High Key Lighting Techniques for Professional Photographers

I’ve written many times about high key lighting techniques and how to achieve them. The term “high key” is a bit misleading. As I’ve often said, high key has nothing to do with overexposure of the subject (though a photographer can opt to take that approach if it suits the subject); it merely means the vast majority of tones are above middle gray and that the background is almost always white but may show some detail.

The nice thing about high key is that there are many ways to create it; I continue to find new tricks and variations on scenarios I’ve previously written about. Some are impressively simple; others are more complicated. As always, I’ll leave it to you to experiment with them and decide what will work best for you and your studio. I wish it were practical to include each and every technique in this book, but I’d be critiqued for repeating myself (and there isn’t enough room in this book, anyway). In a heartless bit of shameless promotion, I must advise you to buy all my other lighting books, now and in the future, to learn every trick.

My first scenario falls into the “simple” category and is really easy to set up, using two lights with umbrellas.

Simple High Key Lighting

The first light, the main light, is set on a stand in front of and to the side of the subject. The second light is set slightly behind the subject and aimed at the background. It’s best, in my opinion, to mount it on a boom so it can be centered over the subject’s head, but it will work nicely if mounted on a floor stand and feathered over the background. If you want a completely white background, the exposure behind the model’s head should be at least 2/3 stop brighter than the main light.My sample set the exposure value of the background light to be equal to that of the main light, and the result is a pure-white background behind her head that gradually falls off to light gray toward the bottom of the image.

I also set a white bookend at camera right and quite close to the model to open the shadows on her unlit side. See image 10.1 and diagram 10A.

I liked the look produced by the bookend fill card, but I wanted something with a bit more snap. I also wanted to get more contour to her face.

I set up two strip lights—one on each side of the background—and aimed them to the center. The lights were carefully positioned so there was no more than 1/10-stop difference over the 5 feet of important background behind the subject. The exposure value of the background lights, measured together, was equal to that of the main light. Setting the lights in this manner means the white paper background will have some detail (though slight) throughout.

Both strip lights were blocked by a black bookend to keep any spill light off the model and the camera’s lens.

The umbrella at camera left was swapped out with a medium softbox placed in approximately the same position. The white bookend at camera right was removed and replaced with a small softbox that was moved a bit farther back toward the background but aimed at my model’s side. This softbox was powered to be equal to the main light. See diagram 10B.

With all lights powered equally, I ended up with a series of images with a definite high key feel but with detail everywhere. Although I didn’t try it, I think this scenario would work equally well using umbrellas for the two subject lights. Larger, “normal” softboxes would work in place of the strip lights but would require more room. See image 10.2.

I thought it might be interesting to see a graded background, from the top down, so I turned off one of the strip lights and mounted the other on a boom, centered over the subject but far enough behind her that the light would not impact her look. I also replaced the medium softbox with a large softbox that was set at the same position to produce a broader, softer light. There is some spread of light from any modifier, of course, so I made sure the model was positioned far enough from the background so the light that fell on her from the strip light was equal to that of the main light. It took a few minor adjustments in her position, but the extra minute or two was worth it. Notice how the light from above defines her shoulders without being overly bright. It was metered to be equal to the main light at that point. See diagram 10C.

Look at the diagram and you’ll see that I also turned the small softbox toward the background. Because of its distance from the paper, it doesn’t add much more than a little extra gradation from the right to the left side. I powered it so the little bit of light that splashed to her side was equal to the main light. Because the effects of light are cumulative, it appears there is a highlight along her camera-right arm. Smoke and mirrors. And physics. See image 10.3.

The most important tool in your arsenal, especially for high key photography, is a light meter that’s calibrated to your equipment (using a meter straight out of the box is sometimes a mistake). No doubt you noticed that my model was wearing white clothing against a white background but there was detail wherever it was important. That would have been difficult to pull off if I had to guess at the exposure or use my camera’s LCD as a light meter (both are poor decisions). If you don’t know how to calibrate your meter, look at my blog (www.chrisgreylighting.com), where the process is described quickly and simply. The key to creating high key imagery, any imagery, is confident control over the lighting. If you know your meter is right on the money, you can set and power your lights exactly how you want them. Your camera will then do its job correctly.

Another approach is to use a large softbox (at least 3×4 feet, but bigger is better) as a background. Meter it by retracting the dome of the incident meter and pressing it flat against the fabric. The reading you will get will equal what’s needed for a perfect shot of a white surface. In other words, if you use that reading you will see detail in the fabric of the softbox, something you probably don’t want. Make note of the reading; it will become important when you set the main light. I set my large softbox on the floor. I would normally set it on a stand, but I wanted the posture that my model would give me if she were on her knees. When kneeling, the transfer of physical power from the legs through the torso and shoulders is subtle but different enough to use to one’s advantage.

My main light was a basic 36-inch umbrella, set directly over the lens. I powered the umbrella’s light to be 1 stop less than the reading I made from the front of the large softbox. This lesser reading would be the working aperture on the camera. In other words, the background light would overexpose itself by 1 stop, becoming completely white. Also, the full-stop overexposure would negate any shadow thrown by the umbrella while allowing some light to wrap itself around the model. Image 10.4 presents a practical overview of the lighting scenario, a very simple setup.

My main light was a basic 36-inch umbrella

When you crop in to the image, the beauty of this setup becomes evident. Facial features are nicely defined, while the background is pure white. There is detail in almost every part of her clothing, even those areas that intrude into the pure-white background. Working with calibrated equipment is essential to pulling off tightly controlled shots such as this. See image 10.5.

A REALLY COOL VARIATION ON THE BASIC SETUP

Set two white bookends on each side of the large softbox, angled parallel to the subject. Set a bare-tubed strobe on a boom, with the tube directly over the camera, powered to 1 stop below that of the softbox. You’ll still get the wraparound effect of light from the softbox, while the two bookends will soften the effect of the bare-tubed strobe. See diagram 10D.

wraparound effect of light from the softbox

You’ll notice immediately, if you’ve measured the light with a calibrated meter, that the model’s white dress is perfectly represented, with detail in all areas except those affected by wraparound light. This is beautiful, simple, beauty light. It’s high key, but with important detail throughout.

Here’s an easy way to vignette a high key image to a white border, a very effective way to enhance the high key effect. Begin with your favorite image. Image 10.6 was made with a medium softbox in front of a larger softbox, powered 1 full stop less than the big box.

In Photoshop, use the Lasso tool to create a freehand shape around the subject. The intent is to make everything outside the line feather to white. Personally, I think this works better if the shape is a more irregular, organic shape than a basic oval or circle. See image 10.7.

Once you’ve drawn the shape, go to Select>Modify> Feather and set the pixel amount to soften the edge. Larger files require a larger pixel spread for a soft boundary; play with your files to determine what you like. This file (image 10.8) was rather large, about 45MB when opened, so I feathered by 150 pixels.

Next, go to Select>Inverse. This means you will affect the area outside the line, rather than the interior of the selection. See image 10.9.

Fill the selection with white. If you have other colors in the Foreground/Background palette, choose White from the menu. Check to be sure the Blending Mode is Normal and Opacity is at 100%. See image 10.10.

You’ll probably have to go back and re-draw the Lasso pattern a few times before you get the perfect effect. It takes only a minute or two to get through the procedure, and the result will add a great deal of visual interest to your final image, making it look even more high key than how it was shot. I think it’s an easy jump to see how effectively this trick would work on other forms of portraiture, such as seniors or bridal portraits. See image 10.11.

Lasso tool to create a freehand shape around the subject

re-draw the Lasso pattern a few times before you get the perfect

 

 

Nikon D7000, Active D-Lighting

Your camera provides a function that can automatically make your pictures look better: Active D-Lighting. It works this way: The camera evaluates the tones in your image and then underexposes for the highlight areas while lightening any areas that it believes are too dark or lacking in contrast (Figures 11.12 and 11.13). Active D-Lighting is automatically applied to images that are shot in any of the automatic scene modes except for High Key, Low Key, and Silhouette.

Without Active D-Lighting
Figure 11.12 Without Active D-Lighting, the shadows are very dark and lack contrast.
With D-Lighting set to Normal you will see shadows become lighter
Figure 11.13 With D-Lighting set to Normal you will see shadows become lighter. Notice how we can see more detail in the vendor’s face and within the booth.

You can choose from six levels: Off, Low (L), Normal (N), High (H), Extra High (H*), and Auto (A). You will need to evaluate the strength of the effect on your images and change it accordingly. I typically leave it set to Normal so that I have brighter, more detailed shadow areas in my photographs while still maintaining good exposure in my skies. You should know that Active D-Lighting can only be adjusted when using one of the professional modes. Also, you will want to turn it off if you are using flash exposure compensation since it will work against you when you alter the flash strength.

Setting up Active D-Lighting

Setting up Active D-Lighting

  1. Press the Info button twice to activate the cursor in the information screen, then navigate to the Active D-Lighting setting by using the Multi-selector (A).
  2. Press the OK button and then move the Multi-selector up or down to select the level of Active D-Lighting that you desire (B).
  3. Press the OK button to lock in your changes and resume shooting.

The Active D-Lighting setting can also be changed in the Shooting menu.

 

 

Nikon D7000 Child Mode

Photographing children can be tough. Those little stinkers are fast and if you’ve ever tried to photograph a two-year-old, you know the challenge of getting him or her to sit still. Child mode tries to solve this problem by blending the Sports and Portrait modes (Figures 3.16 and 3.17). Understanding that children are seldom still, the camera will try to use a slightly faster shutter speed to freeze any movement. The picture control feature has also been optimized to render bright, vivid colors that one normally associates with pictures of children. It’s a great mode to use for those kids on the go, or to capture a very brief moment that you don’t want to miss.

The Child mode is best used for snapshots of children on the go.
Figure 3.16 The Child mode is best used for snapshots of children on the go.
Child mode tries to use a fast shutter speed, as well as make colors more bright and vivid. I didn’t have a lot of time to capture this shot before she was going to pull off her mustache. I’m so glad that I was able to get the shot of my good friend John and his granddaughter.
Figure 3.17 Child mode tries to use a fast shutter speed, as well as make colors more bright and vivid. I didn’t have a lot of time to capture this shot before she was going to pull off her mustache. I’m so glad that I was able to get the shot of my good friend John and his granddaughter.

Dusk/Dawn

There are some great photo opportunities that take place both before the sun rises and after it sets. The only problem is that the typical camera settings don’t truly capture the vibrancy of the colors. The Dusk/Dawn camera setting is optimized for low-light photography and helps boost colors and eliminate noise from longer exposures (Figure 3.18).

The Dusk/Dawn scene mode maintains the muted colors of early morning and evening. The flash and AF-assist illuminator turn off in this mode. A tripod is recommended for this mode due to potentially longer shutter speeds.
Figure 3.18 The Dusk/Dawn scene mode maintains the muted colors of early morning and evening. The flash and AF-assist illuminator turn off in this mode. A tripod is recommended for this mode due to potentially longer shutter speeds.

Night Portrait

Use this setting to help expose the background of your subject. For instance, if I’m taking a night portrait of a friend in front of Christmas lights, then I would use this setting. It tells your camera to use a slower than normal shutter speed so that the background has more time to be properly exposed (Figure 3.19).

The Night Portrait mode helps balance the subject and the background in low light. A tripod is recommended for low-light situations.
Figure 3.19 The Night Portrait mode helps balance the subject and the background in low light. A tripod is recommended for low-light situations.

Beach/Snow

Shooting in a bright environment like the beach or a ski resort can have a bad effect on your images. The problem is that beaches and snow often reflect a lot of light and can fool the camera’s light meter into underexposing. This means that the snow would come out looking darker than it should. To solve this problem, you can use the Beach/Snow scene mode (Figure 3.20), which will overexpose slightly, giving you much more accurate tones.

The Beach/Snow scene mode helps you capture vacations by the water or in winter, when the brightness of the sand or snow could otherwise trick the camera into underexposing. The built-in flash and AF-assist illuminator are turned off in this mode.
Figure 3.20 The Beach/Snow scene mode helps you capture vacations by the water or in winter, when the brightness of the sand or snow could otherwise trick the camera into underexposing. The built-in flash and AF-assist illuminator are turned off in this mode.

Party/Indoor

This mode is very much like the Night Portrait mode except it is optimized for indoor use (Figure 3.21). The flash is automatically set to Auto-redeye and will use the redeye reduction lamp to help eliminate the redeye problem that often occurs when using the flash indoors.

The Party/Indoor scene mode is great for birthday parties or weddings when you want to capture a special moment.
Figure 3.21 The Party/Indoor scene mode is great for birthday parties or weddings when you want to capture a special moment.

Night Landscape

A tripod or stable shooting surface is definitely recommended for Night Landscape mode (Figure 3.22). By using low ISOs, longer shutter speeds, and noise reduction, you can capture great cityscapes with more accurate colors. The flash and focus-assist functions are turned off for this mode, so focusing might be a little difficult. If so, try moving your focus point to a different location.

The Night Landscape scene mode helps reduce noise and unnatural colors. This mode is great for capturing a city skyline at night. A tripod is recommended so that the lights don’t get blurred with a slow shutter speed.
Figure 3.22 The Night Landscape scene mode helps reduce noise and unnatural colors. This mode is great for capturing a city skyline at night. A tripod is recommended so that the lights don’t get blurred with a slow shutter speed.

 

Low Key

Low-key photos are typically meant to have an overall dark look. Much like the beach/snow scenario in reverse, your camera’s light meter will usually try to add some exposure when shooting a low-key scene to make everything brighter. If you want to keep things on the dark side, use Low Key mode (Figure 3.23), which will keep the flash turned off and underexpose things just a little bit.

The Low Key scene mode is best for times when you want to create a dark image or subdued image. It will turn off the flash and is best used with a tripod.
Figure 3.23 The Low Key scene mode is best for times when you want to create a dark image or subdued image. It will turn off the flash and is best used with a tripod.

High Key

If Low Key mode means dark, then it’s probably pretty easy to guess what High Key is for (Figure 3.24). Images that are bright throughout can present a different sort of challenge, with the bright environment tending to fool the camera into making an image that is darker than desired. Using the High Key setting forces the camera to overexpose a little and really lighten up those bright objects in your image.

The High Key scene mode creates very light and bright images; as with the Low Key mode the flash is turned off.
Figure 3.24 The High Key scene mode creates very light and bright images; as with the Low Key mode the flash is turned off.

Silhouette

Using the Silhouette mode (Figure 3.25) does things like adjust the exposure for the brightest area of the scene as well as turn off the D-Lighting feature. This is necessary, since D-Lighting tries to boost exposure in shadow areas, which is the opposite effect you want when trying to get a nice silhouette.

The Silhouette scene mode creates a silhouette of the subject against brighter backgrounds. A tripod is recommended for this mode.
Figure 3.25 The Silhouette scene mode creates a silhouette of the subject against brighter backgrounds. A tripod is recommended for this mode.

Food

Food photography is very popular of late, and Nikon has provided you with a scene mode that is perfect for this type of work (Figure 3.26). When you select this mode, the camera will use large apertures for fairly narrow depth of field, slightly overexposed settings to keep things bright, and a picture control that makes colors slightly more vivid.

The Food scene mode creates vivid colors. A tripod is advised with this mode; you will have use of the flash if needed.
Figure 3.26 The Food scene mode creates vivid colors. A tripod is advised with this mode; you will have use of the flash if needed.

Autumn Colors

If you live in an area that has great fall color (like I do), you will want to give this mode a try (Figure 3.27). The big advantage to this scene mode is that it is optimized for the red and yellow hues that are present in autumn, and it really makes them pop. It also turns off the flash, since the light from a flash can wash out the color in the leaves. Try using this mode when the leaves have turned and the skies are overcast. You will get some amazing color in your images.

The Autumn Colors scene mode creates bright yellows and reds in autumn leaves. A tripod is recommended; flash is unavailable in this mode.
Figure 3.27 The Autumn Colors scene mode creates bright yellows and reds in autumn leaves. A tripod is recommended; flash is unavailable in this mode.

Blossom

This mode is very similar to the Landscape setting but with a few slight adjustments. The color settings for Blossom have been optimized for use outdoors where there are many flowers in full bloom (Figure 3.28).

The Blossom scene mode is best used when photographing a field of flowers. A tripod is recommended to avoid blur, and flash will be unavailable.
Figure 3.28 The Blossom scene mode is best used when photographing a field of flowers. A tripod is recommended to avoid blur, and flash will be unavailable.

Candlelight

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to know when to use a particular mode. This mode is similar to the Flash Off mode, but it is tweaked for the color of candlelight and will give you much more pleasing results (Figure 3.29). If you are photographing people in candlelight, try using a tripod and have them hold fairly still to reduce image blur.

The Candlelight scene mode helps in low-light conditions. The built-in flash is disabled, and a tripod is recommended.
Figure 3.29 The Candlelight scene mode helps in low-light conditions. The built-in flash is disabled, and a tripod is recommended.

Pet Portrait

This mode is similar to the Portrait mode in that it uses larger apertures and faster shutter speeds (Figure 3.30). The difference is that Portrait mode is optimized for human skin, with adjustments to the hues and color values. Pets don’t normally have any skin showing, so the sharpness and hues are adjusted accordingly.

The Pet Portrait scene mode works well when you’re photographing a pet and don’t want to scare it off with the AF-assist iIluminator.
Figure 3.30 The Pet Portrait scene mode works well when you’re photographing a pet and don’t want to scare it off with the AF-assist iIluminator.