A Definitive Guide to High Key Photography


At times you just want to capture your subject without a background. This is necessary when you have a brief, and you need the image for use on a white page. High key photography is the right technique to master for this. Although the concept of high key photography may seem easy, the execution tends to be the trickiest part.

Read this article to know what high key photography involves and how to achieve a high key image. This type of photography is a great style for beginner photographers who need to push past the basics.

What Is High Key Photography?

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This style of photography involves unusually bright lighting to blow out any harsh shadows on a subject. High key photography was initially developed to be used for high contrast ratios on screens for better display.

Nowadays, it is mainly used to convey an upbeat tone for a beautiful, lighthearted, or funny subject. Advertisers prefer high key images to present their products. The bright nature of the image may be used to capture attention-grabbing contrast, suggesting that it's high-quality. Comedians may also use the white background in their set up as it offers the desired atmosphere.

High key images produce a pleasant outcome with little drama compared to using low key lighting. Shooting with lots of light can transform a dull scene into a happier one.

Lighting equipment for high key photography

High key photography indoors is not easy without the right equipment. To achieve that studio white background look, you need to have some studio lighting, which does not come cheap. Read below to know the camera and lighting equipment you need to achieve high key images,

Digital camera – Needless to say, a basic DSLR digital camera is a must-have for this type of photography. It should allow you to take the shoots under a wide range of lighting conditions.

Strobes – also, you need to invest in powerful studio strobes for high key images. These act as the main source of lighting where you augment with extra lights. These are useful when taking a high key portrait of products and other stuff.

Fill light – you’ll need to have adequate fill light to avoid having shadows on your subject. The position of the fill light also plays a key role when getting the right lighting ratio. Put the lights on the opposite side to the key light when shooting low contrast high key images.

Softbox – When you can’t afford enough strobes, you can use a softbox to add more light. Although they emit a low volume of light compared to strobes, they reduce the shadow areas similarly to strobes.

Background lights – need more light on your subject? Background lights can add unnaturally high amounts of light on your subject.

White background – a white background acts as the ideal backdrop in high key photography. The white helps to bounce back natural and artificial light on your subject and decreases the contrast for the perfect high key look. However, you need to watch out whether the backdrop causes strange halos around your subject while ensuring you get a fairly solid white.

What Camera Settings to Use

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Now that you have the right equipment, the next step is to have a good sense of what camera settings to use for high key images.

Note that there’s no formula for getting the right settings, so you need to test and see what works best for you. Check out the baseline settings for high key photography below to know how you can play around to achieve the best results.

Exposure: Setting the shutter speed can determine how exposed your image will be. Use overexposure to make your photo appear lit and get the high key look.

Aperture: When shooting to achieve this effect, use a fast, wide aperture.

ISO: It's recommended to use the lowest ISO your camera can provide. You could start at around 100.

Exposure Compensation: When using aperture priority, ensure to ramp up your exposure compensation by two or three stops.

Tips on How to Shoot High Key Photography

Young Beautiful Model Posing in Professionally

At this point, you have the right equipment and are aware of the baseline camera settings for high key photography. Although it may come with practice, you can learn a few tips to get you started on developing your own style. Here are a few of them.

  • Spread the light

The more you spread the light, the better your high key photos will look. The goal is to ensure maximum coverage of your subject using the large light sources.

Using a smaller light source produces harder-edged shadow as a result of a harsher light. Using a large light source ensures more light spread and softer shadows. If you use a small light source like a flash, it’s best if you add a diffuser to soften the shadows.

Adding a photographic umbrella or softbox will also provide an instant impact on the spread over your subject. Avoid adding any diffusion to the light, as this will reduce the lighting over your subject. The more powerful the lights, the better the spread.

  • Use shadows

You can influence the mood of a photograph by balancing light and shade. A photograph that conveys dark shadows will have a very different feeling to photos shot using high key lighting.

When setting up your photo with the main light, watch where the shadows are falling and place your secondary light or reflectors on the opposite to fill the shadows.

  • Editing and post-processing

The process of editing your images is a crucial part of high key photography. While you are trying to expose your subjects with an abundance of light during shoots, the post-processing and editing allow you to tone down the lighting to show any hidden details in your images.


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To wrap up, high key images should create a bright environment without harsh shadows. It should convey a funny, upbeat, and beautiful subjects or communicate a number of moods and concepts.

If you intend to shoot high key images indoors, you need to have studio lighting and a few flashes on the subject and the backdrop. Also, optimize your camera settings to let in lots of light to brighten the scene without blowing out the subject.

Posted in: Photography for beginners