4 Tips for a Perfect White Background in High Key Photography

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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.

high-key-white-background-portraits-01b

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.

High key white background portraits 02

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.

High key white background portraits 04

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.

High key white background portraits 05

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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  • E.V.

    Hi! In this article, I think the use of the term “High key” might be confusing, because, as I understand it here, it implies that “High key” = “White background” throughout this article. English is not my first language so maybe I didn’t interpret it well, but I thought high key meant that the values of the photograph tend to the right of the histogram, so that the whole picture seams bright. In the examples, especially the one with the man and the dog and the portrait of the woman, the values are well distributed in the histogram (there are dark shadows and the whole exposure seems well balanced), which I thought doesn’t make it high key or low key. Can you please explain? Thank you!

  • Steve Dunham

    Or use a lightmeter and make the job a whole lot easier….

  • Jonny

    You are correct. None of these images are High Key, they are mid key.

  • Hi, E.V. Portrait and commercial photographers often use the term “high key” to describe images with a white background, even though the subject might be normally exposed with shadows and mid-tones. “High key” is also an artistic style that spans both photography and other visual arts, where the entire image (including the subject) is primarily white and bright tones… Basically, an image that fills the right half of your histogram.

    Obviously, my focus for this article was on the fundamental skill of achieving a high key background, but you’re right that the term can also mean an artistic style.

  • You’re right that you can use a flash meter to calculate the required output of your background lights, and that’s what I’ll do when I’m shooting film.

    For a high key background, you’d have to know your camera’s dynamic range and calculate how many stops above middle grey will create a perfectly white background. Then, you’d have to calculate the required background brightness, and adjust the background lights until you achieved that. You’d also need a fairly expensive and complex meter. For me, when I’m shooting digital, I find the trial-and-error process to be faster and easier. It’s also simpler to teach, because it doesn’t require any extra tools.

  • E.V.

    Thank you for the explanation!

  • Liz

    Great write up Tony. I specialize in real estate photography and I frequently get request for portraiture. The section of doing this at home really was helpful as the equipment you used is what I use. I don’t want to invest in equipment, I’m only going to use every once in awhile. Excellent tips!

  • Matthew Rings

    My Nikon D5300 has a “Hi-Key” mode (as well as “Low-Key”)… any ideas on how to use that mode setting?

  • Hi, Matthew. My understanding is that the High Key mode functions just like adding a couple of stops of Exposure Compensation (as I cover in Chapter 4 of my book, Stunning Digital Photography, linked to in this article). Low Key gives negative Exposure Compensation to make your photos darker overall.

  • Mika

    Hi: Can I know what lenses are you using?

  • Hi, Mika. I’m using the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS II… and it’s an amazing portrait lens, but it’s not what I recommend to most people, and you definitely don’t need such an expensive lens for high-key photography.

    One of the benefits of a fast lens like the f/2.8 lenses is that they can blur the background, but you control the background with high-key photography, so your aperture doesn’t matter.

    Chapter 6 of Stunning Digital Photography (linked in this article) has a detailed discussion of portrait equipment.

  • Ed

    But the first of the woman’s pics seems artistic high key to me 🙁

  • fibe.rs

    Is it possible to achieve a white background without a flash? We don’t have a good flash, and we are taking pictures of computer parts (I realize this is a bit different from portraits), which have shiny bits. We do have some good lamps.

  • For small product photography, you can often just put a single fairly large light source above the subject. Try bouncing a flash off the ceiling.

  • Jeremy

    i noticed you changed the power of your flash with your camera, how did you do that

  • Jeremy

    not with the trigger but look like a camera function

  • Great photos

    It’s great

    Background
    Pictures

  • Karan Agarwal

    Hi I need to photograph oriental rugs and would really love a pure white background. My setup currently is I have hung my camera on the ceiling looking directly down on the rug which is lain on a huge plain white sheet of paper. My question is how do I overexpose the background in this case as any additional light sources are bound to illuminate the rug as well ? What approach do you suggest I should take ?

    Edit : Rugs are very heavy, a minimum of 75 lbs for a 8×10, so hanging them is not an option, I have 4000 rugs to take pictures of

  • jmdesignz2

    Make a large light box to put underneath the rugs. Use semi-opaque white plexiglass or tightly stretched white nylon to cover the light box and illuminate from underneath with CFL bulbs that are daylight balanced. Lay the rugs on top of the illuminated light box.

  • jmdesignz2

    Or use Chromakey techniques. Lay the rugs on top of green screen material. Then you can replace the color in photo editing software with white. This works as long as none of the rugs have a similar green color.

  • Lawrence

    More expensive flash triggering transiever device that can handle TTL, check pocket wizard or yongnuo website.

  • O.M

    The stage that I have needs to be painted white. Do you have any suggestions on the type of paint that I should use?

  • Daniel Kitchen

    I’ve looked at over a dozen websites on creating a white background and this is the first one that has been practical. I really appreciate your efforts here because it has save me a great deal of trouble. You made all of the information very clear and interesting to watch. Thank you!

  • John W

    Thanks for this article. Part of my job is to take portrait photos of any new joiners (for use on ID Cards and my firms’ intranet) which have to be against a white background. We have a perfectly good white wall. However, in the last couple of months however they have refurbished the area where the wall is and there is now very powerful overhead artifical lighting. We can turn these off but unless it is very sunny day, the photos come out with the “grey wall” syndrome and although I have Photoshop 8, I am not that experienced a user to know how to use the histogram adjustment. We do not currently have any means of backlighting the wall. I also find that sometimes the subject has a sort of grey “halo” down one side. The camera my firm have provided is a 16M Pixel Canon PowerShot A3300 IS. Would be grateful for any ideas on how to overcome

  • Really nice and helpful photography tips and trips here

  • Tron

    I was portraying a friend the other day and we had a white backdrop, I only had two flash guns so I set one flash as a broad light and the other one as back light + a reflector. I started shooting and the light on my friend was just as I wanted it, really nice with good colour etc..However, the background was really really grey-ish. I immediately knew that I had to light my background in order to get it as white as possible, since I only had two flashes I decided to take the pictures as they were and add the white background in post production with photoshop later on. Basically, I didn’t figure out any other way to do it, so any imput will be appreciate it,. Great article by the way.

  • Matthew Mawson

    In tip #2 it says you need 4 stops of light for completely white but in tip #4 it says light the background so it is just barely overexposed. . which one is it? I’ve heard one stop difference is enough on a white background but I tried that ans it’s still slightly grey. I’m using florescents. SHould i get more lights for the background?

  • Clarke Warren

    One stop is perfect

  • Stephen G

    Mr. Northrup, I just wanted to thank you for your videos, books and now your guest articles here on digital-photography-school. You, sir, are never not working and I love it. You’re a tremendous teacher and an inspiring photographer, keep up the good work.

    Oh and great article. ?

  • Cliff

    I have to take pictures of sunglasses and need a very white background. How would I light the background?

  • moneyroad

    This is great tutotial to get white background images, but in practice I’ve foud: in studio you can adjust you lighting setup for optimal performance, but anyway need a lot of practice. A we say practice makes it better. There are not exact camera settings for high key photography, you just must experiment until you get best result on your own situation. Here is my high key photography guide ==> http://www.photo-geeks.com/guide-to-high-key-photography/

  • Mark

    White

  • mrc329

    This fantastic. High key does not necessary white, but bright. It is a good primer. Here an a fantastic article from Adorama Pix.
    http://blog.backdropexpress.com/how-to-choose-the-right-backdrop-color-for-your-portrait/#comment-38865

  • Very high quality image editing specially background removal service talks.

    I’m very much appreciate about this article and this will gives me a clear concept for image editing wprk.

  • Thanks for the nice tips. Every photographer need to read this post to work with white background. I think lightmeter also can be handy to do the same job.

  • Any suggestions for using the sun to achieve this effect when shooting outdoors? Super new at this…

  • priyanka

    Very useful tips you provided. I will try to use the same for my websites.
    http://ecommercephotography.in/

  • I have some confusion about High key. Its really working good or not ? Can you clearly explain it. Please

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