What is High Key? | From Lastolite School of Photography

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Editors Note: What is High Key? | From Lastolite School of Photography was originally written by Mark Cleghorn for www.lastoliteschoolofphotography.com and has been reproduced with permission.

What is High Key?

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High Key is clean and simple by design.

The term high key has been hi-jacked by the portrait photographer and often refers to white or light setting, often a roll of white background paper where the overall portrait is white or in a pastel tone, which is complimented with the subjects in similar light clothing.

Key – As grey is referred to as a mid-tone, white is in the higher level of brightness and hence referred to as ‘high key’.  Any image that is light and bright with the majority of the tonal range in the high brightness level can be referred to as high key; this could be a snowy picture or a still life.

The popularity of light and bright images are so evident in today’s contemporary homes.  Whether they are photographs or pieces of art hanging on the walls, the high key image is adding more drama due to the clean lines as well as the lack of dark tones.

This does not mean that a high key image cannot have a dark tone or colour as a point of interest on the canvas, as these elements can often give the image even more overall impact.

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The Lastolite HiLite Background and Vinyl Train make High Key portraiture simple and portable.

Perfect High Key – For a perfect high key portrait in studio terms, the background should be white with no details; this is achieved by lighting the background 2 stops brighter than the working aperture from the studio flash that is used to light the subject.  The set up can be quite complicated in the conventional way by using the likes of white backgrounds, increased lighting equipment and the space needed. The Lastolite HiLite is revolutionary in design for the portrait or event photographer as it has made high key photography portable.

An image with overall pastel colours is still considered to be higher in key due to its bright tonality.  This is an alternative solution to a pure white background, the secret however is to maintain a similar tonal quality across the whole image.  This means using large spreads of soft light to illuminate the set and subjects, shadow areas should have no less than 1.5 stops of difference from the highlight exposure on the subject.


What is Low Key? | From Lastolite School of Photography

If you want an image with impact and with a minimal amount of equipment low key photography is right for you as one light controlled well can result in amazing images and very dramatic results.


High Key 3 - Top Tip 1High Key Set up:

  • Main Light – f/8
  • Fill Light – f/4.5
  • Background Lights – f/16
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Lastolite Superwhite Vinyl is a professional background system that can be wiped clean easily after every session, making it perfect for children as well as pet photography.

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Use back lighting to create a simple high key setting

high key 6 - Top Tip 2If studio photography is not your thing do not be put off as a large white or pastel wall whether inside or out can make a great high key setting.  When shooting inside try using a window to back-light the subject, remember to add some reflected light on to the subject or add some flash to create your exposure.  The reflected light could either be achieved with a standard Lastolite reflector or with a Lastolite upLite to give a soft tonal adjustment.  When shooting a large area or a family group, you may need to use bounce flash to help soften the shadows from the window light, however make sure you do not over dominate the scene with flash as this will be less flattering.


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About Author

Woodrow Walden is a Toronto-based photographer and the Social Media Community Specialist for Vistek.