High-key photography requires a particular type of lighting that aims to reduce the overall amount of shadow detail within a photo. The technique provides you with a bright looking image and a generally even level of exposure throughout the frame.
People sometimes assume that in order for a photo to be referred to as high-key that it needs to contain a lot of blown out highlight detail. Although this is one stylized genre of high-key which has become more popular amongst photographers in recent years, it is not a necessary element of an image in order for it to be categorized as high-key.
The high-key look simply refers to images that minimize heavy shadows by providing soft transitional areas of dark to light. This means that the lighting used to create high-key photography is generally flat and even throughout the frame, with the resulting photo lacking any major contrast. One aspect of high-key portraits is that often there is a white background behind the subject which helps to further increase the overall high-key look. Dressing the subject in white colored clothing also helps to make the image look brighter in general.
In this tutorial I am going to teach you the easiest way to setup high-key lighting using a minimum of 3, but preferably 4 off-camera flashes or strobes. I will also delve briefly into some of the high-key post processing techniques.
Let’s start with your background lighting setup first. It is best to use two lights for this, one at both sides of the background. In some cases you might be able to use just one light placed low and in the center if the backdrop itself isn’t so wide. But two lights will give you a more even amount of light across the backdrop from side to side. Ideally you want to completely blow out (overexpose) all the detail of the background behind the subject in order to make it appear pure white in the photo. To do this most easily it is best to use either a white wall or white studio paper as your backdrop since blowing out the background to pure white in a photo becomes much easier if you start with an already pure white surface. To setup the lights correctly for your background please read this other article titled The Best Way To Light Up A White Studio Backdrop, which will step you through the process of achieving a pure white background setup using two lights.
Once you have the lighting setup for the backdrop correctly, the lighting for the subject itself is very simple. You basically want to place two lights, one each to the left and the right of the camera at an angle of about 15-20 degrees off the camera and equidistant on both sides. The following diagram shows you the general setup for a four-light, high-key lighting setup.
Below is an example of a high-key lighting portrait I shot using the four-light setup above. You can see that the background is pure white and that the lighting is almost exactly even across the subject.
In this second image below of the same subject, and taken during the same shoot, you can see that I moved the two lights a bit further to the sides of the subject to about 45 degrees off the camera. This resulted in a higher contrast photo with some shadow towards the middle of the face and stronger highlights at the sides of the subject’s head. It is no longer really a high-key image because of the increased contrast and harder edges between the shadow and midtone detail within the photo. Although the background is still pure white, this second image shows you the big difference it makes in terms of the lighting results with just subtle changes in positioning of the two lights. You can also see how it can quickly go from a high-key shot to something a bit different by just positioning the lights on a bit more of an angle to the subject.
The third image below is not really a high-key shot at all, but it has some elements of high-key. Those elements being that the model is wearing white and that the background is also partially white. But the background has a gradient of light going from right to left in the frame and is far from being pure white because no lighting was used for the background itself. In fact, a lot of the background looks gray despite it being a white paper backdrop. Plus the model is only really being lit from one side. So there is too much lighting contrast on the model for this to really be considered a high-key shot. The shot was lit with just one light from above shot through an umbrella from the left side of the model. If the model was standing straight on facing the camera then the right side of the model’s face and torso would also be in deeper shadow and look even less high-key. But since the model is actually turned towards the light, the amount of contrast is reduced across the torso of the model even though I was using only just one light.
In the fourth shot below I took the previous shot and pushed it to extremes in Photoshop to give it a bit more of that stylized high-key look I mentioned with lots of blown out highlights. Note that most of the time photographers produce this look that it’s not done with lighting, but by pushing the dynamic range of the photo in Photoshop as I have done with this image below. There are various post processing techniques one can use to achieve a similar result, including using a brush in Photoshop to paint away areas of the photo to make them whiter. But in the case of my image below, my workflow for creating this effect was very simple. First, I took the above image back into Photoshop then copied the background layer. I then set the blend mode to “Screen” on the background layer copy and changed the opacity on the layer to 50%. Then I added a Levels adjustment layer to the image with the following settings: Shadows 50, Midtones 1.10, and Highlights 230. Lastly, I added a Channel Mixer adjustment layer to the image to convert it to black and white because these extreme images typically look best without color. I then clicked on Monochrome in the Channel Mixer dialogue box to first remove all the color from the image. Then I set the Red channel to 60% and the Green and Blue channels both to 20% each. The result is what you see below:
In another version of this same shot I created a similar effect using just the original RAW file in Adobe Camera RAW. I did a very fast workflow on this image in Camera Raw with the following settings: I started with the Basic Panel and set Exposure to +1.30, Contrast to +60, Highlights to 0, Shadows to -20, Whites to -60, Blacks to -55, and Clarity to +50. Now you need to click the HSL Grayscale Panel too, then go to the Luminance tab, and then set Oranges to +40. No other post processing was added to the image within Photoshop once the RAW file was developed except for the black and white conversion. I then added a Channel Mixer adjustment layer. I clicked on Monochrome in the Channel Mixer dialogue box to first remove all the color from the image. Then I set the Red channel to 60% and the Green and Blue channels both to 20% each. The result is what you see below:
The image below I shot with proper high-key lighting, but the original image had a beige colored background instead of white. So the background wasn’t high-key. I then processed the photo using only the RAW file and a single-step workflow in Adobe Camera Raw. In this case I set Exposure to +.85, Contrast to +25, Highlights to -70, Shadows to +20, Whites to -40, Blacks to -65, Clarity to +50, and Saturation to -85 to remove most of the color. Then in the HSL Grayscale Panel, under the Luminance tab, I again set Oranges to +40. As you can see, the result is more pleasing and homogeneous than the above 2 images because of the more even studio lighting (and less contrast) used to create the image to begin with. I left 15% of the color in as well (only 85% desaturation), so it is not pure black and white and looks a bit sepia. But you can make it pure black and white if you prefer by setting the Saturation in Camera Raw to -100. If you would like to download the original RAW file for this image and practice with it yourself in Camera Raw or Photoshop then you can click here to download the RAW file.
If you have any questions on any of my lighting setup or my post processing workflow please feel free to post them below and I will be happy to answer them. I also have a couple more lighting articles on how to shoot with low-key lighting too if you are interested: