Studio Quality High Key Lighting without the Studio!

I call the sun my outdoor studio because it offers unlimited backgrounds, unlimited lighting patterns and near unlimited possibilities! I love it! This article will show you a great way to get the high key studio look using the sun as your light source.

The tools needed:

  1. A camera which allows you to manually control your exposure settings (aperture and shutter speed).
  2. An incident light meter (I suggest the Polaris SPD100 meter because it handles most all types of metering and at $159.00 it also is the cheapest!)
  3. 2 Diffusion panels (Consider building a home made panel which can be made for under 20 dollars from white ripstop nylon and pvc pipe frames). See the article, What’s a diffusion panel.
  4. Plenty of sun!

High Key Lighting Example 1

How to create the high key image outdoors:

  1. Set up a white diffuser or diffusion panel behind your subject like a backdrop. (Make sure the sun is behind diffuser but not necessarily low in the sky)
  2. Set up a second diffuser above your subject.
  3. Take a meter reading of the subject while he/she is within the created tent by setting your meter to around 1/125 second and holding your meter just under your subject’s chin with the incident dome facing the camera position.
  4. Set the f/stop setting on your camera according to the meter recommendation. Be sure to experiment with the look by adjusting the exposure up or down to taste.
  5. FIRE!

Thats it – there it is! Now, I never studied under the late Monte Zucker but this technique is what helped to make him famous. I happened onto it by accident. I then began to research it and found out that Monte Zucker had been using this technique since the 70’s – amazing! There is nothing new under the sun (pun intended)!

Here are my results from a recent photo shoot. I like it, my client likes it… I know you will too!

High Key Lighting Example 2

Now get outta here and start shooting!

P.S. Want a sneaky way to do this? Get a 5 foot by 12 foot piece of white rip stop nylon from a fabric store. Then, take build two large “L” shapes with 2 cross sections holding them together from PVC tubing available from a hardware store. Clip your fabric to the frame and use it as a diffusion tent. The prince of cheap has struck again!

David Griffin

About David Griffin

The Prince of Cheap I am a "Jesus Freak" and a DIY photography junkie! I'm also the *second* cheapest man alive... but only 'cause my Dad is the first!

19 thoughts on “Studio Quality High Key Lighting without the Studio!

  1. Antoine Thisdale

    Very nice! I have just started experimenting with outdoor lighting, what i coincidence that this be posted now!

    Any chance of a quick diagram of your “tent”? When you describe putting the second diffuser over the model… do you mean at 90degrees flat over his head? (basically both diffusers would make an inverted “L” shape and the mode would stand next/under it?

  2. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    yes you got it… one at 90 degrees overhead and one behind like a background. The truth is is that it doesnt matter all that much as long as shade is overhead your subject created by the diffuser. SECRET-SECRET the closer the diffusion material the softer the light!

  3. Kevin Yeager

    I just went and bought the white rip stop fabric. I do not see the small boxes (which prevents ripping) in your picture. Did you have to remove it through photo editing software? or Does the light from the sun make it invisable? I have a shoot on Wed. I will be using this.

    This will also double as a portable backdrop stand. I made mine fully adjustable. From 4ft to 10.5ft in height and up to 12ft accross. Vary in expensive to do this.

  4. John Martin

    Since you are metering off the subject (just below the chin) the to properly expose the subject there will be enough contrast to overexpose/blow out the white backdrop making the squares invisible. A larger aperture would also blur it so the squares don’t show.

    And just to throw another idea out there you might make a folding version with 2 legs on 1 end opposite the backdrop. Have a top panel and a back panel. Then you just unfold it and stand it up. I’m going to give this a shot. Heck if you paint the PVC a glossy black the rig might look fairly professional!

  5. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    GO John! Thats right! Dont worrie about the contrast! The light meter is only reading the shadow side. That means that it will suggest more light for your subject =ing an overexposed BG… and since the BG is white already… it blows out! May the prince of cheap be with you!

  6. Kevin

    I’m glad you posted this… I’ve been doing a lot of research about lighting as my budget wont allow for all of the ‘professional’ lighting materials [yet] and alas I don’t have a studio [yet].

    I’m currently in the process of creating my own softboxes… and so far so good… I love the creative process behind all of it.

  7. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    Good going. May I suggest building the primitive softbox first? The light panel? Think of it as the spillable softbox. Its the equivalent of an overcast day. It should only cost about $15 to make and you can probably make one about 5ft x 5ft (Large softbox size)!
    -The Prince of Cheap

  8. Smriti Pillay

    Wow! Your article is like God’s voice to me!!! I am an upcoming fashion photographer with absolutely no funds to buy high priced equipments. This is amazing.. Can u give me tips on how to get the right picture if I want to change my background

  9. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    God’s voice? WOW! Thanks. :) Try this… 1 get a blue or green background (make sure its very large… 10ft wide by 20 ft long usually is great but if your in a small studio maybe 10×16’ll do fine. Now heres the thing. Get your subject far from the background so the exposure from your lights wont effect the background. Now, take and light the background seperatly BUT EVENLY! This way you can use photoshop to easily select and seperate your background.

    Thanks for the compliment SMRITI PILLAY, but I’m not even close to being God.

  10. Heather Hamilton

    Thanks for the tips! I was starting to feel overwhelmed with the costs of studio equipment and wondering if I’d need a second car to lug it around. Your technuques prove that is not neccesary. Your portraits are stunning!

  11. christian Reyes

    Wow.Im so excited to try this but I am completely incapable of figuring out how to exactly make a Diffusion panel.Can you please somehow provide me specific directionis on how to make the diffusion panel, down to the measurements of the PVC pipes.Please, I need it for a photoshoot my e-mail is are awesome!!!

  12. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    2 options:
    1.) just go to your local hardware store and tell them you wanna make a square outta schedule 40 pvc pipe. Then tell them how big you want it. tell them that you wanna make some legs and feet for it to be self standing. Viola… they’ll know how and what you need. Its in the plumbing section.

    2.) go to ebay and lookup seller fotodiox or go the website and buy they’re 5x7ft diffusion panel. Its foldable like a simple disc popup diffuser. Last time I checked it cost about $69 + s&h

    Thanks for the comment.

    Hey… option 3.) just use 2 light stands and clamp the white ripstop nylon fabric to it. All you gotta do is make sure you have some weights on the bottom of the lightstands so the wind wont blow it over.

  13. Tinus

    David just a quick one. You say you put the diffusion panel behind your subject and the sun must be behind the diffusion panel. The you use the other diffusion panel and place it at the top of your subject i.e 90 degree angle.
    In the photo did you use flash to light your model from the front?
    I just bought a whole bunch of DIY photog stuff and my mom in-law will so some sewing and so on for me. I already built the frame but whilst I’m waiting I thought you could maybe shed some more “light” on the matter. Thanks, Tinus

  14. David GriffinDavid Griffin

    Get ready to laugh… after further testing… you dont need anything overhead! Just make your panel large enough to shade the entire subject! If you really want to cut the top light however… go right ahead and make a top panel.

  15. Tinus

    Okay I’m battling with this one. I’ve got 2 panels, you can almost fit the Yeti in one of ’em and the other is smaller like the hand held diffusion panels you buy at the camera dealers. The picture looks like this, camera man, model, diffusion panel (backdrop) and then sun. So if you were to photograph the model without the panel they’d be a silhouette if exposed for the background because the Sun is behind them. So I put the panel between the model and the Sun but now my model needs some lighting from the front. Very unflattering light. If I understand you correctly I need a lot, sorry A LOT more Sun right? I have added flash in a trial run and it worked pretty good but not nearly as great as your images.

  16. Navdeep Singh

    I am a wedding photographer in india. when i shoot outdoor photos[ceremonial photos] in harsh sunny days how can avoid dark shades on the faces of people

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