Inspiration, Pro Tips

Lighting for a Mood: Making the Most of Key, Color, and Contrast


Along with good acting and creative composition, developing a motivated lighting strategy is one of the most powerful ways to create a mood for your scene. An experienced director of photography can walk onto any given set and create an immediate mood just by turning on lights. The actors don’t even have to be there for a scene to portray a specific feeling or emotion.

If you’re new to lighting, you may want to check out our post on lighting basics, as it’s a good place to get an overview of general lighting techniques. Once you understand how to setup a three-point lighting scheme, you can begin to create and develop different moods by controlling the basic lighting components: key, color, and contrast.

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Key refers to the amount or distribution of light and shadow in a given scene.

High-Key: High-key is even, low-contrast lighting with minimal shadows. High-key setups are often used in sitcoms, soap operas, and romantic comedies because of the forgiving nature of the lighting setup. The light looks good from every camera angle, and an actor can walk or turn in almost any direction and keep the same look and feel.

The exposure of a high-key shot is usually slightly flat, and made up of mostly mid-tones and highlights. There aren’t a lot of deep, dark shadows in a high-key shot. This lighting strategy portrays a happy, positive, upbeat feeling, making it perfect for comedies.

Happy man giving thumbs up sign - portrait on white background
Happy Man Giving Thumbs Up, Portrait by AilaImages

Low-Key: Low-key lighting is quite the opposite. It’s very shaped, high-contrast lighting with a range from bright to dark black shadows. While there are bright portions of a low-key scene, the light is usually focused to draw the attention of the audience to a specific subject. This type of lighting separates subjects from their surroundings to create a sense of isolation, vulnerability, or even fear.

Low-key setups are often used in drama and horror stories, but are also used in very intimate or romantic scenes, as well. Regardless of genre, using this lighting technique will always create a sense of tension within a scene.

Young man in hard side light, portrait
Young Man in Hard Side Light, Portrait by imageBROKER


The color of a scene is usually determined by the art director and displayed through various set pieces, like wardrobe, props, and background. However, adding or mixing lighting color will have a tremendous impact on the scene’s mood.

Take a look at the forest shots here. One feels warm and welcoming, while the other seems cold and lonely. The only difference is the color of light used for the scene.

Lamp Lighting Up Branches and Grass in Park at Night
Lamp Lighting Up Branches and Grass in Park at Night by itman__47

Cool Blue Lamp Lighting Up Branches and Grass in Park at Night.
Cool Blue Lamp Lighting Up Branches and Grass in Park at Night by itman__47


Contrast is the ratio between the white and the black, or in other words, the light and the dark parts of a scene.

High-Contrast vs. Low-Contrast: High-contrast images display a full range of tones, from bright highlights to dark shadows. Low-contrast images, on the other hand, have a much smaller, shallower range of tones.

This image of a woman on the beach is an example of a high-key, low-contrast image. Most of the image is comprised of highlights and the upper end of the mid-tones. There are almost no dark shadows throughout the image.

Low-contrast image of woman on beach
Low-Contrast Image of Woman on the Beach by monkeybusinessimages

The portrait below is an example of a high-contrast image. It offers a full range of tones, from bright highlights to dark shadows — tons of contrast.

High-Contrast Portrait of Cracked Skin
High-Contrast Portrait of Cracked Skin by fotorince

Deciding how much contrast to have in a scene will be based on the mood you’re trying to create. Lighting strategies with higher contrast tend to make the scene feel more tense or mysterious, while scenes with low contrast feel more calm and fun.

Here’s a perfect example of how contrast can drastically change the mood of a scene. The left side of the image has very low contrast, and feels lighter and more relaxed, while the high-contrast side feels way more sinister and suspenseful.

man portrait two sides concept, psychological photo
Two-Sided Portrait, Psychological Concept by GCapture

Quality of Light

Along with the key, color, and contrast, another very important thing to think about when lighting for a mood is the quality of light. Quality of light refers to whether a scene is lit with hard light or soft light, and will vary depending on your light source, the time of year, time of day, and location.

Hard Light: Hard light is just as it sounds: harsh. It smashes into the subject and creates drastic shadows and high contrast. For the most part, it’s thought to be a poor quality of light.

An example of hard light would be high noon on a clear summer day, which is usually considered the worst time to take portraits. The hard light from the sun creates unflattering hard-edged shadows that often highlight imperfections in the subject’s skin.

Mid-Day Portrait in Hard-Light
Mid-Day Portrait in Hard Light by singulyarra

Soft Light: Soft light is considered to have a rich, beautiful quality. It casts subtler, softer shadows that are much more flattering to the subject. Landscape and portrait photographers often talk about the “Magic Hour” (aka “Golden Hour), as being the best time to take outdoor photographs. This is the time right after sunrise, or just before sunset, when the light is a nice, soft glow.

Beautiful woman portrait.
Soft Light Portrait by Nejron

Combination Light: Combination light refers to a scene that uses both soft light and hard light sources, such as a portrait taken under the shade of a tree with scattered beams of hard sunlight piercing through the branches. The result is an image with areas of both hard and soft shadows. Mixing or adding splashes of hard light in a more evenly lit scene will certainly help create a more specific texture or mood.

Portrait with Combination Lighting
Portrait with Combination Lighting by RadiusImages

Determining Your Strategy

Different lights output different qualities of light. There are also a ton of modifiers that can help adjust and shape the light from a given source.

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Determining what mood to portray will depend completely on the story or subject matter of your scene. Regardless, one of the most important factors in creating the mood you’re going for is determining your lighting strategy, including key, color, contrast, and quality of light.

Top Image: Retro Office Worker With Typewriter and Telephone by ysbrandcosijn