High key photography is a technique that produces images with a bright, airy, and almost ethereal quality, characterised by the absence of shadows and a predominantly white or light-coloured background. This style is often used in fashion, beauty, and product photography to create a clean and minimalist look.
The technique helps to enhance a sense of space, by blurring the colour and contrast between subject and background. Shadows are often absent, or very soft, due to the very diffused lighting produced by the effect. The look is well-suited for conveying a sense of beauty or innocence for the viewer, and it's a striking contrast to the dramatic and moody aesthetic of low key photography.
The key to high-key photography is to generally use a background lighter than your subject, and to still expose your image for your subject.
Lighting Hack: Get the high-key effect by shooting outdoors on a cloudy, overcast day. The clouds act as a natural diffuser for the sunlight and will enable you to expose your images for the effect without using artificial lighting or backgrounds! This technique is great for architectural photography.
To achieve high key photography, you will need:
- A camera (preferably a DSLR or mirrorless camera)
- A lens suitable for the desired composition
- A well-lit environment or studio
- A white or light-coloured backdrop
- Lighting equipment (such as strobes or continuous lights)
To create the soft and diffused lighting that suits the high-key effect so well, some higher-powered lights would be suitable, such as the CITI400 or CITI600 from our flash range, as well as some softboxes to help diffuse the the light spread.
You can also find some tips for shooting with white backgrounds in Barry Mountford's video here: How to Shoot Portraits Against White Backgrounds with Barry Mountford (6 mins)
It's also not unheard of to use a large softbox with diffuser behind your subject to create that white illuminated background look. Some great softboxes for this are:
The 120x180cm Easy Open Rectangular Softbox. When used with the supplied diffuser sheets, this softbox is great to use as a background and also adds a great hair/rim lighting effect behind your model.
The Large 170cm Octagonal Easy Open Softbox is another great option for this effect.
If you'd prefer to use a normal background rather than use a softbox, there are lots of options for this too! The 3x6m Telescopic Background Stand Set with White Muslin Backdrop is a great option for those with studios who will use similar setups regularly, while if you're on location regularly and need a background that's easy to transport and set up and down, our Black and White Collapsible Background Stand Kit or the 1.5x2m Roller Banner Stand are versatile and will work great for this effect.
Already got a grey background and don't want to purchase a new one? See our video for some tips on lighting a grey background to make it look white: How to Achieve 4 Looks with One Grey Background with Jason Vaughan (6 mins)
Setting Up the Shot
- Choose a well-lit location or set up a studio with ample natural or artificial light.
- Position your subject in front of a white or light-coloured backdrop.
- Ensure that the lighting is evenly distributed to avoid harsh shadows.
- Adjust the camera settings for proper exposure. Overexposing the image slightly can enhance the high key effect.
To position your lighting, it's always important to make sure your background is properly lit to avoid any shadows or dark areas. Using a strobe on a short Floor Stand behind your subject is a great way to keep the background bright and flat.
To make sure you are also achieving some contrast on your subject or model, it is also smart to have your lighting at a diagonal to them, so that you are creating some dimension by allowing the light to fall across any features and details rather than washing them out completely with lighting placed straight-on. See the above image from Jason Vaughan's YouTube video on the EssentialPhoto channel on portraiture.
Posing and Composition
When it comes to posing and composition in high key photography, simplicity is key. Here are some tips:
- Keep the composition clean and uncluttered.
- Encourage your subject to wear light-coloured clothing that complements the background.
- Experiment with different poses and angles to find the most flattering look.
Read Similar: Top Tips for Monochrome Photography
After capturing the high key photographs, you may need to do some post-processing to enhance the final result such as:
- Adjusting the exposure and brightness levels to achieve the desired effect.
- Increasing the contrast to make the subject or model stand out.
- Removing any distractions or imperfections in the background.
- Converting the image to black and white for a classic high key look if preferred.
High key photography is a beautiful and captivating style that can be achieved with the right equipment, lighting, and composition. By following the steps outlined in this blog post, you can create stunning high key images that evoke a sense of lightness and purity. So grab your camera, find a well-lit space, and start experimenting with high key photography today!