High key (from Eng­lish high key) — a tech­nique in pho­tog­ra­phy when the frame is tak­en in a light tone. In such a pic­ture, as a rule, there is a lot of light; no or very few dark objects; the shad­ows are light, that is, low con­trast; white or light gray pre­dom­i­nates, and oth­er col­ors, if any, are also light and slight­ly sat­u­rat­ed. As a rule, it is a light object on a white back­ground.

We tell you how to take high-key pho­tographs, share life hacks, and also give ready-made high-key light­ing schemes so that you don’t waste time think­ing in the stu­dio.

The pho­to in high key looks gen­tle and min­i­mal­is­tic / Source: unsplash.com

High key photography — what to shoot

  • Sub­ject pho­tog­ra­phy. Such pic­tures look min­i­mal­is­tic and styl­ish.
A min­i­mum of col­ors and geom­e­try per­fect­ly com­ple­ment the high key / Pho­to: unsplash.com
  • wed­ding pho­tog­ra­phy. A bride in a white dress is a great mod­el for a high key. The image is already ready, it remains only to choose a pho­to stu­dio! You will replen­ish your port­fo­lio with unusu­al and styl­ish pic­tures, and the bride will receive beau­ti­ful pho­tos “not like every­one else”.
  • land­scapes. They are espe­cial­ly good in win­ter when there is a lot of snow, dur­ing fog and in the off-sea­son between autumn and win­ter, or win­ter and spring.
Due to the small num­ber of col­ors, the abun­dance of white and gray, the land­scapes are melan­choly and cold / Pho­to: unsplash.com
  • Chil­dren’s and wom­en’s por­traits. High key allows you to get gen­tle, bright shots. In addi­tion, a high key, due to low con­trast, smooths out imper­fec­tions in the skin, which makes it appear more even, smooth and fresh in the pho­to.
  • Beau­ty and fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy. Pay atten­tion to adver­tis­ing in glossy mag­a­zines — often mod­els adver­tis­ing cos­met­ics, creams, skin and hair prod­ucts are shot in a high key, as it gives a feel­ing of “clean­li­ness” and “fresh­ness” in the frame.

How to shoot in high key — 9 tips

High key in pho­tog­ra­phy is a com­plex shoot­ing tech­nique that requires more prepa­ra­tion and atten­tion from the pho­tog­ra­ph­er dur­ing the pho­to ses­sion itself. If you do not think over the scene and the col­or of the objects in detail in advance, it will be just an ordi­nary shot that does not fit into the con­cept. It’s like for­get­ting paint and draw­ing with a pen­cil, and then call­ing your sketch a paint­ing. We tell you what you need to con­sid­er and what to pay atten­tion to in order to accu­rate­ly get the desired result.

  • Shoot against a white or very light back­ground of any oth­er col­or. A pho­to stu­dio with a white cyclo­rama is ide­al. Cyclo­rama is a one-col­or spe­cial design with smoothed cor­ners, which gives a shad­ow­less pat­tern on the back­ground.

If you pho­to­graph sim­ply against the back­ground of a white wall, then:

  • it is unlike­ly that the floor will also be the same snow-white col­or as the walls;
  • at the junc­tion of the floor and walls you get a shad­ow hall.
  • Use a reflec­tor to fill in the shad­ows and light­en them up, almost elim­i­nate them. At home, even a white draw­ing paper, an ordi­nary sheet of paper or a white cloth is suit­able — a sheet, a T‑shirt. Choose a white reflec­tor if you want the shad­ows to be filled more accu­rate­ly — a sil­ver one will give a more aggres­sive result.
The lighter the sub­ject, the bet­ter it fits into the high key con­cept / Pho­to: unsplash.com
  • If there is no reflec­tor in the pho­to stu­dio, any can­dy bar with a dif­fuser attach­ment that gives soft light — a soft­box — will do. The larg­er the soft­box, the soft­er the black and white pat­tern and dif­fused shad­ows are. The task of this source is to high­light the shad­ows. This light is called fill light. Its pecu­liar­i­ty is that its pow­er must nec­es­sar­i­ly be less than that of the draw­ing one, which gives the main light and shade pat­tern.
  • The key light should also be soft. It is best if this is the largest soft­box or octo­box that the stu­dio has.
  • For prod­uct pho­tog­ra­phy or still life, choose the light­est objects — white, light gray, soft pas­tels. If it comes to a por­trait, make sure that the mod­el is in white clothes, and the make­up also match­es the gen­er­al idea.
  • Add one bright acces­so­ry or object to the frame in a high key to set the accent and grab the view­er’s atten­tion. For exam­ple, a rich flower in the hands of a mod­el.
  • Raise the ISO so the frame is lighter than you’re used to. Why ISO? If the shut­ter speed is too long, the frame will be blur­ry and you will have to shoot on a tri­pod.

The choice of spe­cif­ic val­ues ​​depends on the light­ing con­di­tions. On a bright sun­ny day, even ISO 200 can be a huge val­ue, while indoors both ISO 600 and ISO 1000 can be insuf­fi­cient.

And don’t be afraid to over­ex­pose the frame. In a high key, you can even strive for slight over­ex­po­sure.

Read also:

Noz­zles for stu­dio light: what are and how to use. Detailed guide

Pho­to shoot in the stu­dio: action plan from and to

Soft light: how to cre­ate out­doors and indoors

Stu­dio light­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers: an overview of the lead­ing com­pa­nies

If you open the aper­ture too wide (f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8), it is more dif­fi­cult to focus on the desired part of the com­po­si­tion (for exam­ple, the focus will shift from the eyes to the nose of the mod­el or from the whole herbar­i­um to a sep­a­rate branch) and do so so that the entire object is in focus / Pho­to: unsplash.com
  • Shoot in RAW for­mat. For a high key, this is prac­ti­cal­ly nec­es­sary — since this for­mat stores addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion, you can bring out the details in the over­ex­posed parts of the frame and light­en the shad­ows with­out los­ing qual­i­ty. To do this, in Adobe Cam­era Raw or Light­room, use the slid­ers Light / Lights, Shad­ows / Shad­ows, Blacks / Blacks, Whites / Whites.
  • If not every­thing turned out per­fect­ly on the shoot­ing itself, bright­en the pho­to in post-pro­cess­ing. For the first, use the Expo­sure slid­er in ACR or Light­room.

Remem­ber that a high key in a pho­to can­not be obtained using post-pro­cess­ing — in it you can only take a pic­ture ini­tial­ly and only refine the details with graph­ic edi­tors.

high key light scheme

If you have tak­en into account the pre­vi­ous tips, the pic­ture will already turn out to be quite bright. This is enough if you are shoot­ing land­scapes or tak­ing pho­tos out­doors with­out addi­tion­al light. But in order to take a pho­to in a high key in a pho­to stu­dio, to bring it to per­fec­tion, to cre­ate beau­ti­ful chiaroscuro on the mod­el, you need to cor­rect­ly arrange the light. We share four light­ing schemes for shoot­ing in a high key.

Universal light scheme high key for photo studio

The scheme is suit­able for por­traits, beau­ty and fash­ion shoots, prod­uct pho­tog­ra­phy, and even for shoot­ing cloth­ing cat­a­logs. It is ver­sa­tile, but requires as many as four light sources.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

  • two light sources on a white back­ground to make it com­plete­ly white and remove shad­ows;
  • monobloc with an octo­box or soft­box to cre­ate key light. It is he who forms the pic­ture. The more light attach­ments, the bet­ter;
  • reflec­tor or can­dy bar or soft­box to light­en shad­ows. They should also be as large as pos­si­ble in order to give soft light. It is impor­tant that the pow­er of the fill light source is less than that of the key light source.

Universal photo light scheme in a high key at home

Suit­able for prod­uct and food pho­tog­ra­phy, as well as large por­traits — bust or those where only the face is vis­i­ble. It is note­wor­thy that you can do with­out a flash at all — a reflec­tor and a win­dow are enough.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

  • a light back­ground and a hor­i­zon­tal sur­face for shoot­ing a sub­ject, still life, food pho­tog­ra­phy. For a por­trait, a white wall, a large draw­ing paper or a white ironed sheet against the back­ground is enough;
  • win­dow. Ide­al­ly, it would be cloudy out­side, or the sun would not shine direct­ly into the apart­ment. In the sec­ond case, you can scat­ter the rays with the help of cur­tains or tulle;
  • white or sil­ver reflec­tor or exter­nal flash. To dif­fuse the light from an exter­nal flash, point it at a wall or ceil­ing, shoot through a cloth, or put a soft­box dif­fuser on it.

Light scheme high key for portrait photography in the studio

This light­ing scheme is suit­able for wom­en’s and chil­dren’s por­traits, as well as for beau­ty and fash­ion shots.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

  • two monoblocks with reflec­tors or soft­box­es to make the back­ground absolute­ly white;
  • the biggest one in a pho­to stu­dio is a soft­box or octo­box. The lat­ter are often mount­ed on spe­cial racks — cranes, which allow you to raise the light high above the head of the mod­el;
  • black flags (option­al). In some cas­es, espe­cial­ly if the pho­to stu­dio is small and with light walls, there can be so much reflect­ed light from the flash­es that the pho­to becomes hazy and los­es con­trast. This is because the reflect­ed light hits not only the mod­el, but also the lens. Black flags will cut off excess light. At home or in a small stu­dio, they can be replaced with a sheet of thick card­board or ply­wood paint­ed black.

Light scheme high key for product photography in studio

Spec­tac­u­lar light­ing scheme for prod­uct pho­tog­ra­phy, food pho­tog­ra­phy and min­i­mal­is­tic still life. Its fea­ture is a lumi­nous light spot on the back­ground.

Illus­tra­tion: Eliza­ve­ta Lentchevicha, Photostore.Expert

You will need:

  • monoblock with a reflec­tor to cre­ate a light spot on the back­ground. The clos­er the light source is to the back­ground, the clear­er the spot will be. To make its bor­ders even clear­er, ask for a hon­ey­comb on a reflec­tor.
  • a sheet of white plas­tic, soft­box or reflec­tor fab­ric, through which the light of the reflec­tor will pass, cre­at­ing a spot of light.
  • two monoblocks with soft­box­es or strip­box­es. Soft­box­es will give a soft light with­out dark shad­ows, and strip­box­es will give beau­ti­ful high­lights if you are shoot­ing glass objects.


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