High key images use highlighting to eliminate shadows and dark tones. These images are appropriate for upbeat photos. You can use this method when photographing any subject, but the results depend on the composition and the way you want the viewer to perceive the photograph. 

What Makes an Image High Key?

High key photos are any photos that use minimal colors and shadows. You can utilize this technique with any picture. However, this technique is best for images that you want to appear light and airy. 

Characteristics of High Key Photos

There are several methods for taking high-key photography. However, there are a few things that typify a high-key photo. Below is a list of some of the characteristics that make a photo high-key: 

  • The photo features highlighting that eliminates or dramatically reduces the appearance of shadows.
  • The colors in the photograph are predominately on the lighter side or the right side of a photography histogram.
  • The feel of the photo is lighthearted, airy, or upbeat. 
  • The photo features a light-colored backdrop that does not have high contrast to the image heavily or at all.  

Two Simple Ways to Create High Key Images: Use Natural Light or Use Continuous Electric Lights

You can use natural light or continuous light to create your images. However, both approaches will require some photo editing after you shoot your subject. The only difference between the two methods is that you will need to do less editing if you use continuous electric lighting because it allows you to control the light better. 

Managing Your Tone Range in High Key Photos

You can manage the range of tones in your high key photography by draping the subject with a light-colored sheet. You can also place a light-colored sheet under the subject. For a light background, you can use a muslin cloth for a white background that allows light to flow through while eliminating any dark tones behind the subject. 

woman in blue stripped dress against white background

Use Shadows Carefully Around Your High-Key Image

You want to eliminate shadows if you are shooting a high-key image mostly. If you do have any shadows in your image, you want them to be around your image. You want the subject to be shadow-free. You can achieve this effect by placing the highest lighting on your subject. Then you want to direct lighting toward any shadows to reduce or eliminate them effectively. 

Tips for Controlling Continuous Light Ratio

You can control the continuous light ratio with several techniques when you are taking photographs. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, and no one method is going to work for every high key image. So, you might need to try several before you decide which is the best. 

Continuous Electric Lights Offers the Most Control

Using continuous electric lights gives you the ability to control the most control over the lighting on your subject. The only problem with this method is that you either have to be in a studio, or you have to have access to a power source. 

Using a Flash in High Light Environments

A flash is an excellent way to light the front of your subject. However, you can not get the desired effect only by using a flash. You have to have some light from the back of the subject to eliminate shadows.

Many people think you do not need a flash if you are in high light. Yet, you should try taking your photos with and without the flash.  

Selecting the Best Light Setup for Your High Key Images

Finding the correct light setup to achieve the best image takes some trial and error. Great photographers will set up their lights and then take one photo to see what the lighting appears in the picture. After they know what effect they can achieve, they will try different high key light configurations to achieve the results they want. 

woman in pink dress posed against pink backdrop

Distribute Your Light for Better Results

When you are using the high key photography method, merely using a bright flash or forward-facing light is not sufficient. You need to fill the light behind the subject as well as project light from the front. 

Tips for Keeping Your Images Looking Natural

Making your high key photos look natural is often more difficult than low key photography. However, achieve it if you take some time. The result is well worth your effort, even if you are just able to capture one incredible image. 

Fill in You Light from the Front and Back

Filling in the lighting in the background with background lighting as well as using filling in light from the front gives you a more natural look. 

Utilize Natural Lighting from Windows

To use window lighting, you need to make sure that the sun is shining brightly into the space behind your subject. You also need to use lighting from the front that is comparable to the light behind your subject. 

Fast Lenses Let More Light In

You can use a Prime Lens. The maximum aperture of f/1.8 is perfect for your high key image because it allows more light into your shot. These lenses are faster than a standard lens, and they have more stops, which help to give you an overexposed look. 

Working with Landscape in High Key Photography

When you are taking landscape photos, it can be more challenging to capture a high key image. You will want to use a lens that is faster than your typical lens. You also need to shoot on the correct day. 

You want your background to be nearly white, and you need the sun to be bright. So, it is best to take these photos when the sun is high in the sky and to eliminate many shadows naturally. Then you can use faster lenses and adjust your settings to capture the perfect image. 

Know How to Use Your Camera Settings for High Key Photography

If you do not have a variety of lenses or if you lack the lights to get a high key look, you can use your camera settings. Try adjusting your ISO, aperture, and increase your shutter speed. By increasing the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, you will allow more light into the shot. 

Eliminate Shadows During Post-Production

With high key photography, as long as you get a lot of the light out of the shot, you will be able to eliminate the remaining unwanted shadows post-production. You can also change the background in many photo editing programs. So, if you take the photo with a darker background, you can make that change to achieve a high key image. 

In addition to creating a light background, you will want to adjust the brightness and exposure to create more light in the image. To achieve great images, you do not want to change the contrast much, because it will either create excessive tones or it will make your subject look muted.

You want to keep the focus of your image clear while eliminating dark tones. You do not want your subject to look washed out because that makes the tone of the image muted. 

woman in yellow jacket posing against white background

Is High Key Lighting Important?

Using high key lighting gives your image a unique look. These photos are perfect for creating a happy feeling when the viewer sees the image. If you want to convey a sense of joy, high key lighting is typically the best way to do that. 

Capturing a High Key Portrait in Your Studio

Knowing how to take a high key portrait is crucial if you are a professional photographer. It is a technique you will want to use for images that feature brides, babies, and other joyful subjects. Capturing a few images gives your customer a variety of photos to choose the best one. So, it is always a good idea to take a few of these unique images in your session. 

1. Keep Your Background Lit

Ideally, you will want to light the background of your image on both sides and possibly even from the back. Placing lights behind and your subject eliminates the shadows behind them. 

2. Place Your Key Light in Front

You should set the key light in front of your subject. The key light will illuminate the subject, making them look bright and lighthearted. 

3. Move the Fill Light to Prevent Shadows

Place the fill light to remove any new shadows after you set your background lights and key light. You can move the fill light to reduce any additional shadows in the image. 

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Adjustments as You Go

Once you place your lights, take a few photos adjusting your lenses, aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. If you are still unable to capture the image you desire, try changing your light setup. You may need to make adjustments throughout your session.

It is also a good idea to practice your process for creating images before doing a shoot. Develop a process for taking photos that you use regularly. Then, adjust the procedure for portraits. Be sure to save your settings so you can recreate your work. Once you develop a method that works for you, it will become a lot easier for you to recreate high-quality images again and again. 

woman holding knees while sitting

High Key Photography DIY Tips

You do not have to be a professional or have expensive lighting equipment to capture beautiful images. You can take one in your home or even outdoors with some simple DIY tips. These photos will make your work appear professional because this is a technique that produces visually stunning images. 

Simple Steps for Taking High Key Images on Your iPhone

If you have an iPhone 7 Plus or newer with iOS 13, there is a portrait feature in your camera app. When you select the portrait option, you then have a few selections, including lighting. If you select mono lighting, you should be able to take fairly decent high light images. 

If you take the photo with ample background light, you should be able to remove any existing unwanted shadows or dark tones post-production with the options in your phone’s photo editing options. Try adjusting the exposure and brightness until you achieve the perfect photo. 

Capturing an Image with One Light

If you only have one light, you can still take images. You will want to use a light background. Then, you will need to play with the lighting setup to see the best way to get the desired effect. Often, using a muslin cloth backdrop placed in front of a window or glass door can help you let more light into your shot while placing the subject in front of a light background. 

Take Advantage of All Light Sources

You can use multiple types of light source within your home to capture high key photography. For example, on a sunny day, you can use a window in your living room as the background light. Then, use a lamp with the shade pointed toward your subject as the key light and the overhead light in your living room for the fill light. 

photography studio lighting

The Art of a High Key Selfie

You can even make images of yourself. If you want to capture a photo of yourself, you need to use a light source in your background. This is where a window, glass door, or a light background come into play as a light source. You can use this light source with your phone or camera to create high key photography of yourself.

Editing is Part of the Process

Editing photos is a key part of photography. So, do not expect to get the perfect shot without doing any photo editing. You do not have to be a professional to edit your photos. You can alter your images after you take them in a program like Photoshop. Or, you can use a free photo editing program like GIMP that gives you all the tools you need to produce high-quality, high light, and low light photos. 

High Key Photography Ideas and Samples

There are many situations where you might want to take these photos. High light images eliminate to make your subject the center of attention. They also draw the viewer’s eye directly to the subject. So, here are some ideas for when you might want to take an image: 

  • Product photos
  • Birth announcements
  • Bridal photography
  • Airy landscape photos
  • Nature shots
  • Flowers 
  • Daylight outdoor images

You can find sample photos on popular social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. These sights give you plenty of examples and ideas. Just be careful using these hi-key photos on your website or marketing materials because many of them are rights reserved. However, by practicing these shots yourself, you master high key photography and be able to utilize these images yourself.