Understanding High Key

Most photographers bump into the term ‘high key’ at some early stage in their exploration of the hobby, but over the years – and especially with the growth of ‘experts’ on the Internet – the description and definition of this style of lighting has become a little blurred and confusing, writes Jon Adams.

You know how it happens: Enthusiast A reads or watches something by Enthusiast B, who happens to enjoy giving photography advice on Facebook or YouTube as part of his/her hobby. Add all similar enthusiasts together across a network of hobbyists gleaning info from online opinions, and before long, terms have been reinvented, traditional definitions have been usurped and the old guard are left scratching their heads, wondering what a meme is, and why a ‘photo’ is called a ‘capture’!

High-key lighting – and its counter, low-key – is a bit of a victim of this, and has gradually morphed into a vague notion that the ‘key’ is some sort of background, and ‘high’ means white. This isn’t the case, as it’s derived from the early days of studio lighting (in TV and film as much as photography) where three-point lighting was generally used to illuminate a subject.

The three points are called the Key light, the Fill light and the Back light, and they work together to give shape to a subject. Since the Back light’s role is to give some edge to the subject and separate them from the background, it doesn’t need to change much, so the contrast ratio between Key and Fill is where most of the work is done. When the ratio is high between the two, both the Key and Fill shine equally brightly on the subject, eliminating almost all the shadows. When the ratio is low, the Fill is much dimmer than the Key, and is unable to counteract the shadows cast by it, so a more moody and contrasty look ensues.

This means that if there is evidence of directional lighting, and you can see some bold shadows in the shot, then it can’t be a high-key shot by definition.

It’s important to understand the distinction between shadows and ‘dark tones’ though, as it’s quite common to refer to these two very separate elements as the same thing. In this scenario, ‘Shadows’ does NOT mean dark-coloured or dark-toned items in a scene. It only means the ACTUAL shadows caused and cast by a direct light source.

High Key therefore describes a situation where there’s an absence of genuine shadows. We’re talking about even lighting that doesn’t reveal a well-defined nose shadow on a portrait, and doesn’t leave a dark outline of a subject’s shape on the ground. Like this studio portrait…

This image is High-Key and yet we can see a full range of tones within the model. However, what we don't see is clear and obvious shadows, such as one under her nose.

What’s important to grasp is that High-key lighting has nothing to do with white backdrops, smiling faces or happy-looking lifestyle families pretending that they don’t know they’re being photographed! It just means even and shadow-free – or low-contrast if you like to keep things simple. It’s perfectly possible to take a high-key shot of a sad subject on a black background – the only requirement would be to knock out most of the shadows when arranging your lights!

And there you have it! That is essentially the true explanation of what High-Key means in photography. But as Jon says, over the years this has changed and altered – like the English language or I’d be writing this in Middle English, just as Chaucer penned The Canterbury Tales, writes Andrew James

On most occasions the majority of you will be shooting without additional lighting, and using what is there naturally. Therefore traditional High-Key three-point lighting is not really on the agenda. But, if you think about it, on many occasions you are shooting a pseudo High-Key style without even realising it. For example, how many times have you chosen to go out on a bright but overcast day because it’s perfect for macro photography? Yes, this evenly-lit, shadow-free macro photo is essentially High-Key in appearance. You can also argue anyone using a ringflash set-up for macro photography is shooting the subject in a High-Key style because ringflash is used specifically to reduce shadows.

You might not immediately think this is High-Key and in a technical sense it's not, because it has only one light source – the sun diffused behind clouds. But the lack of visible shadows means this has the same look as High Key lighting, so could be termed psuedo High-Key.
Another psuedo High-Key insect shot – this time lit with natural light and flash but the lack of shadows (not tone), marks this out as High-Key style.

In fact, whenever you are shooting any subject when the lighting is even, it can be effectively regarded as a High-Key approach. Here’s an evenly lit, shadow-free outdoor portrait that emulates the High-key style.

I didn't set out to shoot High-Key style for this portrait but the conditions and location favoured it. Note that High-Key here does NOT mean blown-out highlights. The sky is the brightest area but the highlights are within the Histogram limits.

Wildlife can be photographed in a High-Key style too, of course. This next image of an Adelie Penguin marching ‘Happy Feet’ style along on the edge of the sea ice is effectively High Key. The diffused sunlight was even and it was also bounced up off the ice so the subject is shadowless, making it psuedo-High-Key.  Remember the article on the seal in the ice I wrote a few months back? Yep, that was High Key!

Again, conditions dictated the photograph would be captured in a High-Key style but even so, it's not technically true High-Key.

By this point you should be well-versed in what is true High-Key and what is pseudo High-Key. At the end of the day, shooting in a High-Key style from time-to-time is a very effective way to create eye-catching images – whatever subject you are capturing.

Next week, we’ll continue with the High-Key approach but concentrate on wildlife photography and look at the situations where you might be able to employ a High-Key style and how to get the best possible photographs when you do.

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