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What is High Key Photography What is High Key Lighting and How to Achieve High Key Effect In Camera

high key photography
Photo by: Boudewijn Berends

High key photography was first used by fashion photographers of the early 60’s; they discovered that combining the soft glamour lighting with a little bit of overexposure when shooting on a white background renders a very interesting look to their photographs, smoothing out skin tones and making their models look skinny. The technique also helped them make their work stand out from everything else that was prevalent at that time.

Another take on the advent of high key photography is that High key methods were originally developed as a solution to deal with monitors that only had limited capabilities to reproduce high contrast ratios, but the technique soon developed into more of a stylistic choice.

What is High Key Photography?

High key photography is photography using high key lighting which results in a photo with the majority of image data recorded in bright tones.  The picture will have very low contrast range with almost no dark/shadow areas. A histogram of a high key image will look like the following.

High key photography is perfect for subjects that are funny, lighthearted or beautiful. A high key image usually conveys a positive or upbeat tone and is used regularly for model photography, flowers and other subjects that are feminine in nature. Another area perfect for high key is product photography the reason is that psychologically, a product shown on white tends to suggest that it is high quality or upscale in nature.

How to Achieve High Key Lighting

high  key lighting
Photo by: Russ Robinson

When digital photography became popular many people were confused regarding what is a high key image, they were led to believe that any image with a white background or where the subject’s skin is overexposed is a high key image. But nothing can be farther from the truth; in reality a high key image is one where the subject is lit fairly flat without any deep shadows. It is common practice that background and any props used and the clothing of the subject be some light color preferably pastel or white and not some dark shades. This combined with the flat lighting will help reduce contrast and the resulting image will have majority of tones well above 128 without overexposing the skin.

Why is it called High Key Photography?

high key photography tips
Photo by: Katinka Bille Lindahl

In photography we refer to the mid tones as key tones, and we achieve high key effect by placing these key tones high on the exposure scale thus making them lighter/brighter. So high key photography means the image’s key tones are high.

Now let us take a look at what really happens when we drag our key/mid tones higher.

When the key/mid tones are placed higher in the exposure scale it affects the image in two ways. Firstly the highlights (brightest areas of an image) will get even brighter and if one is not careful could easily clip and secondly shadows or dark tones are dragged up and they become much brighter, so the shadow details now effectively becomes the mid tone detail. The real secret behind successful high key photography is in the precise control of these dark tones.

How to achieve High Key Effect in Camera

high key photography tutorial
Photo by: Massimo Regonati

A high key effect could be simulated in post processing by controlling highlights and shadows (which we increase exposure and at the same time brighten the shadows), but it causes loss of image data and the results are not very impressive. High key effect is best achieved in camera; it produces natural tones which appear more convincing. Now let us take a look at the different aspects of high key photography.

High Key is Not Over Exposure

high key photography outdoors
Photo by: Daniel Zedda

Over exposing a scene would not give you a high key image, doing that will only blow out highlight details and brighten the shadows a bit. You will be able to make the former shadow tones to mid tones, but you cannot make them high tones as this will cause most of the highlight areas to clip completely.

High Key is Not Only High Contrast

high key photography camera settings
Photo by: Dima Bushkov

High contrast images in which mid tones are mapped to white are not high key (adjusting levels using the black and white sliders), it is just a high contrast image.

Real High Key Photography

high key photography examples
Photo by: Tor Kristensen

Achieving high key effect is easier if you have light coloured background, props, clothes etc. Light your subject/scene using a generous quantity of light which will help you avoid deep shadows, the light scene will reflect a lot of light and thus help lighten/eliminate shadows.

When working with way too much light one should concentrate more on the overall shape and forms rather than texture and detail. Your photography style should adapt to the flat lighting, remember in such lighting saturation is decreased. The colours go paler as you increase your exposure so exposure is critical, you will need to expose you shot to the right, how much is actually determined by the subject/scene at hand and your personal taste, but it’s always a good idea to bracket your shots so you have plenty of options to choose from and need not do any manipulation of levels, curves, hue/saturation etc in post.
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