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How High Key Photography Works: 3 Must Know Tips

Introduction: High Key Photography

High Key Photography denotes an overabundance of brightness in an image.

Whenever you see an image that seems to have a positive feeling about it, say an advertisement for a clinic or hospital, an image of a smiling baby, a bride on her wedding day wearing all white, you will invariably see an image that has been given the high-key treatment.

High-key isn’t centered on portrait imagery only. Neither does it necessarily have to be centered on the four walls and artificial lighting setup of a studio. High-key images have been shot using natural light and in outdoor locations as well.

It transgresses the boundary of portrait images and the technique has found its way into street photography, landscape, and other genres as well.

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1. Using Extra Lights

Now, high key photography will involve two major techniques, one of which will definitely be about using extra lights. Normally, when we make an exposure we look at the optimum amount of light required for a scene.

Our guide is either a hand-held meter or the built-in light meter of our camera, which tells us how much light is needed to get a proper exposure. In normal circumstances, we listen to what the light meter says.

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When giving a high-key treatment to our images, however, we need to disregard what the meter says and do what is needed for the image to come out as we had envisioned it.

The Floating Flower by Nick Coombe
The Floating Flower by Nick Coombe

High-key images will have very little if any at all, shadows. This is why you need as much light as you can get. Forget about using a black background for the subject.

You need to be able to illuminate every bit of the scene so that the meter reading always stays on the right of the scale. With a black background (or for that matter any dark colored background) this is never going to be easy.

There is a very interesting tip shared in this article about overexposing the background too much. Check this out as well.

The lights must be set up in a way so that there would be no shadows under the nose and the chin.

There should be no bags under the eyes either. You would need at least four lights to get the right look. These would include a key light, a fill light, a background light and another light fired from just below the camera and aimed directly at the subject.

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This light will eliminate the shadows under the chin and the nose.

Alternatively, you can also use a reflector or white foam core held just below the subject’s chest to throw back some light.

2. Using a Fast Lens

High Key Mini Me-1 - VoxEfx by Vox Efx
High Key Mini Me-1 – VoxEfx by Vox Efx

Additionally, you will need a lens that has a wide aperture. A wider aperture will accentuate the effect of the bright illumination by letting in more light than compared to what a kit lens would.

This also has the same effect of getting a brighter image. There is a very thin borderline between a high-key image and one that is washed out.

In the works of some photographers (one of them being Fan Ho), you will notice that the border has been transgressed at times. Primes lenses with fast wide apertures are preferred by portrait photographers for this reason. These lenses have wider apertures than zooms.

An excellent choice is a 50mm prime lens. These are available in f/1.8, f/1.4 and even f/1.2 versions and are thus at least one to two stops faster than standard kit lenses. They basically allow you to double the amount of light for the same shutter speed.

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3. Camera Settings for High Key Photography

With a fast wide aperture, you would probably be shooting at around the optimum aperture the lens is capable of. Keep your ISO at around 100 or anything lesser than the camera is capable of. The last thing is the shutter speed.

Set your shutter speed so that the image is overexposed by two to three stops. Start at two stops, take a few test shots, evaluate them and then take it from there. If you are shooting in aperture priorityuse exposure compensation to bump up the exposure, again by two to three stops.


  • Rajib is an avid travel photographer and an overall shutterbug. He loves to test and review new photography gear. He has been writing about cameras and lenses for over 10 years now. You can consider him as your "master guide" here at PhotoWorkout.

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