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How To Achieve Better High-Key Photographs

Lighting influences the atmosphere of a photograph. High-key photographs are associated with upbeat, positive feelings.

Using one main key light and avoiding contrast can help you produce photographs that convey a happy mood. This technique is popular with wedding and portrait photographers. It’s also often used in classy advertising campaigns.

How To Make Better High Key Photographs Young Clown

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

What is your key light?

Your main light source is your key light. It can be light from any source. The sun on a cloudy day is the best natural key light. Artificial light from a portable flash, studio strobes or a continuous light source can also be used. To infuse the right mood, you are best to diffuse the light.

Diffusing your light source scatters the light rays. This reduces the amount of shadow in your pictures. When you have a strong, softened key light, the shadows it casts will be minimal. You can use additional lights or reflectors to lessen the effect of the shadows even more.

To maximize the good-feeling effect, you need to produce photographs with a narrow tone range. The difference between the darkest and lightest areas in your composition should only be a few stops. You must work with the light sources to balance the light ratio.

How To Make Better High Key Photographs Young Woman in the Park

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

What’s wrong with shadows?

There’s nothing wrong with shadows, but they can imply a heavier mood.

Deep shadows in a photograph are often associated with more somber feelings. Shadows are often used with great effect to convey drama, mystery, and suspense.

Hard edges and high contrast restrict what a viewer can clearly see in a photograph. This lighting technique is often used by photographers and moviemakers to evoke feelings of doubt and mistrust.

Control the light and contrast levels using one diffused key light on your main subject. This produces a nice feeling.

Using one strong, undiffused light produces hard shadows on your subject. This often results in a darker overall feeling.

Man Studio Portrait

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Use high-key light with the right subject

It’s always best to consider and control the light you use to fit best with your subject.

High Key and Low Key

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

During the portrait session I had with this young woman, we wanted to create two different moods. One light and happy, the other more serious.

For the high key photo, I used a large softbox on my main studio light and a smaller softbox on my secondary light. This produced a soft, bright wrap around light with little shadow. I also lit the background with two strong lights to add to the happy atmosphere. Obviously, her radiant smile completed the tone of this photograph.

During the same session, I changed the lighting. I used only one light and did not diffuse it. I also turned off the background lights and she turned off her smile.

Had I kept the lighting the same as she posed with the two different expressions, the mood would not have been conveyed so well.

How To Make Better High Key Photographs Cleaning Dispute

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

How does the background affect high-key photography?

I think the lighter the background is the more upbeat the feeling of a photo can be. But light-colored backgrounds do not have to be used exclusively.

In a photo session with a ceramic artist who wanted really get in touch with her medium, we produced a series of different photos. Some were high-key with a light background. Others we made with a dark background. Some of them I used high-key lighting. In others, I used one undiffused light.

How To Make Better High Key Photographs Clean Ceramic artist

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

This was one of the first photos in the series before things got dirty. The high-key lighting combined with the light background and another lovely smile produced a light, happy portrait.

Muddy Ceramic artist

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Dropping in a dark background and keeping the key light the same. After applying some mud, it resulted in a fun, rather unusual portrait. The mood is certainly different from the dark background. The lighting was basically the same.

Muddy Ceramic artist Close Up

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Wanting to create a different mood, I then used a single, undiffused light with a more gloomy, contemplative pose.

Pay attention to the shadows

Your key light source will determine the amount and strength of the shadows in your photos. You must pay careful attention to the shadows and ensure they are not too dark. Eliminating or lessening the shadow areas will enhance the effectiveness of your high-key photos.

Using a large, soft light source produces the least amount of shadow. This can be a large softbox on a studio strobe, as I have used in the examples above. You can also make use of sunlight for making high-key photographs.

On cloudy days or when your subject is in the shade, the shadows will tone down more. In full, bright sunshine, the shadows can be problematic. They will be darker and have hard edges. This high contrast will not add to the mood you want to create.

Finding an outdoor location where you can backlight your subject with the sunlight can help produce high-key photos. In situations like this, you’ll need a fill light, which will act as your key light. Even though the sun is brighter, the light you add will be the main light you must take your meter reading from.

How To Make Better High Key Photographs Young Asian Woman Outdoors

Young Clown

Setting your exposure by this light, as I have in the photo above, will result in an overexposed background. I was able to achieve this look because of the white-painted structures close by. They were reflecting light back into her face.


As in all styles of photography, working with the light to create the photos you want is an integral part of the process. The better your lighting is, the better your photos will be.

Experiment and try different light sources to achieve a high-key effect. There are no hard-and-fast rules, and you must work with what you have. Whether you’re in a studio or outdoors, you will face challenges.

How To Make Better High Key Photographs Chicken Nerd

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

In a studio, you may not have enough room, lights or diffusers. Be creative, think outside the box a little and innovate when you want to make high-key photos.

Do the same outdoors with natural light. Try introducing diffused flash to help balance the light ratio and reduce the shadows. Make use of reflected light bouncing off a wall or building. Carrying a fold-out reflector is also another practical way to help subdue the shadows.

How To Make Better High Key Photographs Strawberry Cheesecake

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Give some thought as to how you can create some high-key photos using what you have available to you. You don’t have to photograph people. Food, still life and other subjects can be presented well using high key lighting too.

I’d love to see some in the comments below with a description of how you made them!


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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his e-books and his website.

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