High key photography is a technique that uses a lot of light to create a specific upbeat and positive mood in the image. Originally it was used in the film and television industry. Early screens couldn’t display high contrast ratios, so extra light was used to decrease the contrast. As for the name, it comes from a traditional three-point lighting set-up. Key light, fill light and backlight make this standard set-up.

A high key photography image is very bright with a little or no shadows at all. A basic goal of this technique is to show a subject in front of the bright, white background. The subject should have very little or no shadows as well. That way you create a light positive feel in the image. It is an excellent choice for family portraits, babies, flowers and so on. While the concept is quite simple, it is not so easy to execute it properly.

Let There Be Light

“Photography has always been about capturing light.” – Om Malik

In order to get a nice high key image three things are essential: light, light, and light. Of course, you can say that for any kind of photography. But, for high-key images, you don’t use shadows, while contrast is as soft as it gets. So, you just need a lot of light. However, the light is not easy to control. It can disperse, or it can spill where you don’t want it. Too much light will make your image look washed out. So, the light is crucial, but it is not the first thing to do.

Photo Aspects 
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Background Settings Tips

For a good high key photo, the background is a possible distraction. Your focus should be on the subject. The easiest way to achieve this is by shooting in a studio. That way you can control the light and everything else. Seamless white backdrop is a perfect background. Most of the photographers use large paper rolls. A white sheet can do as well, just make sure it is tight and without wrinkles.

The background should be lit as bright as possible. With not enough light your white background would appear grey. Too much light will wash out your image and your subject will get an unwanted halo effect. To achieve the desired brightness you need to have background lights. Your background should be overexposed by 2 to 3 stops over the subject.

So, to get enough light on the background it is best to use a strong source of light, or two. However, the quantity of light needed to lit the background often spills and bounces back to your subject. And you don’t want that. The best way to avoid spilling of extra light is to flag it. Anything black or dark enough can be used to flag the backlight and prevent spilling or halo.

“Photography is a kind of virtual reality, and it helps if you can create the illusion of being in an interesting world.” – Steven Pinker

Another way to reduce or prevent spilling is to distance your subject from the background. This is an obvious improvisation, but sometimes it will do the job. Of course, if you have space to move away.

Lighting Setup Tricks

We need a lot of light, I guess everyone figured it out so far. At least three light sources are necessary to make sure you will get the right result. For the key light, you want a strong and large source of light. Why large? Well, the larger the source, the softer the light. And for the soft shadow-free image you need a soft light.

Small sources of light give harsh light and more contrast. However, if you have only smaller sources of light, don’t worry. In photography, there’s always another way, a backdoor to achieve a certain effect. If your light is harsh you need something to diffuse and soften it. An umbrella or softbox will make a big difference.

Also, decreasing the distance between the source of light and your subject will soften it a bit.

Then comes the fill light. Your strong key light will create shadows, no matter how soft your light is. To fill these shadows you will use your fill light. Sometimes you might need two of these.

Your backlight should be the brightest, then the key light and finally the fill light.

young girl experimenting with camera settings

Camera Settings

A lens with a wide aperture is the best choice for high-key images. The wider aperture will let more light in for the same shutter speed. As for the shutter speed, your image should be overexposed by 2 to 3 stops. Try 2 stops and make a couple of test shots and then go from there. Also, try to do it in reverse, starting at 4 or 5 stops and then lower it. This will help you to get a full grasp on the process. Setting everything else right will allow you to keep your ISO at 100.

Conclusion

High key photography is a challenging but rewarding technique. Don’t be afraid to experiment and bend some rules. And keep practicing. While it is not easy to get it right at the beginning, with practice you will become an expert for sure. Well, at least when it comes to execution.

And remember, good artists follow the rules, great artists break them.