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High Key Photography

April, 2022

The first time I saw a high key photograph I was 18 and had just started university. I didn’t realize it was a photograph... It looked to me like a very lovely pencil sketch portrait of a young woman. When someone told me that no, it was a photograph, I was amazed and intrigued.

Now, almost 50 years later, I realize that print was probably made by pulling it out of the developer and popping it into the stop bath and fixer before the full image had a chance to come in.

It’s a process I never tried in the darkroom, but now with our digital technology I often use it for certain types of subjects.

High key simply refers to an image that consists of mostly light tones and has low contrast. It’s not simply a matter of having a light or white background. Both overall lightness and low contrast are important. Think of a light pencil sketch.

It’s important to choose an appropriate subject when you want to use high key. Subjects that are soft, feminine, airy, or ephemeral are good candidates... foggy scenes, little girls with blonde hair, delicate flowers, etc. You wouldn’t use high key for a portrait of a villain in a movie poster.


Your histogram is your friend in making high key images. You want a histogram that shows little or no tones darker than midtones, with the predominant tones being highlights and shadows.

When shooting for high key, it’s best to expose to the right (ETTR). What this means is that you want to check your histogram in camera and adjust the exposure so that the histogram just “kisses” the right hand edge. This will ensure you capture the most possible RAW data. If you use a mirrorless camera, you can probably have the histogram on the screen as you compose; if you use a dslr you’ll need to check the histogram after taking the shot and then reshoot if necessary.

Flat lighting is ideal for high key, as it avoids creating harsh shadows and contrast. Overcast, snowy or foggy days outdoors work well, or very diffuse lighting such as a flash with umbrella placed near the camera. Be careful not to “blow the highlights” by making a spike on the right edge of the histogram, unless you are wanting to completely blow out the background, for example.

When processing, again keep your eye on the histogram. Depending on the image, you may need to increase exposure in any areas of shadows and blacks, as well as tweaking the highlights and whites. I’ve found luminosity masks particularly useful for nudging up the exposure on small areas of an image.

When I started teaching myself to make high key shots, I used a white calla lily and a white background, and a pink tulip lying in snow. You might practise with a white plate on a white tablecloth, a white vase backed by a white wall, or any other kind of low contrast, light subject.

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