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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.
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!