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Design & Style

How to Shoot High Key Photography: 3 Tips for Bright Photos

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Photographers are often taught to take well-balanced photos that are clear and properly exposed. Once you’ve grown comfortable behind the camera, however, one of the most exciting parts of photography is playing around with these conventions and breaking rules. High key photography is an exciting type of photography that involves taking bright, overexposed photos, and it is a great style for novice photographers looking to push past the basics.

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What Is High Key Photography?

High key photography is a style of photography that uses unusually bright lighting to reduce or completely blow out dark shadows in the image. High key shots usually lack dark tones and the high key look is generally thought of as positive and upbeat. High key lighting is used a lot for portrait photography as well as product photography. It is different from low key photography, which produces the opposite effect. Low key images are darkly lit and have high contrast. Low key lighting is fairly minimal as compared to high key lighting.

6 Pieces of Equipment You Need for High Key Photography

You can get away with a small lighting kit when shooting low key photographs, but a high key lighting setup will require a more robust selection of lights in order to increase the number of light sources and available light. Below is some of the camera and lighting equipment you’ll need to get started shooting high key images:

  1. Digital camera: A basic DSLR or mirrorless digital camera is a must-have for shooting high key photography. Invest in a versatile entry-level camera that will allow you to shoot under many different lighting conditions.
  2. Strobes: Powerful standalone studio strobes are a must-have for any studio lighting kit and even more so for photographers hoping to take high key images. Invest in a strong set of strobes to make sure you have enough light when taking a high key portrait or product shot. Strobes can function as a good main light source that you can then augment with additional lights.
  3. Softbox: A softbox is a cheaper alternative to a strobe and can be used instead of or in addition to strobes. Softboxes generally don’t have nearly the same lighting power as strobes and might not be enough to reduce shadow areas and blow out midtones in the way that powerful strobes might.
  4. Fill light: You’ll want to make sure that you have adequate fill light in order to reduce shadows on your subject. Position lights opposite your key light in order to get the right lighting ratio for low contrast high key images.
  5. Background lights: Similar to fill lights, background lights can increase the amount of light on your subject and help you get an unnaturally high amount of light.
  6. White background: A white background is the ideal backdrop for most high key studio photography. White bounces artificial and natural light back onto your subject and decreases the overall contrast to amp up the high key look.
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4 Camera Settings You Need for High Key Photography

In addition to getting the right equipment, you should have a good sense of what camera settings are most commonly used in high key photography. As with all photography, getting the right settings can be a process of trial and error. Below are some baseline settings for high key photography that you can play around with during your high key photography shoot:

  1. Exposure: Set your shutter speed in order to overexpose your image. This will make sure your photo is adequately lit to achieve the high key look.
  2. Aperture: Shoot with a fast, wide aperture.
  3. ISO: Start with your ISO around 100 or whatever the lowest ISO your camera is capable of.
  4. Exposure compensation: If you happen to be using aperture priority make sure that you use exposure compensation to amp up the exposure two to three stops.

How to Shoot High Key Photography: 3 Tips

Once you have the proper photography equipment and have studied up on some baseline camera settings, it’s time to start shooting. So much of becoming a good high key photographer comes from practice. You’ll develop your own style as you shoot more high key images. Below are some photography tips to get started on your first few high key shoots:

  1. Spread the light. Use as much light as possible and make sure that your light fills the space you are working in. Your subject should be lit from 360 degrees if possible to reduce shadow and contrast. Remember that less is not more when it comes to high key photography. You are trying to achieve an unnaturally lit image and therefore you can afford to overdo it on the light. If you have limited light sources, use a diffuser to spread the available light.
  2. Use shadows. Just because you are trying to reduce shadows overall doesn’t mean that high key photography doesn’t sometimes incorporate shadows. You should use fill lights to offset most shadows from your main lights. That being said, some shadows are unavailable, especially when shooting outside in natural light.
  3. Post-processing. Editing and post-processing are incredibly important for high key photography. During high key shoots, you are trying to blow out your subjects with an abundance of light. During post-processing and editing, you can tone down the lighting to ensure that enough detail is showing up in your images.

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