Dominant whites: How to shoot high-key photographs :: Digital Photo Secrets

Dominant whites: How to shoot high-key photographs

by David Peterson 0 comments

Earlier in the series, I briefly mentioned the terms “high-key” and “low key” in regards to lighting. Today we’re going to discuss in detail how to create the first of the two: a "high-key" image, which is basically just a highlight-heavy photo that is not also overexposed.

High-key light is extremely bright, often unnatural looking light that has the effect of eliminating hard, black shadows and replacing them with soft, pale shadow. Most of the tones in a high-key image are going to be on the highlights side of the histogram, with many whites and pale grays and very few blacks. That is not to say that there will never be black or shadow tones in a high-key image—a person in a high-key portrait, for example, should still have black pupils or risk looking a little strange. But the majority of tones in a high-key image are going to be on the brighter end of the spectrum.

Now I just used a word that might be new to you (or perhaps just strikes fear into your heart) and that word is "histogram." If you don't use post-processing or if you mainly ignore the histogram as it appears on your camera’s screen, now is the time for a little histogram 101.

The histogram is actually a fairly simple tool that you can use to evaluate your exposure. It looks like a bell curve, which you may remember from high school math, but there is no need to be afraid because it isn't difficult to read. That bell curve simply tells you how much of any given tone exists within your photograph. The tones on the left side of the histogram fall into the shadow side of the exposure, while the tones on the right side fall into the highlight side. A typical, well-exposed photograph will have a range of tones from black to white. It may look like a classic bell curve, or it may have peaks and valleys in between the blacks and whites. Either way it is still a good exposure as long as there is no “clipping” in the shadows or highlights. “Clipping” is when there's a loss of detail—on the histogram, the bell curve will be cut off on either end, rather than tapering gently to the bottom.

Now a high-key image histogram is going to look somewhat different. In a high-key image, the majority of tones are going to lean towards the right side of the photograph, and there may even be some of that clipping in the highlights, depending on whether or not there is a lot of white in the image. If you’re shooting something against a white backdrop, you may see clipping in the highlights even though there isn’t technically anything wrong with your photograph. So although it is important to understand how to read the histogram and to know how to spot clipping, you can use creative license in a high-key photograph as an excuse for losing some detail in the highlights. What’s important is that you still have that range of tones—depending on your subject you may not have any blacks or you may have only a few, but you’ll still see that gradual rise and fall of tones on the highlight side of the histogram.

    C by Flickr user jo vh

    Like the different lighting situations we discussed in the last lesson, high-key lighting can be used to create a mood. High-key light is typically upbeat and lighthearted. It can be used to set a humorous tone or to highlight beauty, and is often used for feminine subjects such as flowers and fashion. You'll see high-key lighting used in advertising as well—because a white background is clean (even sterile), it suggests class and quality, which are big selling points for just about any product on the market (even those that aren't particularly classy or high-quality).

    Of course, there is a fine line between creating a high-key image and creating an image that is just overexposed. An overexposed image is not necessarily a high-key image—it could just be, well, overexposed. So the trick is to include enough darker tones to complete the image without detracting from that high-key look. This could just be a small amount of black such as a shadow or the pupils of your subject’s eye. Now as I said, you don’t always have to have black in your high-key images—I’ve seen plenty of successful photos that don’t—but that small amount of black can mean the difference between a high-key exposure and an overexposure.

    Orchid High Key by Flickr user kayugee

    For that reason, high-key photos are not always created entirely in-camera. Studio photographers do have elaborate high-key lighting setups that often include up to four different lighting units. If you have a studio lighting set, you can achieve high-key light with a key light, a fill light, two background lights and a white backdrop. For the best effect, your key light should be roughly two times the brightness of the fill light, and the background lights should be positioned between three and five feet from the background at 45 degree angles. Because you want the background to blow out, the lights will need to be at least a stop brighter than the lights you use on your subject.

    Your subject can be almost anything, but the most successful high-key shots tend to feature subjects that are themselves a high-key tone—human subjects should wear light or white colors, for example, and consider featuring lighter colored objects such as pale flowers.

    What if you don’t have studio lighting equipment? You can still create high-key images outdoors with natural light, but you do need to have an understanding of the right type of light to achieve this affect. And overcast day is going to give you very good conditions for high-key images because the light is softer and diffused, so you won’t get those very black shadows that you tend to get on a sunny day. Ideally, you want to choose a day with pretty light cloud cover rather than a very dark day, because remember that you’re going for brighter tones, not gloomy tones. And you also need a reflector.

    If you don’t own a reflector, they’re relatively inexpensive and usually sold along with a package of similar tools like diffusers and black flags. For high-key images, you’ll want to use the silver reflector (tip, if you don’t want to buy one they can be easily made from a piece of cardboard and a sheet of aluminum foil). You’ll use your reflector to bounce light into the shadows, so that you don’t end up with an excess of those natural blacks that you might otherwise get in an ordinary exposure.

    Pay close attention to your background—you can’t get a high-key photograph against a dark background so look for areas where there are lots of whites and light gray tones. A snowy day is going to be perfect for this, since you’ll have an abundance of white background pretty much anywhere you go. But you can also use a light-colored building or even dry grass, which tends to be a pale-yellow color.

    • Canon EOS 1000D
    • 100
    • f/6.3
    • 0.01 sec (1/100)
    • 21 mm

    Winter Wonderland by Flickr user Chez Eskay

    Switch over to spot metering for these images—with spot metering, your camera meters only a small area in the middle of the viewfinder, which allows you to have precise control over where the tones will fall on your histogram. Switch to manual mode, place the spot over your background and dial in the settings recommended by your meter. Now add exposure compensation of between +1 and +2 (try both if you’re not sure). You may even need to use a +3 exposure compensation to get that intense high-key effect. Make sure you look at the image on your camera’s screen so you’ll know how close you are to getting to the results you want.

    Even a properly-executed high-key image could use a little post-processing, so when you're done shooting open your images up on your computer and then use the levels tool to view your histogram. Remember what we've already discussed about histograms—the highlights are on the right and the shadows are on the left. A high-key histogram typically looks something like this:

    Snow histogram

    Notice how the chart is skewed to the right, but there are still some pixels on the left side. That means that we've still got some dark tones and shadows in the image, but the predominant tones are whites and light grays.

    Now let's say the pixels drop off well before the shadow side—you might want to add a few blacks, so move the left slider to the right until it's under the point on the histogram where those pixels start to appear. What you're doing is darkening up the middle grays until they become black, which will make your image look less flat and less overexposed. You can play with the other two sliders, too—your goal is to create an image that has only a few blacks and middle grays, mostly whites and light grays and no glaring hot-spots in important places (an all-white background is acceptable, but not all-white glare on someone's forehead).

    • Canon EOS 70D
    • 100
    • f/10.0
    • 0.6
    • 21 mm

    Alone In The Lake by Flickr user Cat Burton


    High-key photographs are a little trickier to master than photos shot under some of the other lighting situations we've been discussing in this series, but it really is worth giving this technique a try, if only to help you understand and appreciate the ways in which shadow and highlight come together to create a unique and interesting photo even in a high-key lighting situation. Careful attention to your histogram and to the success or failure of the high-key images you create will help you learn a lot about light and shadow, and you can then apply those lessons to your other photographs as well.

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