot was to hang them. This is probably where the 45-degree downward-facing key light came from, as this angle is one of the more pleasing for hardlit faces.

    I’m not going to talk about fill or backlight in this article. I’m going to focus strictly on classical methods of placing hard key lights. We’ll get to other lights, and mixing lights, in future articles.

    Read the rest at:
  • 7 Replies sorted by
  • Thanks VK this is what i am looking for from here. More stuff like this.
  • Art adam's awesome, i always learn a lot from his articles. Walter Graff is another DP whose interview techniques articles i enjoy learning from.
  • I'm not a lighting expert but I really enjoyed this article on lighting on Philip Bloom's site.
  • A very nice read.
  • Thanks VK
  • @DrDave Nice video, and also great to read of the thing she's working on (The Underwater Realm) and how they've been going about getting funding for it.
  • lighting depends entirely on the question of what you want to see in your frame. What do you want to be black, what do you want to be visible? Also: does you subject have to look beautiful or not? Do you want it to look surreal, high contrast or natural? Are you trying to mimic source light? Practicals?

    People too often forget that composition is actually more important than lighting. You would be amazed of just how much can be realized with just natural light, even indoors! If you place the subject in the right places it will look great.

    Important to know are: the different kinds of light sources and their qualities and the effect of the inverse square law and how you can use it. The rest is all about composition.

    And one thing I don't understand: why work with hard light if you're working with a camera that handles only 8-9 stops? That's asking for troubles. Unless you're filming a film noire or if you want to get a very specific effect I wouldn't use it.

    In most circumstances hard light also looks very unnatural. Have you even been in a room where you couldn't see half of some one's face? In real world situations this would only be possible if the lightbulb was less than 1 meter from his face while sitting in a room with black walls... or if the room was seriously underexposed and a hard backlight is hitting you in the face while looking at the other person's face. My 2 cents: don't use hard light unless you really need it. Especially with DSLR cameras.