High Key style wildlife

In this article I am going to look at how you can use the High-Key style in your wildlife photography, writes Andrew James. There are two elements to this and we’ll deal with each one of them in turn. The first is shooting High-Key style when the conditions allow it, and the other is more down to processing an existing image that has some of the elements of High-Key and can be coaxed into a new look. There is a video on how to do this at the end of the article. Let’s deal with shooting High-Key first…

Shooting High-Key
Certain weather conditions almost force you into a High-Key approach. Snow is probably the most obvious of these. If you have an animal in snow and surrounded by it, then to a large degree, you are going to end up with a High-Key style image. This is the case with my boxing hare photo.

There is a little tickle of sunlight coming in from the left of the frame but essentially this image was taken in bright overcast conditions on a very snowy Scottish hillside so it is very much High-Key in its look.

With absolutely no shadow, just a white foreground and background with the shapes of the two gentoo penguins creating the interest, this next image is as simple as it gets. And simplicity is important to High-Key style images because as you lose detail within the light-toned areas, the more the emphasis is thrown onto the darker shapes within the frame.

The snow and weather conditions allow for a shadowless shot.

The other ‘weather’ related condition that can force a High-Key style is the sky itself. As photographers, we almost always want some detail in the sky to add interest. But actually, when it comes to a High-Key style then the opposite is true. We want zero or at least very little sky detail. Instead we want a plain, neutral sky to act as a simple foil to our main subject.

I know we are talking about wildlife here but in terms of landscape photography the lack of sky detail is enough to make grown photographers weep. But, actually, sometimes you can use these conditions to shoot an interesting scenic High-Key image. I’ve heard the phrase ‘there is no such thing as bad light’, and while I don’t wholly agree with this, its inference is that you can shoot good images in any conditions if you adapt to them. And this I agree wholeheartedly with. Here’s a landscape/travel image I took in Africa a couple of years ago.

A flat and shadowless morning on the Dzangha river (a tributary of the Congo River) but it has an atmosphere of its own and by using those conditions, the story could be told.

Back to wildlife and in these same conditions, especially when you are photographing an animal that is framed against what we’d generally refer to as a ‘dull’ sky, then the results can be anything but dull. Here’s an example – and by the way – the black border has been added so you can see the frame against the white of the surrounding website.

Weaver bird nest site.

These weaver birds were busy flying to and from their nests but the sky behind was as flat as the proverbial pancake. Colour-wise the sky wasn’t white of course – it was more dull grey – but to make the shot work, I needed to get a whiter appearance to the backdrop. To do this (and this is the basic technique for all these shots), I needed to make sure the exposure was going to capture the main subject perfectly while at the same time brighten the sky.

1 I chose to shoot in Aperture-priority so selected the aperture first. I picked f/11 as I wanted plenty of depth-of-field and there was nothing that was going to distract in the background anyway.

2 I switched from Evaluative to spot metering and took a reading from the branch as it looked like a midtone. This gave me a shutter speed of only 1/125sec but of course I knew immediately this wasn’t fast enough.

3 To get a faster shutter speed I changed ISO from 100 to 800 and that gave me an exposure of 1/1000 at f/11 which was fast enough to freeze the motion if a bird flew in. I took a test shot but found when looking at the Histogram that I still needed to add about one stop of exposure compensation to brighten the background enough but still hold the detail in the shadow. To do this I also needed to go up in ISO to 1600 or I’d lose the shutter speed I needed for the bird in flight.

4 If I hadn’t chosen to switch to Spot Metering and had stuck with the camera’s default Evaluative (Matrix) Metering then I would have needed to add at least 3 stops of Exposure Compensation to the given exposure. Either way works fine, you just need to be aware that when shooting against a bright background some degree of Exposure Compensation will be required to exposure the shadows correctly and lighten the highlights as you require.

In essence, this is how to expose for all High-Key style images. The amount of Exposure Compensation needed will vary depending on the situation, the main subject and the brightness of the background or surroundings, so some experimentation is always best. Here’s an image of my travelling companion, Will, getting the same shot following a quick lesson in Exposure Compensation…

The same process of adjusting the exposure with positive Exposure Compensation was used for this next image of an elephant in a dusty part of Etosha National Park, Nambia. As is typical with High-Key style, the light was hazy and overcast and my immediate reaction was just to move on – but I’m glad I didn’t.

High-Key style Namibian elephant, Etosha.

You’ll notice that all these High-Key images are taken when the light isn’t directional. I believe this is important for a successful High-Key style image but I do concede that there are quite a few wildlife/fine-art photographers who are producing High-Key style wildlife images that have obviously been shot on very bright days with directional light shown in the type of bold shadows visible.

There’s nothing wrong with this but it requires quite a bit of extra processing to get clean white backgrounds and I think it looks, well, less convincing to the eye.  However, as wall art it is an option. In true Blue Peter fashion, here’s a bright day High-Key style image I made earlier and converted to Black & White because I think monochrome looks better than colour for this approach.

Processed for high key but taken on a bright day.

This brings me to the next part of this journey through High-Key, and this is the idea of taking something you already have in your files but wasn’t necessarily shot as described above but processing it in a way that gives it a High-Key style effect.

It’s quite possible to do this and once you’ve identified a few images that you think might work well, it’s quite fun to do, too. It’s important to emphasise that not everything you try will work. The key criteria here are to look for images that have the following elements…

1 A strong subject in the foreground.

2 The exposure, although not obviously High-Key, is reasonably balanced with more lighter tones than darker ones.

3 The foreground subject is darker in tone than the background before you start, so for example, look for an animal against water, light-coloured grasses, or of course, snow.

As an example of this processing style, the next two images have all been selected as suitable and then processed using Lightroom and Photoshop to create a High-Key look.

None of these three images were shot with High-Key in mind but they meet the criteria specified and with a little bit of processing, first in Lightroom and then in Photoshop, they’ve scrubbed up well into a fine-art type of finished image. As you now know, it’s NOT proper High-Key, but a stylised ‘bleached’ variant that is currently quite popular on Instagram (I’m led to believe by people who know these things).

The best way to show you how to create this look is to do it in a Foto-Buzz video tutorial. I’m going to take the starting raw file of the cheetah you can see below and process it to give us a very different look and feel.

Left: The untouched raw file isn't much to write home about but it has the ingredients we need to create that High-Key look. Right: The finished image bring a fresh perspective to this photo and it's quite easy to achieve.

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