With its origin in the early days of film, high-key lighting is mainly a technique to reduce contrast to suit the limited abilities of movie cameras. Modern photographers have tried to define high-key imagery as something separate from high-key lighting, something more creative and artistic, and more specifically as a “mood” or “look and feel” of an image. My research has lead me to quite a few of these definitions and writings, often confusing and conflicting, creating the necessity to first clarify some of the related jargon. (This blog is an attempt to clear up some of the confusion, by simplifying some of the technicalities. It is aimed at lovers of light and photography and not the techno junkies or lighting purists).
There is a distinction between high-key lighting and high-key images
There is a distinction between high-key lighting and high-key images. In photography, the “key” of an image is the overall tendency of its tone scheme towards brightness or darkness. When the key is bright, the image is high-key, and when it is dark, the image is low-key. In relation to lighting on the other hand, the terminology ” high-key” or “low-key” is a reference to the key light, which is the first and usually most important light that a photographer, will use in a lighting setup. The purpose of the key light is to highlight the form and dimension of the subject. It will hopefully become apparent from the following explanation, that the effect of high-key lighting is not necessarily a high-key image, and that the effect of low-key lighting is something altogether different from a low-key image.
The term “contrast” is closely related and refers to the difference in tone in your picture. Specifically the difference between the brightest tones in the pictures (called highlights) to the darkest tones (called shadows). A high contrast image typically has bright highlights and dark shadows and the transition between the two is often harsh.
High-key images – ethereal, delicate and dream-like
When looking at a high-key image you will notice firstly, that the image is bright in tone, secondly, that the image lacks contrast and thirdly, that it lacks shadows. But, this is also the origin of a few common misconceptions about high-key images. The misconception is that a high-key image does not need to have a true black. High-key images can and often do have very small amounts of black. These, together with some mid tones, will prevent the image from looking washed out and can mean the difference between a high-key image and one that is just clearly overexposed, refuting the second misconception that high-key images are simply over exposed images.
“High key” simply means that the vast majority of tones in the image are above middle grey, including any shadows and there is usually detail in even the brightest areas. High key images are ethereal, delicate and dream-like.
High-key lighting – light, happy, upbeat and energetic
High-key lighting presents a brightly lit scene with few shadow areas. High-key lighting is cheery, upbeat and energetic and creates a light and happy atmosphere. A basic studio lighting set up for high-key photography consists of a key light and a fill light, with your key light twice the brightness of the fill. This is high-key lighting, but does not necessarily result in a high-key image. (Remember…high-key image = bright and light in tonality.)
For a blown-out background light it independently. These background lights should be at least one stop brighter than your subject lighting. This will result in the blown-out background that you’re looking for in a high-key image.
If your intention is to make a high key image, the basic principle is to increase the size of the light source on the subject….the bigger the light source, the softer the light i.e low contrast, few shadows… And add a well lit, bright background.
High-key images can also be created in natural light.
Overcast days, with their characteristic flat light are great for this type of photography although you might also have to fill in the shadows with a reflector. The background might be tricky…..choose a simple background that is free from dark tones and shadows. Meter for your background and overexpose…..as for how much…experiment until you get the desired effect.