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High Key Photography: Definition & Tips for Stunning Shots

If you’ve read our low key photography article, then you can take a guess that High Key Photography is the exact opposite. High key photography is an image that is quite bright, light, and airy (unlike low key’s dark, dim, and moody). Contrary to popular belief, high key is not an overexposed image. A high key image is one with a minimal tonal range, lacking deep contrast caused by harsh shadows, and an overall light color palette. 

In order to capture an actual high key image and not just an overexposed shot, you must first understand the aesthetic of high key photography. Paired with the right equipment and know-how, and you should be all set to go! 

The Aesthetic of High Key Photography 

These ‘keys’ all have to do with the emotion they invoke in the viewer. With high key photography, the mood is very upbeat, optimistic, and happy! It has an energy and liveliness to it. That all has to do with the brightness and color scheme. 

You don’t need an entirely white palette to be high key- you can just have light colors. This also doesn’t mean that you can’t have any dark colors in a high key image, only that most of the image must be light. 

Here are some examples of high key photography: 

What Do You Need for High Key Photography? 

Much like low key, you really just need a camera, a lens, and the right lighting (or location!). 

The camera doesn’t factor in as much because high key photography is intended to be achieved in very brightly lit or well lit locations. As such, both full frame sensors and crop sensors are able to achieve this look without issue, as you are not contending with low light. 

In regard to the lens, that is pretty open ended as well. The lens factors the most into your final output, so look for a focal length that matches your style. High key can be shot with shallow depth of field or deep depth of field, so there is really no restriction there either. 

As for lighting, lighting can be achieved naturally (with available light or outdoor light) or with studio equipment illuminating the scene. That depends entirely upon the location of the photo shoot. 

How Do You Do High Key Photography?

For high key photography, you want to have the image be a wee bit overexposed- but not so much that you’re losing all of the details. 

It is best to shoot in RAW format so that you can save the details of the highlights. RAW is quite literally the raw version of the file, so all of the information is perfectly written and uncompressed (great for doing adjustments in post processing, such as with Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom). 

Adjust your white balance to ensure that your whites are stark and bright. White balance refers to the colors in your image. White balance gets rid of something known as a Color Cast. Color Casts are visible tints in an image. For example, a blue color cast makes every color look very cold and blue-ish. In order to reduce color cast, white balance adjusts the temperature to bring colors back to their natural state. You want your whites to be true white!

For metering (which helps with your exposure setting), you can leave it on Matrix / Evaluative. This metering mode is the default on most cameras. This mode considers the entire scene, all of its shadows and highlights, when setting the exposure. It’s goal is to expose the darkest part of your image and the lightest part of your image as equally as possible. 

As well, you ideally want to reduce shadows in your images, so if you’re shooting outdoors, bring a reflector to fill up the shadowed bits. A reflector is a simple tool that redirects existing light. Ideally you’d like to use a silver reflector, as silver reflects white light. 

If you’re shooting indoors with studio lighting, use your lighting to illuminate as much of the space as possible. Shoot on a light colored background, and keep the lighting even. 

Best Subjects for High Key Photography

Although both low key and high key photography works for a wide array of subjects, each one has its own distinct niche. For high key photography, it tends to work best for families, products, and companies or bloggers that promote health and wellness. 

Family photography (and even weddings, for that matter) gravitate heavily towards high key photography due to its propensity to express a happy family! Families having fun playing under the sun and smiling by a bright background spring to mind easily. 

Products that are intended to sell to an upbeat audience, such as yoga clothes or toys for kids work well with a bright look! They also tend to be the right color scheme in and of themselves. 

For health and wellness bloggers, companies, content creators- high key photography is used to promote and sell a lifestyle. This lifestyle goes hand in hand with well lit (or brightly lit) locations and softer colors. 

In conclusion, for all of your light and airy images- do it right with high key photography! 

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