High Key Photography

High Key Photography denotes an overabundance of brightness in an image. High key is also not 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 can easily be shot using natural light and in outdoor locations as well.

Am I correct in saying, as photographers, we're always looking for something new or different in order to grow your portfolio? There are also times when you want to capture your subject without a background due of the power that simplicity holds. Simple images take away the complexity, stress, and frustration of photography.

What does this mean?

  • It means you can make use of the simplest camera possible.
  • Reduce clutter and complexity from the frame and to make simple photos.
  • To make meaningful instead of 'clever' photos.
  • It means to not be a pretentious photographer.
  • And to conclude, it means to keep the photo-making process as simple as possible, in terms of technical settings  and/or post-processing.

High key photography is a technique that can help you achieve this. The concept of high key photography is easy but the execution can be tricky.

Before we start, lets answer a need to know question;

What Are High Key Images?

Its all about light and some more light. High key images are mostly bright, little to no shadows, with a fair amount of contrast which not only adds value but should also be what shows off the main subject in your frame.

When Is It Best To Shoot High Key?

Lets talk about light conditions using the image seen above, it was early morning and overcast with the light somewhat flat, yet still quite bright. Cloudy conditions are the most ideal time for high key photography as the light filtering through ends up illuminating everything in perfect, uniform light.

Creating a clean high key photograph on a bright sunny day is not entirely uncommon, just a little more difficult. This is due to direct bright light which casts unforgiving shadows. But, speaking of shadows...

High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

So as I mentioned, cloudy conditions are the most ideal time for high key photography but at the time of capturing this leopard image, this was not the case. I captured this image at about 10am on a very bright, clear, sunny day in Madikwe Game Reserve. How could I have achieved this result you may ask? Well, I now encourage you to not put your camera down when an animal retreats to a cooler, darker, shady patch to escape the heat of the day. Take full advantage of this!

Animals laying in the shade is another perfect opportunity to shoot high key. I say this because there is now softer, uniform light falling on the subject and the harsh light on the vegetation behind it which makes it ideal to intentionally wash out the background by over exposing, and because your subject is in the shade, you will be able to keep good detail/contrast on your subject. Notice how blowing out the background leads to a more simple, less messy looking image?

Now the image you will see below was also captured on a very bright, clear, sunny day in the Masai Mara but this animal was nowhere near shade. How did I do this without losing all the detail/contrast on the lions face? Well, do you remember what I said about clear sunny days? The direct bright light will cast unforgiving shadows. Now with the bright Mara sun behind this cat, it was thanks to these dark shadows falling on this lions face that allowed me to capture this moment in high key without overexposing most of his face. These moments are not easy to shoot as there is a risk of blowing out and losing details in areas (as seen above his left eye) on your subject but another ideal moment for high key photography is when the sun casts a very dark shadow on your subjects face.

High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

I was lucky with this lion image as light and more importantly, the shadows worked just right. I say this because; and this leads me into my last high key photography tip, choosing a high key subject is important. If high key photography is something you wish to try, be sure to choose subjects that are darker or that have darker markings on them because it is in these dark areas where you will retain your details when intentionally over exposing a lot.

High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

Let me quickly remind you of a common photography rule, or should I rather say, guideline in that highlights naturally draw our eye, so it would seem that blowing out large parts of our frame to nothing but white, would be a huge distraction from our subject.

Having now seen the examples above, this is why we say, photography has no rule but only guidelines. The large white areas, instead of becoming distracting highlights, become a benign background adding great vale to the points of contrast being your darker/detailed subjects.

Before I move on to some of the technicalities, I'd like to answer a question you might be thinking of? Are high key image results only possible in black and white?

Short answer... No.

High Key Photography | Wild Eye | Travel | Safari | Wildlife

The image above proves that you can shoot high key and keep them in colour. Take careful note of how dull these colours are though. This can definitely work to your advantage at times but because you intensionally overexpose a lot in order to create these images, your colours tend to be washed out too much for the most part. In saying this, remember there are no rules and so you should create and show off what you think looks beautiful.

High Key Photography Setup

High key is all about controlled over-exposure. Very frequently, in wildlife photography at least, you’ll be taking a bright overcast sky and blowing it out to a studio-like white by overexposing. What you’ll really be doing, is bringing everything else in your frame (your subject) into a perfect, or slightly bright, exposure. Here is my strategy for creating high key images in general, and high key wildlife photographs specifically.

Mode

Which mode you choose to shoot in is entirely up to you. I was shooting in aperture mode to create all the images you have seen in this blog. I use aperture mode for 98% of my work because when it comes to wildlife photography, the most important tool is to be able to control ones aperture. Aperture affects your depth of field and so this is important to do during 'high key shooting'.

Settings

Exact camera settings are impossible to provide because they will vary so much based on environmental conditions and your desired outcome for the image.

One thing which is pretty much standard is that because you are intentionally overexposing, therefore blowing out details in the background, a great depth of field is not needed. So a fast, wide open aperture will be where you would want to be at.

ISO will come down to what shutter speed reading your camera is giving you. Be sure that it is not too slow, the slower your shutter speed, the higher your risk of adding unwanted blur to your image. A general rule is that your shutter speed should always be at least 1/(your focal length), for example, if you are using a 4oomm lens, your minimum shutter speed should be at least 1/400. This will only eliminate YOUR camera movement/shake but a animals running will probably not be pin sharp. So try and ensure that your shutter speed is at around 1/1000.

Now, moving onto the most important tool when it comes to capturing high key images;

Exposure Compensation

How much you will need to overexpose depends on the background/surrounding areas, how much of your image you are trying to take into the “high-key” range and from where you are drawing your metering.

If you are using evaluative/matrix metering like I do while focusing on your subject, you may have to set your exposure compensation up quiet high. Usually, the brighter white/bright areas in your frame, the more you'll need to overexpose. It may take up to two - four or even more full stops over in order to brighten up your darker subject in the foreground enough to see details.

Now with all the above mentioned, high key photography is really all about experimentation and finding what works for you.

I do hope that now when the opportunities to use high key exposure occur, you’ll have a great way to cope with challenging lighting and create unique images.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and please feel free to leave any questions you may have in the comments below.

Until next time;

Michael

6 thoughts on “High Key Photography

  1. Andrew Beck

    says:

    Great blog Mike!

  2. Kathy Riggins

    says:

    Thanks, Mike… great notes on what I should do next time…

    • Michael Laubscher
      says:

      Hello Kathy

      Thank you for taking the time to read the blog. So glad it has helped you and cannot wait to see you put it to practice one day soon.

    • Michael Laubscher
      says:

      Thank you so much AB!

  3. Tracy Miller

    says:

    Another great blog post, thank you so much. I have some recent cheetah images to try this on as the sky was so white with cloud cover. Maybe next time I will shoot for it intentionally!

    • Michael Laubscher
      says:

      Hello Tracy

      Thank you so much for your kind words and for taking the time to read my blog.

      You’re most welcome, I am so glad to see that it has inspired you to try the technique out. Please do share your cheetah results with me, I’d love to see them. Yes, intentionally shooting like this helps a great deal as it will lessen the processing work tremendously.

      Good luck! Cannot wait to see the outcome.

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