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high key header

One of our subscribers has asked for tips on making high-key images in the camera, rather than in post-processing – which is what most people do. Thank you, Elliétte, for the question. She went on to remark that she prefers to obtain an effect in-camera rather than in post, as it gives her more time to photograph. Grease to your elbow, Elliétte! I couldn’t agree more. In my perfect world, every image we capture would not need an ounce of post-processing: they come straight out the camera ready-to-eat, no cooking or preparation required.

As it happens, high-key is actually best obtained in-camera, rather than done in post-processing. The results are more convincing and tones more natural. In this post, we’ll learn why. But first, of course, what is high-key?

The highs and lows

Everything you need to know about High-key photography is actually locked up in the name. It means that the image’s key tone is high. Right; that’s it. Lesson over. Let’s go lie on the beach until sun-down.

But before we go, let’s unpick that in more detail. Key tones are usually the mid-tones, so by placing them high, meaning high on the exposure scale, we are making them lighter/brighter. This has two crucial side-effects. If mid-tones are bright, then the high-tones – those which are usually nearly white – will be even whiter. Well, tones can’t be whiter than white in digital photography (though they can in video) so these super-white tones are clipped down to keep them to white. At the other extreme, areas that normally register with dark tones are dragged up the brightness scale so that they become much brighter. The key to high-key photography is actually in the control of these dark tones: essentially we don’t want them.

Not only over-exposure

Now, you may start to suspect that high key images are not just about over-exposure, and you’d be right. Is this image high-key?

over exposed photo

No; it’s not: while what were the key tones are indeed high, there is still a lot of mid-tone detail around the hair and in the hair-piece. What we have done is to raise what were once the shadow tones to mid-tones, making them the new key tones. So the key tones in this image are not high, although the former key tones are lighter.

as shot
over levelled

Compare these two: as shot and with an attempt at post-processed high-key in which we increase exposure and at the same time brighten the shadows. Personally, I don’t find this convincing at all: I call this kind of image ‘over-levelled’.

This shows that high-key is about lighting as well as exposure. It also shows why it’s best (and easiest) to obtain high-key results in-camera than by image manipulation: if you light well, the shadow tones won’t give you a problem.

And not only high-contrast, either

Some people think that high-contrast images, in which mid-tones are mapped to white, are high-key.

high contrast example

I beg to differ: that is simply a high-contrast image: it’s the result of an average image changed by Levels with the black and the white sliders brought towards the centre to increase contrast, and the middle slider dragged far to the left to increase exposure.

One flat white, please

The key to successful high-key work is working with flat and generous lighting while avoiding the use of dark clothes, trimmings or props. This all helps you avoid deep shadows and dark tones. At the same time, the lighting forces you to work in a way to suit the light (there’s a lesson there): with flat lighting you work with overall shapes and large forms, rather than fiddle about with texture and fine detail. The way you photograph should adapts to the lighting you use.

flat lighting

Now, this is what I call flat lighting. I was setting the stage for a simple fashion shoot, taking over the friend’s bathroom. There are untidy details here, but they don’t bother us; as we’ll see, the model will block them. The key is that I used one flash to reflect off a white door covered in glittery material: this turns the door into one huge and soft light-source, but the glitter puts a bit of life into the light. At the same time, I also gave front-on illumination from a small ring-flash (a special flash whose flash-tube is arranged in a dough-nut shape, with the lens poking through the hole).


By the way, if you are thinking of getting a ring-flash you’ll find they’re either large and really expensive studio units or small units designed for macrophotography (and still expensive). Solution? Look out for the soon-to-come Orbis: a handy ring-flash that you clip onto your existing flash-unit and turns it instantly into an efficient ring-flash. I’ve been shown the prototype and it’s sure to be a winner; it goes on sale in September. Check out (which goes live in July) or google the ‘Orbis’ from September.

Real high key

Another effect of increasing exposure and the flat lighting is that saturation is decreased: colours go pale as exposure is increased. All this means that you need take care with exposure for best results. Experiment to match your taste, but you’ll need to over-expose by at least one stop, more like two and even three stops: exposure control is the key, so give yourself lots to choose from when shooting. You can try bracketing with +1, +2 and +3 stops. This way, you don’t need to open the image in image manipulation software and struggle with Levels, Curves, Hue/Saturation or what not. Just shoot and smack your lips in enjoyment! This shot is the favourite of everyone on the shoot: designer, stylist, model, and assistant!

high key final example


High-key work is a rather modern development in photography. I can’t find mention of it in my ‘Encyclopaedia of Photography’ published around 60 years ago but in another reference book, of 1969, there is a full entry. It could be seen as a reaction against the pictorialist ideal that demanded a full range of tones – from black to white and all grays in between – in all prints. I think high-key photography first made regular appearances in the 1960’s. Fashion photographers making regular use of white backgrounds discovered that soft or glamour light combined with over-exposure was a splendid way to smooth out skin tones, make models look skinny and, of course, draw a bright line between their modern way of photography and the dark, dusty ways of the past.

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