What is high key photography, and how to master it

I mentioned high key photography last week in the tutorial on how to read a histogram, so now feels like a great time to talk about what is high key photography and how to achieve a high key image.

What is high key photography?

I’ll start by saying that high key photography is not overexposed everything. Just because a photo is bright to achieve the “light and airy” look, doesn’t mean that it’s a high key image. It might just be an overexposed image.

  • High key photographs have minimal tonal range
  • They lack deep contrast caused by harsh shadows
  • The overall color palette is light

high key photograph with studio lights

The object of high key photography is to convey a happy, positive vibe and the lack of tonal contrast lends itself to the upbeat vibe. 

While the colors in a high key photo are generally light, they don’t have to be white. The background doesn’t have to be white either. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t have any dark colors in a high key image, only that most of the image will be light colors for a limited dynamic range.

On the other hand, low key photos are contrast rich. The deep shadows, stark contrast between light and dark, as well as the dark colors all work to create a moody and dramatic atmosphere.

It’s worth noting that images aren’t always either high key or low key. There’s a full range of mid key photography between these two opposites. 


What subject matter suits high key photography?

If you can think of a happy, vibrant, energetic subject, then it’s well suited to high key photography. Some examples are:

  • Family photography
  • Health and wellness
  • Product photography

Of course, there are a lot more examples, but let’s take a closer look at these three.

1. Family photography

Family photography is the first thing that springs to mind for high key photos. Happy images of families having fun together in the sunshine, or in a light and bright studio.

Sometimes with a completely white background, but not always.

2. Health and wellness

Anything that promotes health and wellness is suited to high key photography, because the feeling of lightness immediately lends a sense of wellness to the image.

It feels like summer, and summer feels healthy and good.

3. Product photography

Some product photography works well with a high key set up, but not all. If your product is an upbeat product, such as yoga clothing or children’s toys, then high key is great.

For moody, dramatic or mellow products, like red wine, a low key photography style would be better suited.

How do you shoot high key photography?

So, earlier when I said that a high key photograph isn’t overexposed everything, the operative word was everything.

Very often, but not always, in high key photography we overexpose the background, sometimes even blow it out. The subject, however, should be accurately exposed, even if it’s a bit to the right of the histogram.

An underexposed person in a high key portrait can look quite unwell.

The trick to a successful high key photo is managing the balance between the light on the background and the light on the subject

Three lighting scenarios for a high key photo

You can create a high key photo anywhere that has a big enough light source for your subject. Let’s look at three completely different lighting scenarios for high key photography:

  • Natural light outside
  • Natural light inside
  • Studio lighting

1. Natural light outside

If you’re photographing outdoors with natural light only, using a reflector works wonders to bounce light back into your subject for high key photography. This is for two reasons:

  • To reduce shadows on your subject
  • And so that you don’t have to completely blow out the background to get your subject bright enough. This is particularly the case if your subject is backlit.

Pay attention to the background and and make sure it’s light in color. To avoid harsh shadows on your subject, shoot in open shade.

Because on overcast days the light is very soft and there are hardly any shadows, cloudy day photoshoots are perfect for high key photography!

Natural light high key image of boy outdoors

2. Natural light indoors

You don’t need to be outside to create a high key photo with natural light. Photographing indoors is ideally suited to it, because your windows make great high key backgrounds!

Here’s how:

  • Set your exposure for your subject.
  • As the light is coming from behind your subject, the background will automatically be overexposed to the point of being blown out.
  • Using a reflector will help to bounce some light back into your subject to create catchlights.

Another tip – avoid windows with direct sunlight pouring in, because the light will be too bright. Any direct light that falls onto your subject will overexpose the edges of the subject.


Natural light high key image indoors

3. In the studio

For high key photography in a studio:

  • Use a light colored background
  • Light the background separately from your subject
  • Set your background light/s 1 to 2 stops brighter than the key light on your subject

Depending on your light modifier (softbox, beauty dish or umbrella) and how close it is to your subject, or subjects, you may also need a fill light to lighten the shadows and so reduce contrast on your subject. If this is the case, the fill light needs to be a half to 1 stop below your key light.

Diffusing the light will make it softer, which ultimately makes the shadows softer.

As an aside…

I know some photographers set up their lighting by trial and error – they take test shots and see what it looks like as they build up the lighting set up. This is too vague and fiddly for me, so I’ve always used a light meter for a quick set up that doesn’t require my subject to sit/stand in position and wait for me to be ready.

It also ensures an accurate lighting ratio.

How to shoot high key photos

Quick technique tip for high key photography

With all that light bouncing around in front of your lens, it’s better not to shoot wide open, otherwise your images could become cloudy. I wouldn’t go wider than f4.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about high key photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my high key photography tips have helped you to understand how to create a high key photo, share that too.

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