Tag Archives: exposure

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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high key portrait beauty a beautiful overexposed photo

See How Easily Your Photos Can Create Impact

A peculiar vocabulary exists that photographers use to describe photos. “Moody,” “bright and happy,” “cheerful,” and once, I even saw “brooding.”

That the vocabulary exists means that there’s a certain feeling we get from an image. Looking at some of the words we use to talk about imagery we look at suggests that maybe there is something we can do while we’re making images that creates the emotional effect in our audience. If we can do this, we achieve what we always want every time we click that shutter: to create a memorable, impactful image.

Creating an impact with your image begins with the concept you’re after. Rules aside, what do you want your image to make us feel? Often, the conceptualization is where you can distinguish your images from someone else’s.

I’ve written before about creating impact with decisions about color, or by design and composition, or using shadows and light. I’ve also mentioned what I call subjective exposure—an exposure that is made because that’s how I feel rather than following a technical process for getting a correct exposure.

Subjective exposures can be creative, and they involve the heart rather than the head.

If I want to give you a sense of winter in a shot, I’ll use Auto white balance since it produces images that are less warm than say, Cloudy white balance. Then, I might overexpose a lot using exposure compensation in Aperture mode. This is a simple way of creating a high key image, an image that is overexposed but artfully so.

high key portrait beauty a beautiful overexposed photo

Overexposure can work in a photo. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Some people will say this is bad because you lose a lot of detail in the shot. But what if that was the effect you wanted? What if you wanted beauty to float in a cloud of nothingness?

Similarly, you could underexpose the heck out of an image for effect.

The Balinese make offerings to spirits daily. For those of us who are not Balinese nor scholars of their culture, seeing the intimate act of communing with spirits that live amongst the trees and flowers of Bali feels like a sort of intrusion. But the Balinese make their offerings because they believe it is part of the balance of life. They really don’t mind the photographer with the telephoto lens, especially if you are far away.

undexposed photo of woman in Bali making offering

Mood is created with exposure in this image. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

I underexposed the photo to give it the mystery I felt while documenting the offering this woman was making to the spirits. The underexposure cut out the distracting background, and it also accentuated the light that fell on her face as she prayed.

Sometimes, when you let go of the rules that tell you what a good exposure is, you discover something about making images that create impact. You might make photos that don’t look like everyone else’s.

Now, wouldn’t that be something.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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