Awash In Light: High Key Portraiture - Digital Photography School

Awash In Light: High Key Portraiture

This shot was done using a tradition speedlight setup.  I used 4 speedlights- two on the background with no modifiers, and two in softboxes on the subject.

This shot was done using a tradition speedlight setup. I used 4 speedlights- two on the background with no modifiers, and two in softboxes on the subject.

This is the lighting setup used for the first image above. Exposure was f/4, 1/250, ISO 400. The background lights were Canon 430 EX II speedlites, and the main and fill were 580 EX II speedlites.

This is the lighting setup used for the first image above. Exposure was f/4, 1/250, ISO 400. The background lights were Canon 430 EX II speedlites, and the main and fill were 580 EX II speedlites.

When shooting portraits, the very first decision I make is what look I’m going for. The answer to that question lies directly in how I want to light the scene.  Generally, I want to evoke a mood or a feeling.  Low key portraiture which has dramatic lighting, tends to be very moody, while high key portraiture will have a more even light, with very few harsh shadows.  High key lighting tends to make the scene much more upbeat.

The problem with high key lighting is that, indoors, it can be costly to achieve.  First, you need a white or light colored background.  Seamless paper will work best, but I’ve also found that I can get away with flat bedsheets; one hung from a background stand and another on the floor, with the two meeting . When done right the seam can be hidden nicely.  of course, a light colored muslin will work as well.  Once the background is set, you need to light the background evenly.  This requires at least two lights to light it evenly.   Once the background has been lit, you need to light your subject.  Using softbox for the main light and a smaller softbox for the fill, you can adjust the lighting to have some soft shadow on your subject if you prefer, or you even the lighting out if you want to eliminate shadow altogether.  A reflector can also help kick more light into your subject’s face and further soften shadows.

High key lighting can be also be achieved outdoors, and at lesser cost as well.  If the light is flat and even, a simple metallic reflector can be used to fill any shadows that occur.  I find bright cloudy days perfect for this type of shooting.  By the same token, a sunny day will work well also. A scrim can be used to soften the sunlight on the subject, while the sunlight brightly lights the background and creates that high key look.

For this shot, I ventured away from the setup above, and used a 50-inch softbox with a Canon 580 EX II speedlite. This was positioned on the far side of the subject- her left. To camera right, I used a large silver reflector to fill the shadows. I used white sheets as a background on the floor to complete the scene.

For this shot, I ventured away from the setup above, and used a 50-inch softbox with a Canon 580 EX II speedlite. This was positioned on the far side of the subject- her left. To camera right, I used a large silver reflector to fill the shadows. I used white sheets as a background on the floor to complete the scene.

As far as camera settings go, it’s important to note that a high key image is not simply overexposed. You’ll want to watch your histogram to keep from clipping the highlights, but you will want to keep your exposure to the right on the histogram to ensure that the shows aren’t too deep.  if I’m indoors, I’m using either studio lights or speedlights and using them to generate my exposure.  Outdoors, I’ll shoot on aperture priority and use exposure compensation to push my exposure where I want it, again, careful not to clip the highlights.

I find high key portraiture a great way to photograph children or adults.  It brings a happy, upbeat mood to the scene, and can also give an edgy look to things.   Ultimately, it will take some experimentation to get the lighting the way you like it, but once you do, it’s another technique in your pocket to work with and use to create images. Happy shooting!

This shot was taken outdoors. It was a bright day but the sun was diffused by a thin layer of clouds, making it very soft and even.  Canon EOS 1D X, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 200.

This shot was taken outdoors. It was a bright day but the sun was diffused by a thin layer of clouds, making it very soft and even. Canon EOS 1D X, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. 1/320, f/2.8, ISO 200.

This was another bright day.  This image was taken at the beach, and a light fog rolled in to diffuse the bright sun. A reflector positioned right next to the camera further softened shadows. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 85mm f/1.2L. ISO 100, 1/8000, f/1.2.

This was another bright day. This image was taken at the beach, and a light fog rolled in to diffuse the bright sun. A reflector positioned right next to the camera further softened shadows. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 85mm f/1.2L. ISO 100, 1/8000, f/1.2.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • http://www.cramerimaging.com Cramer Imaging

    There is an interesting inner glow to the skin that is almost porcelain like and looking semi-transparent that I find intriguing. It does soften the features. I will have to look at that in the future.

  • Angie

    Really interesting. As a newbie, I find that I am really struggling with outdoor portraits and lighting/shadowing issues on faces. Any book recommendations on the subject or advice would be welcomed! BTW, your shots are lovely.

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    The more I read, the more it feels like an ocean, the knowledge of photography!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://bit.ly/oufr4c Brian Fuller

    I’m ready to imitate this. I’ve tried some, but rarely have opportunity for studio type shots. 99% of mine are on the fly – outdoor kid shoots.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • http://www.mariemassephotography.net marie

    LOVE this! Can’t wait to step out of my photographic comfort zone & start playing ;)

  • Djamila

    Interesting advice. I need to learn more about taking portrait of men and Pictures of women to be used professionally (job related, or when I need the client to be taken seriously by showing competency and intelligence).

  • Alec

    I would have have liked to have seen some ppl of colour for this spread. What does person with a dark complexion look like in a high key shoot.

  • Dan G

    Do you use exposure compensation +1 or 2 like you would shoot in snow?

  • shahab ed

    nice

Some older comments

  • Alec

    July 26, 2013 10:29 pm

    I would have have liked to have seen some ppl of colour for this spread. What does person with a dark complexion look like in a high key shoot.

  • Djamila

    July 26, 2013 06:36 pm

    Interesting advice. I need to learn more about taking portrait of men and Pictures of women to be used professionally (job related, or when I need the client to be taken seriously by showing competency and intelligence).

  • marie

    July 23, 2013 07:36 am

    LOVE this! Can't wait to step out of my photographic comfort zone & start playing ;)

  • Brian Fuller

    July 23, 2013 03:38 am

    I'm ready to imitate this. I've tried some, but rarely have opportunity for studio type shots. 99% of mine are on the fly - outdoor kid shoots.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Mridula

    July 19, 2013 03:02 pm

    The more I read, the more it feels like an ocean, the knowledge of photography!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Angie

    July 19, 2013 02:50 pm

    Really interesting. As a newbie, I find that I am really struggling with outdoor portraits and lighting/shadowing issues on faces. Any book recommendations on the subject or advice would be welcomed! BTW, your shots are lovely.

  • Cramer Imaging

    July 19, 2013 12:02 pm

    There is an interesting inner glow to the skin that is almost porcelain like and looking semi-transparent that I find intriguing. It does soften the features. I will have to look at that in the future.

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