Stunning High Key Photography the Quick and Easy Way
To create stunning high-key
High-key images are made with high-key lighting. This means the key light, the main light, is a very bright light that easily illuminates your composition. High-key photos don’t have dark shadows.
What is High Key
A high key lighting setup can consist of one key light. In addition, there may be any number of fill lights, but a single light can be sufficient. You can use available light or introduce light from a flash or continuous light.
The quality of the light is important. Using a single light source that’s small in relation to your subject creates hard light. This produces shadows and will require fill lights to reduce or eliminate the shadow areas to create high-key images.
An ideal light source for high-key
How to Create High Key Images
Creating high-key photos is a combination of light, camera settings, and post-processing. When you can balance these three, you can make high-key images of any subject.
When you want to take high-key photos, the quickest and easiest thing to start with is the light. If you’re taking pictures of a large subject on a dark night and only have one flash, it will be next to impossible to make high-key photos. You’ll need a flash modifier such as a softbox or umbrella to make it an effective key light that does not create shadow areas.
Having a light that’s large in relation to your subject, you can manage the shadows or eliminate them. This is much easier when you use a large light source. Alternatively, you can add more light sources.
Working with key and fill lights takes time to set up and more skill than using available light or adding just one more light. The more light source you have, the more complicated it is to balance them. To make a real high-key photo, the main light must be stronger than light coming from any other source.
Look At The Shadows
High-key lighting is as much about the light as it is about the shadow tones in an image. If your key light is very bright, it may still create dark shadows. These reduce the effect. Using fill lights or a larger-sized key light will reduce the shadows.
Natural light from the sun is the most common key light. You can use it to make both high key and low key lighting photos. Much of the difference is in the shadow areas.
On a cloudy day, the sun is diffused. This means there are fewer shadows and the shadow tones are often not so dark. When there are no clouds, shadows will be hard and darker. On cloudless days the sun is bright and creates hard shadows. Using a flash or other fill light, you can reduce the shadows and create high-key photos.
The tone values in your composition and the camera settings you choose also impact the nature of high-key and low-key photos. High-key
Subject Choice and the High-Key Style
A high-key style of
Light-colored subjects on a light background are the easiest to use when doing high-key
High-key images of products are popular because they create a positive atmosphere. The high-key effect means there are few or no shadows, and the product is evenly lit. It will be easy to see the detail in your main subject clearly.
Browse through any business website, and you’ll find examples of high-key
In each case, the photographer has gone to great lengths to create a high-key look by making sure the darker tones are well lit. There are few or no shadows that impose on the high-key image. Often, these photos are made against a white background.
Studio lighting allows you to have more control no matter what subject you are photographing. Creating the right lighting ratio helps you avoid blown-out highlights when doing high-key
Whether you are taking still life photos or making a high-key portrait, having white walls and white background in the studio helps. Subject lighting in this environment means you’ll have little or no shadow because the light is reflected off all the surfaces.
Exposure Choices for High-Key Lighting
Camera settings for good exposure are critical to high-key
In the photo above, there is one main light. It is natural light. There is as much light as I could expect on a sunny morning. My camera settings mean the final image is not high-key because the main subject is underexposed.
I have made adjustments to bring out the detail in the shadows in the post-production of this photo. But it still is not a high-key image despite the high-key lighting. The dark tones in the image create an unusual atmosphere, not what is typically associated with high-key
Exposure settings have a lot to do with creating high-key images. I prefer to use manual exposure mode rather than rely on shutter or aperture priority modes. In manual mode, you have full control over the exposure and can more easily create a high-key photograph.
Adjusting your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to slightly overexpose is more likely to create a high-key image. Shadows will not be so dark, and the light areas will appear bright and more radiant.
On any of the auto-exposure modes, your camera will adjust the exposure towards middle gray tones because this is what it’s programmed to do. When you want to be sure to achieve high-key images, expose so the histogram is weighted towards the right. You need to be aware of highlights in your composition and decide if you want to retain detail in them.
Creating a Balanced Lighting Effect
The more balanced your lighting is, the less likely it is that you’ll blow out the highlights. High-key
High contrast images often make even exposures with details in both the shadows and highlights more challenging. When you can balance the lighting with one main light as your key light, you can preserve detail throughout the tone range.
Working with studio lighting, it’s easy to create high-key lighting because you can manage the output of each light. If you’re only working with natural light, you don’t have so much control over the lighting balance. You can add some flash or use a reflector, but you will still not have the same level of control.
For example, you may encounter some dark shadows if you want to take a high-key portrait using window light. This high contrast can be balanced by adding some flash to fill in the dark shadows.
Even outside in the full sun, using a flash as a fill light will help eliminate shadows and add to the high-key look. Having a clean, clear background will enhance the high-key effect.
A Black Background or a White Background
Choosing a white or light-colored background allows you to create a high-key look more easily than a dark background.
Here I have photographed the same subject in the same lighting against two different backgrounds.
Against the dark background, the photo does not look like a high-key portrait because of the high contrast. Against the white background, the high-key effect is evident.
Both the lighting and the exposure I used were the same. All that changed is the background.
Post-processing is a very important aspect of high-key
Post-production choices can have a similar amount of impact on an image. Global adjustments or local tweaking can change the whole look and feel of an image.
As with any post-processing, each image must be evaluated individually. The lighting and exposure choices you make will determine how much post-production is necessary to create a high-key image.
The more evenly you have lit a photo, the easier it is to post-process. When you have taken your light meter reading carefully and managed your exposure well, you’ll have less processing to do to get the high-key look.
Making Global Editing Adjustments
When the exposure is good and the light is even, making adjustments to enhance the high-key effect is easy enough. It can be a matter of adjusting the Tone Curve upwards from the middle or dragging the middle handle on the Levels adjustment to lighten the image.
By making this type of global adjustment, you brighten up the whole photo. It has a similar effect to turning up the power output of light or opening up your exposure settings. Modern digital cameras capture enough depth when an image is exposed well to allow even two or more stops of exposure adjustment when editing.
Watch the histogram as you do this to avoid blowing out any highlights. If the histogram graph reaches the top on the right side, you have lost some detail.
Making Local Editing Adjustments
The dodge and burn tools are the ones that I use most frequently in Photoshop. In Lightroom, I use the Adjustment Brush for the same effect. Using these tools to bring balance and lower the overall contrast in certain areas of an image can enhance the high-key lighting look.
Mostly I’ll use the dodge tool to lighten up dark parts of a photo. Sometimes for high-key
There are other techniques to use to bring balance and enhance the high-key light look, but these are the ones I am used to and prefer.
I’m old school. I like to get an image looking as good as possible on camera rather than relying on creating a specific effect during post-processing. High-key
Work in the most appropriate lighting conditions. This makes creating high-key photos much quicker and easier. Use a single, large, bright light source and maybe some fill lights. This will give you the best light for high-key portraits, high-key product photography, or any other kind of high-key image.
Setting your exposure carefully so that your photos will be a little overexposed will provide you with a light, bright image to work with. Avoiding contrast in your subject and with the background will further boost the effect.
Taking time to post-process your high-key images also helps. Brighten the light, reduce the shadows and create overall, even lighting.
As always, the more intentional you are about each aspect of your