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This post was most recently updated on January 8th, 2023

As a photographer we are taught to expose our images correctly to make sure we keep the photograph as well-balanced as possible. It is really important to learn so we can create images that showcase real life and that we can work with different lighting set-ups. Plus, it means we can get to grips with how to use a camera.

Once we have cracked that, many of us waste no time and start to break the rules of photography convention. High key lighting does just that. It is not about having an image that is so well-rounded that it is perfect. Instead, it is an overexposed photograph that pops with color and attitude.

Here we discuss what high key lighting is, why it is beneficial and how you can create wonderful overexposed images without it looking like an accident.

What Is A High Key Image?

Unlike low key lighting which produces dark shadows and a more dramatic feeling, high key lighting is the exact opposite. It illuminates most, if not all, of the shadows in a picture and it appears overly bright.

It is all about the lighting, rather than trying to overexpose an image in-camera, though this can be done but not to the same effect. It is done by using one primary light on the subject, and then more lights and a reflector (though not necessary) to fill in any light where the shadows are.

If the lighting is not balanced enough it will produce too much shadow, so the subject needs to be lit in a specific way for full high key effect. To get the balance right, the secondary lights need to be a lower output. These will help reduce any of the shadows that the main light creates.

The Benefits Of Using High Key Lighting

There are many benefits when it comes to high key lighting within a photograph. Not only does it bring out the depth within bright colors, it also produces a photo with a happier feeling.

If you think about it, the lighting in a photograph can give the viewer a sense of mood that is trying to be portrayed by the photographer. When we see shadows and low key lighting, it comes across as more dramatic and moody – perhaps even sometimes aggressive and sad.

When the light is bright, it can relate to the feeling of being happy like when the sun is shining and everything seems to be okay.

It also produces a cleaner looking image with no shadows and sharp colors, so it is perfect for something like product photography or photographing a person.

High Key Lighting On Popular Culture

High key lighting has been used in popular culture for many decades. Photographers will ‘overexpose’ a pop group, almost taking out their natural skin color to give a more youthful and ‘poppy’ vibe. This is something very relevant today with bands in the Kpop genre.

It is also used within premium skincare. Products are photographed in wonderfully high key lighting set-ups that almost look like they have been photographed in the full sunlight against a block color background – just minus any shadows.

It has also been used in fashion shoots for a similar vibe to that of the pop groups, but also it is just a great all-rounder type of lighting that can give any photo that extra something which is popular with the photographer David LaChapelle.

What Do You Need For High Key Lighting

What Do You Need For High Key Lighting

When it comes to high key lighting within a studio, your usual set-up probably will not do. Here are a few things to consider if you are looking to take high key images:

  • A Digital Camera – it does not matter whether it is a cheap DSLR or an expensive one, they will both do the trick. So long as it can take quality photos, it will be able to produce great results.
  • Softbox – a cheaper option compared to a strobe light, but better if you are on a budget. A softbox produces a softer light (it is all in the name) which may not be strong enough as a key light, but with other lights within the set-up, it should do a decent job.
  • Strobe Light – or you could opt for a strobe light. It is much more powerful, but the price is higher too. If you are likely to take a lot of high key images moving forward, it will be worth investing in a strobe light. You can always invest in a full set to use.
  • Background And Fill-In Lights – anything that will add a lot of light will be suitable. This is where a bundle of strobe lights will come in use.
  • A Block Background Color – even though white is the preferred choice (it does bounce color around), you can also use any other color you may like. You can play around with what works for each color and have fun with it.

The Important Camera Settings

If you are thinking about trying to produce high key imagery, then it is likely you already know how to use a camera pretty well. Even so, you also probably know that most of the time it is all about trial and error and figuring out the settings on the go no matter how professional you are (and that is the fun with photography).

Here are some basic camera settings to think about:

  • ISO – because we are working within a bright setting, you do not need the ISO to be high. Start with something like 100. Think of it like being outside in the bright sun taking pictures. You do not need that much extra help with lighting!
  • Exposure – this kind of photography requires you to overexpose an image, so for the first time on purpose, set the shutter speed so it will overexpose the pictures you take in-camera, rather than having to brighten it up in Photoshop.
  • Aperture – you need as much light as possible, so use a wide and fast aperture.

How To Take High Key Images

Whilst it is good to look at other photographs for inspiration, overtime you will find your own style when it comes to taking high key photos. Here are a few ways to achieve high key imagery:

  • Make Use Of The Lights – unlike other forms of studio light set-up, the subject needs to be lit at every single angle. That is 360 degrees of lighting if possible! The aim is to eliminate as much shadow as possible to create a bright photograph. In simple terms, it needs to be unnaturally bright.
  • Post-Editing – for this type of photography, post-editing is very important. Overexposed photos will take out certain colors like those in the skin, so this will be a good time to try and get that back.

You can even use this part of the process to tone down lighting, or to ramp it up.

Photographing High Key Imagery Outside

You might not think it is possible to do high key photography outside, but it is. However, it is nowhere near as dramatic as a studio set-up and it will not give you that same high key vibe you may be after.

If your subject is standing under some form of structure that has natural light coming through, you can use that natural light as the primary light source, and use a reflector to bounce the natural light onto any shaded areas of the face and body.

Whilst this is certainly not to the same effect, it can still brighten up an image and remove unwanted shadow. Just make sure the person is not up against a wall or backdrop to avoid dark shadows.

Final Words

High key lighting is a fun way to take photographs, and is one of the only times where overexposing an image is acceptable – but who is following the rules anyway?

With a good light-set up and a subject to hand, you can achieve a high key image easily, even with just a small amount of photography knowledge. Plus, it is a great way to learn more about how lighting affects photos.