Master the art of high key photography

Master the art of high key photography

In photography, artists are constantly looking for new techniques to express their creativity and evoke specific moods or emotions. High-key photography is one such technique that offers a unique and striking visual aesthetic. This style is characterized by its bright, evenly lit images with minimal shadows, resulting in a clean and ethereal look. Let’s take a look at creating high-key photography and explore the key elements and techniques required to create these images.

It’s still OK to have soft shadows in High Key photography

Insight into high key photography

High-key photography is all about capturing a scene or subject with plenty of light, creating a mostly bright and positive visual tone. Unlike low-key photography that emphasizes darkness and shadows, high-key photography attempts to eliminate or minimize shadows to create an almost surreal, dream-like atmosphere.

Key elements of high-key photography

  1. Relief: The foundation of high-key photography lies in achieving a well-lit scene. Natural light, such as a clear overcast sky or diffused window light, can be an excellent starting point. In addition, studio setups with softboxes, umbrellas or reflectors can control and manipulate the light to achieve the desired effect. The key is to create even and diffused lighting that eliminates harsh shadows.
  2. Exposure: Proper lighting is critical in high-key photography. To create the signature bright and airy look, it is necessary to intentionally overexpose the image slightly. This can be achieved by adjusting the camera’s exposure compensation or manually controlling shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings. Experimentation and practice will help you find the right balance, avoiding blown-out highlights while maintaining a clear tone.
  3. Background and props: Choosing the right background and props can greatly enhance the high-key effect. Choose light-colored or white backgrounds to transition seamlessly between the subject and the environment. This will help boost the overall brightness and give a clean, minimalist feel. Plus, using pastel props can further accentuate the high-key look and add a touch of whimsy to your images.
  4. Subject and composition: High-key photography is often associated with portraiture, but it can be applied to a variety of subjects. Experiment with flowers, still lifes, architecture or any other subject that fits your creative vision. When composing your images, keep simplicity and minimalism in mind. An uncluttered frame ensures that the subject takes center stage, highlighting the ethereal beauty of high-key photography.

Post-processing techniques

Post-processing plays a crucial role in achieving the desired high-key effect. Software such as Adobe Lightroom, Capture One or Photoshop offer a variety of tools to fine-tune your images. Here are a few post-processing techniques to consider:

  1. Adjust exposure: Fine-tune exposure settings to achieve ideal brightness while preserving details in the highlights and shadows.
  2. Light and Shadow Adjustments: Use the highlight and shadow sliders to fine-tune the tonal range and bring out the desired level of detail in your image.
  3. Contrast and Clarity: Gently increase the contrast and brightness to improve the overall definition and sharpness of your high-key photo.
  4. HSL and color correction: Experiment with the hue, saturation, and luminance settings to achieve the color palette you want. Soft pastels often work well with high-key images.

How I got the image

While I’m known for my dark and moody still lifes, macros and portraits, I also have a penchant for soft and dreamy or ethereal high-key images. I had a simple heirloom white pumpkin and dried gypsophila and wanted to capture some ethereal high-key imagery.

The set-up

  • I adhered them to white project paper (held in place with some bulldog clips).
  • I’ve drafted two Godox AD200Pro speed light Strip boxes of 20 x 90 cm and aimed them on either side at my subject. I had them both set to 1/16 power.

Camera settings

Since I was using flashes, a tripod wasn’t necessary, but I could have used one to keep my hands free. I did put it on the table and took my pictures from there. My use Sony A7RIII and mine Tamron 28-75mm lens, ISO100, focal length 62mm, f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/200 second to capture enough light and detail without completely blowing out my highlights. There’s a little more shadow on the right side because the comic box was slanted more and pulled a little farther away than the one on the left. This created more shadow on the right side of the pumpkin.

Final black and white image
Final black and white image


I thought the image looked great in the post and all I did in Lightroom was convert it to black and white and crop it a bit, that’s all.

High-key images in post-processing in Lightroom
High-key images in post-processing in Lightroom

High-key photography is an engaging style that allows photographers to convey a sense of lightness and clarity in their images. By understanding the key elements of high-key photography and applying the right techniques, you can create stunning images that exude a dreamy and ethereal atmosphere. Embrace the beauty of light and explore the endless possibilities that high-key photography offers, and let your creativity run wild.