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4 Tips for a Perfect White Background in High Key Photography

A guest article by Tony Northrup.

A bright, white background creates a high energy, happy, and distraction free scene, perfect for pictures of your friends and family. Known as high key photography, this technique instantly cures problems with ugly backgrounds and focuses the viewer’s attention on your subject.

Besides being a popular for portrait photographers, it’s a more modern choice, rather than traditional (ie., painted muslin). Here are my favourite tips for creating high key photos.

4 tips for perfect white backgrounds in high key photography

Tip #1 – Use a Solid White Background to Eliminate Distractions

I used a big, white piece of paper as the background for this portrait of my twin nieces because anything natural for a background would have clashed with their colourful outfits. The brightness also perfectly matches their expressions.

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High-key backgrounds focus your attention on the subject

High key photography was the perfect choice for this picture of my daughter eating a strawberry because there’s nothing to distract the viewer from her eyes and the strawberry. You don’t need to use an expensive camera or lens for this type of picture, because you can use any camera for high key photography.

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The solid white background eliminates all distractions

Tip #2 – use sunlight as your background

A white background isn’t everything you need to create a perfect high key photograph, however. You need one additional ingredient – light. A white background without light doesn’t appear white in the photo, it appears grey. My flash failed to fire for this next photo, causing an ugly, grey background.

If you don’t light your background, it will be grey

If you don’t light your background, it will be grey

To create a solid white background, you need to completely overexpose your background without overexposing your subject. That means you’ll need much more light on your background than on your foreground subject; about 16 times more light (or four stops of light).

Fortunately, we all share a very powerful and free light source: the sun. For this photo of a radio talk show host and his dog, I had him kneel in my kitchen at midday when the sun was streaming through the glass doors behind him. I added three stops of exposure compensation to properly expose their faces. Because the sunlit background was much brighter than the shade in my kitchen, the camera captured it as solid white.

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You can use the sun to create a bright background

Tip #3 – use a flash on the background

Another easy way to create a bright background is to light it with an off camera flash. Simply move your model four to six feet away from your background and hide a flash behind your model, pointing it at the background. When you take your photo, the flash will light the background to overexpose it and make it appear completely white.

An off camera flash doesn’t have to be expensive. Any manual flash with an optical slave will work, including the $60 (US) YongNuo YN-560 that I often use. Simply turn on both the flash’s optical slave and your built-in flash. When you take a picture, your flash will trigger the off camera flash to light the background.

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Place a flash behind your subject to light the background

For more information about using flash both on-camera and off-camera, refer to Chapters 3 and 6 of Stunning Digital Photography.

Tip #4 – don’t over, overexpose the background

You can overexpose a high key background too much. If you bounce too much light off your background, the backlighting will overtake your model and wash out your picture. For example, the picture on the left had too much light on the background, while the picture on the right had just the right amount.

If you have too much light on your background, it’ll wash out your subject

If you have too much light on your background, it’ll wash out your subject

To get a perfectly white background without washing out your picture, start your background light at its lowest power and increase it one stop at a time until the background is barely overexposed. In this video, my wife Chelsea and I show you exactly how to find the perfect flash output. Our book, Stunning Digital Photography, includes more than six hour of video integrated into the lessons, because photography is a visual art, and often it’s easier to learn by watching than reading.

Summary

High key photography is challenging because it requires you to create an intentionally overexposed background while still properly exposing your subject. Once you learn how to use exposure compensation and light your background, you’ll be able to create perfect white backgrounds in just a few minutes.


Award-winning author and photographer Tony Northrup has published more than 30 how-to books and sold more than a million copies around the world. His photography book, Stunning Digital Photography, is the best-selling photography book in the world and the top-rated instructional book of all time. His photos have been featured on magazine covers, book covers, CD covers, TV shows, calendars, and much more. He runs a stock and portrait photography business with his family, Chelsea and Madelyn, out of his home studio in Waterford, CT. He shoots travel and nature photography everywhere he goes.

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