High-key photography

I have promised several times (not least to myself) that I would get better at describing the different techniques and systems in the studio. Frankly, I’m not very good at that, and I mostly end up blogging about the commercial and philosophic aspects of photography. Probably partly due to the fact that I have never been the type to run around with a light meter and ruler, but depend mostly on feel and a good eye. However, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to occasionally brush up on theory, and just check the eye calibration. So let’s start out gently with one of the – in my opinion – very basic principles, namely the creation of high-key photos, which forms the basis of many of my black and white portraits.

The picture below shows the layout of the area in my studio where I take high-key photos. To the right of the subject is the main light (this is called key light) – a softbox about 45 degrees to the right and also angled vertically about 45 degrees. In the background I use a whitewall. It’s basically a softbox in giant format, which is internally lit by two studio flashes – one on each side. This creates the totally white, burnt-out light. The whitewall could easily be replaced by a plain white background which is directly lit up by a flash from the front. The advantage of the whitewall is that the light is spread much wider inwardly, and it is therefore much easier to get an even burnout over a larger area. A background illuminated from the front can be quite difficult to manage.


That’s not really all. To avoid ugly shadows on the subject on the opposite side of the key light, we also have to control “the broad light” – the room light. In my case, this comes from a large umbrella softbox placed at the opposite end of the room. In the picture below, taken from the subject’s viewpoint, you see the umbrella soft box at the far end.


The secret of successful high-key photos is the weighting between the 3 light sources. In the beginning I learnt that there should be 2 stops’ difference between the key light and the burned out light, and the equivalent of 2 stops between the key light and the room lighting. This means that if the key light is set at f8, then the illuminated background should give a light equal to f16 and the room light the equivalent of f4 – all of them measured at the point of the subject. For the highlight background, however, I believe that this is on the high side – I usually have highlight background set to about 1 ½ stops higher than the key light, ie.in the vicinity of f12 tof14 when the photo is taken at f8.

If the highlight background is too strong, then detail at the edge of the subject is burnt out. For portraits, this means particularly that the details of the hair are “drowned” in the strong light, whereby the subject will seem “clipped out”. Similarly, the ears have a tendency to become transparent. Especially with light-haired people one must be very careful with the strength of the highlight background, since light hair can be even more likely to disappear in the light. And you can’t correct this afterwards!

Another problem with strong backlight is spilt light around your subject – i.e. when the backlight increases the lighting around the sides of the subject, such as the cheeks, in a portrait. This can be avoided by placing black shields on each side of the person, which can further help to highlight the subject against the bright background.  I will illustrate the effects of this in a future article.

Finally, let me conclude by showing the resultant picture from the above set-up:


and the subsequent conversion to black and white:

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1 Comment

  1. Really like your light wall setup, I’m pretty sure you get away with the smaller light difference because you have a evenly illuminated background so you can keep tighter specs. This probably also give you more dynamic range in your image without flaring on the edge details.

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