Reverse Key Lighting
I used to work with a cinematographer named Rob Draper (Halloween 5, The Spitfire Grill). He was having me practice one day by shooting a product shot for a whisky bottle. I had set the bottle up in front of a seamless backdrop and put a light in front of the bottle at about a 45 degree angle. Rob came in to see how I was doing. His first comment was “What made you put the light in front of the bottle rather than behind the bottle?” I hadn’t really thought much about it. “Why wouldn’t you put the light behind the bottle and bounce in a little light for fill on the front side?” he asked. And that was when I was first introduced to “Reverse Key Lighting”.
Reverse Key Lighting is also called “short lighting” or “narrow lighting”. The idea is that the key light is placed behind the subject rather than in front (the way you would probably see it set up in most cinematography books). In the world of news and interviews its sometimes called a “reporter sandwich” because of the way the reporter is sandwiched by the light behind him and the camera in front of him. Its a very versatile technique so lets take a look at some examples.
One of the strengths of reverse key lighting is the way the shadows falloff across the face. When the key light is coming from the front it makes for very flat lighting. Its not dynamic and you don’t see a lot of shadows.
When you place the key light on the other side though, the light rakes across the face and you can see the light falling off into shadow on the side of the face closest to the camera. This make for much more compelling lighting and the gradient of the light falloff gives the subject a much more three-dimensional appearance.
In addition to being more visually interesting, reverse key lighting offers some other benefits. Because a smaller area of the face is lit it gives the illusion of a thinner face or body so it can be a very flattering way to light women. It can be flattering for men too, but sometimes you might want to give them a front key light to make them look more rugged or masculine. Reverse key lighting can also be a preferable way to light people with glasses as you don’t get any distracting reflections.
The important thing to remember about any lighting is that it should always serve the story. So don’t force any kind of lighting scenario onto a scene if it doesn’t fit the story or mood you’re trying to create.
Next time you are watching a movie shot by a great cinematographer keep yours eyes open for reverse key lighting. I think you’ll see it popping up a lot.