Stunning High Key Photography the Quick and Easy Way

High key portrait of a man with a blue wig.

To create stunning high-key photography quickly and easily, you need to do just a couple of things. The first is to make sure you have a good, strong light source. The second is to manage your camera settings well.

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 Photography?

High-key photography is a style of photography that can cover many genres. It’s about using natural light or lighting equipment to create enough light to eliminate most shadows. It is used a lot in portrait photography, stock photography, and product photography.

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.

high key portrait photography.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

An ideal light source for high-key photography will be big and bright. The larger the size of the light in relation to your subject, the more effective it is as a key light. The brighter the light is, the easier it is to create a high-key photograph. The effectiveness of the light also depends on what camera settings you use. 

High-key photography is not only about the light. When you want to make a high key image, you must also set your exposure well. Post-processing also plays an important role in making a good high-key photo.

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.

portrait of a happy women.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

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 photography is not only about high-key lighting.

high key portrait.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Subject Choice and the High-Key Style

A high-key style of photography suits some subjects more than others. Your intention for what mood you want to create also has an influence.

Light-colored subjects on a light background are the easiest to use when doing high-key photography. Using a dark background can be problematic because it is more challenging to make it look bright. A dark background is more common with low-key photography.

High-key photography is popular for portraits. Set up a white background and a large bright light when you want to make a bright, breezy, and happy high-key style portrait.

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 photography from stock agencies. This type of photo can be anything from business team meetings, hospital scenes, or classroom settings. 

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 photography.

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.

flowers with white background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Exposure Choices for High-Key Lighting

Camera settings for good exposure are critical to high-key photography lighting. It is possible to compose an image with a high-key light and not end up with a high-key image. All you need to do is adjust your camera settings alternatively. 

underexposed rice field landscape.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

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 photography.

landscape photo of a rice field.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

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 photography does not need to contain blown-out highlights. 

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.

portrait with a dark background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan
portrait with a white background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

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 High-Key Photography

Post-processing is a very important aspect of high-key photography. As you saw in my examples above, even on a bright sunny day, it’s possible to create dark, moody images depending on exposure settings. 

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. 

For high-key photography editing, it’s most effective to reduce the contrast. This can be done in many different ways. I will often use the dodge and burn brushes to bring a balance and lower the contrast levels. The Levels and Tone Curve tools can also be helpful. 

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.

high key cake with strawberry.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

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 photography, I’ll use the burn tool, but not so often as this darkens areas it’s used on. 

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.

woman looking up.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

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 photography is no exception.

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 photography, the more successful your results will be.

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