Silence with High Key


Induce a feeling of tranquility and rest in your photograph by making it seem bright and soulful.

When a photograph is dominated by light tones or highlights across a large part of the frame, it becomes a high key picture. The use of high key in photography is usually to convey positivity, radiance, purity, or even quietude, or melancholy.

Understanding High Key
Many photographers confuse high key with high contrast. High key images often look good with a high degree of contrast, where few dark elements in the frame stand out starkly against a much lighter background. However, low contrast high key images can also look quite stunning. These images are characterised with no blacks, slight midtones, and lots of lighter tones and highlights.

How to Achieve it
Generally, good high key photography demands clean, clutter-free backgrounds and foregrounds. Extremely simple subjects, which are defined by their form, work best. For example, dark or black human figures silhouetted against a large white sky can make a very graphical backlit high key image. Instead of stark whites, you can also bring in subtle tonal variation in the image. This usually depends on the exposure, composition and whether the backlighting is subdued or direct.

Winter haze minimises shadows and almost completely eliminates details in the background. Exposure: 1/640sec at f/5.6 (ISO 100) Photograph/Raghu Manikuppe

Winter haze minimises shadows and almost completely eliminates details in the background. Exposure: 1/640sec at f/5.6 (ISO 100) Photograph/Raghu Manikuppe

Subdued and Direct Backlight
Strong sunlight often means that the number of shadows increase, giving you greater possibilities for high contrast high key photography. Shadows can prove to be a distraction too. For instance, the foreground may have unwanted shadows of rocks, shrubs or vehicles. In this case, you need to choose a lower vantage point, tilt the camera upwards and let the sky be a major part of the frame. On the other hand, subdued lighting can be caused by overcast skies, fog and haze, or even large patches of shade outdoors. In these cases, overexposing the frame results in low contrast high key images.

How to Compensate for Exposure
In bright daylight, when the sky dominates the frame, the camera’s meter will automatically reduce exposure to maximise midtones. Therefore, you need to compensate for this by forcing the camera to increase the exposure from the metered value. This is done by using the Exposure Compensation button, which is available in every compact camera and DSLR today. For a beginner, remember that the simple rule of thumb is to overexpose until you can see the whites dominate the frame.

Shooting in RAW
DSLRs, mirrorless and some compact cameras allow you to shoot in the uncompressed RAW format. RAW files retain a higher dynamic range than JPEG. This allows you to recover more details from highlight or shadow areas of the scene. RAW is a big advantage when you are editing your photos for high key or low key.

Try This
Bright colours tend to take on soft, pastel hues in high key. Try shooting high key silhouettes against vividly coloured skies at dusk. Alternatively, try photographing low contrast high key images of colourful flowers against foliage.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: Shooting Technique, Chandni Gajria, backlighting, high key lighting