Tips and Tricks for High Key Portraits

These days we most often see high key photography used for product photography, but its roots go back long before the internet. In fact, high-key photography has traditionally been used to add a light, airy, cheery mood to portraits. Never tried it before or not getting the results you like? Photographer Gavin Hoey explains not only what high key photography is but also how to shoot it and apply the final touches in Photoshop:

High key photography, or shooting in the upper half of the exposure scale (the right side of your histogram), originally came about because early film couldn’t capture a wide range of contrast. These days it’s used to add a light, cheery mood to your portraits, or alternatively, to create a delicate, dreamy, ethereal feel. Traditionally it’s done with three lights: a key light for the main exposure, a light for the background, and a light for fill. But, as you can see from Hoey’s diagram below, you can use a reflector for the fill light if you wish. As long as you fill in all of the shadows without over-exposing, you’re good to go.

High Key Lighting Diagram

High Key Lighting Setup

It’s easiest to shoot high key images with a light (usually white) background and light clothing, as the lighter colors reflect back the light and help keep the image on the brighter side of the histogram. If you use props (which can definitely add an element of creativity to your photos), it will help if they’re a light color as well.

(And Hoey’s printer-paper background can also add a nice touch!)

Using a paper background and a prop

Keep in mind, while high key is traditionally used on light-toned skin and clothing, you can still make it work with darker skin tones and clothing. You’ll just need to added care to your lighting setup and possibly your post-processing.

Post-Processing High Key Portraits

Speaking of post-processing, Hoey has some masterful, yet simple, processes for giving your high-key images a perfect finishing touch (in Photoshop).

  1.  First, lower the saturation of the skin tones. Add another layer, desaturate, and change the blending mode to “screen.”
  2. Add a bit more contrast. Duplicate the second layer and change the blending mode to “soft light.”
  3. If needed, remove distractions. Add more layers using the blending mode “multiply” until you get the look you want. If needed, mask a bit of the original back in for realism or depth.

If you’ve never used Photoshop’s blending modes in this way before, try them out on other images. It can really simplify what would otherwise be a more complex process!

Adding contrast using Photoshop layers

Gear List

Of course, high key photography can be used for much more than just portraiture. You can try these techniques out on just about anything. Try it out and let us know how it goes.

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