52 Project

How to make a high key portrait

Low contrast lighting can be interesting, too.

A low contrast lighting situation is often called ‘flat,’ and there is a reason for this. Low contrast means there is less difference between the darkest part of the photo and the lightest part of the photo, resulting in a relatively even distribution of light. The resulting image for an even lighting situation is low contrast.

Flat or low contrast photos rarely register as interesting to our brains because contrast is one of the principles that make images attractive.

We create contrast with color, as in the photograph below. The color of the tree limbs and trunks and the grass in the background are darker than the color of the dried grass. Rendered in monochrome, this photo has high contrast because of the color in the original image.

Contrast from dark and light colors.

We also create contrast with light and shadow. In the photo below, the darkest darks are almost black, while the lightest lights are very bright due to the strong sunlight streaming in the window. The high contrast makes it an attractive photo.

Bright light creating high contrast.

How do we create attractive low-contrast photos?

High key images are very well lit photos. However, we can still create some contrast in a high key image, using both color and light.

How to make a high key photo in camera

As soon as you find a light source, in my case a North-facing window, position your subject so that the window is perpendicular to the subject and to your camera. This gives you a side-lighting situation which gives you a gradation of the light from one side of the subject to the other, and creates the 3D effect on your portrait.

Overexposed in camera but with side lighting to create soft shadows.

Your camera settings should be toward overexposure. Don’t worry about losing some detail in the highlights. Instead, hold on to the medium shadows so that you will be able to create some contour in the portrait. I overexposed this portrait by three quarters of a stop.

Contrast using bright light from a window.

Although the lighting is mostly bright and made brighter in the image captured with the overexposure, if you position the lighting so that you still hold on to some shadow, you can create a high key photo with some attractive contrast.

Processing a high key photo

Here is a video explaining how to process a high key image using Photoshop.

Here is another video explaining how to process a high key image using Lightroom.

High key images can make your portfolio a little more interesting, and high key images give you the opportunity to experiment with how much you can push the exposure of an image without losing attractive lighting.


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