Lately, I’ve noticed a resurgence of interest in high key imagery. Thanks Lori Ellis for your recent Facebook posts, they inspired me to publish this!
High key photography has been popular for years and remains one of my favorite techniques. I say technique because how you capture the high key image can dramatically affect the end result. Also, the subject you choose will be a deciding factor on whether or not the image is successful as a high key image.
When trying to create high key images in-camera it is essential to have highlight alert set to “On” or “Enable“. You will also need to know how to properly evaluate your histogram.
To create my high-key looks I expose as far to the right as possible (ETTR) while still retaining detail in my subject. When I view the back of my camera I will see that some of the background is blinking. That means that the blinking areas will render white (without detail). My goal is not to have any blinking pixels on my subject-- just the background.
One reason for choosing this technique is to eliminate distracting backgrounds or foregrounds. Also, it allows your subject to pop from the background. The zebra image directly below depicts two fighting zebra-they are mostly playing. The surrounding area included a road and some nasty dirt patches. I purposely exposed for a very high key look and then brought some detail back to the subjects in post processing. After I brought back some detail by using contrast, clarity and a curve adjustment selectively on the subjects, I used Topaz Glow to add some detailed lines with their “Fur and Feathers II” filter at a very reduced opacity. My thoughts for the image was to create an artistic piece.
When I first arrived at Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Japan, it was in February. Japan can be known for its cold winter weather. On my way to the location I had high hopes of seeing side sweeping snow falling downward. However, it was not snowing and there was no snow at all.
As I walked around, I began to notice cohesive patterns and flowing lines. I felt the peaceful forest surround me with quiet. The words simple and minimal were pouring from my head as I photographed this small section of bamboo. One tree after another gently stroking the next. I was engulfed in an aura of calm delight, my image needed to reflect that feeling. A high key effect was all I could see for this shot (see below).
On one of my France trips to photograph the white Camargue stallions, I used a high key capture to make the muddy horses appear more white (see above image). You see, after the horses run a few times, they often get playful and roll in the mud-there goes the white horses!! We have to keep a close eye on them so that they don’t get a chance to do that in-between runs. So when photography throws you a curve ball, fight back with some photo techniques. Be sure to check out Lori’s Facebook page to see her high key Camargue Horses.
Above is an example of an extreme high key look. I used the almost white sky as a backdrop for this puffin in heaven look. By making sure my exposure was pushed all the way to the right, I was able to retain detail in the puffin and the white wall (foreground) and the white sky both faded away. Check out Rick Beldegreen’s high key Puffin shot on his Facebook page.
The above image was captured in-camera, in-the-field during one of my Swan Island Dahlia workshops. It is one of my favorite techniques for flower photography as there are endless possibilities and looks. Shot against a regular blue sky, I pushed my exposure all the way to the right. Consider joining me on my upcoming Swan Island workshop where I teach this technique and more.
Below is a King Penguin image photographed at Fortuna Bay in South Georgia. By exposing for your subject and letting the background blowout slightly in areas of no importance is a great way to create a high key look.