Light and Dark: High Key and Low Key Photography

By Geoff Harris

Understanding the Difference Between High Key and Low Key Photography.

Lindisfarne (Holy Island) Castle on the Northumberland coast. The castle sits on a volcanic mound known as Beblowe Craig, was built in the 16th Century and was later restored by Edwin Lutyens as a home for the publishing magnate Edward Hudson,  high key, low key, photography, online photography courses, David Taylor, The ‘sunny f/16’ rule, exposure, tones, shadows, highlights,

Theory is all very well in……….……err! theory. There are times however when creativity demands that theory can take a back seat. Theoretically there is a correct exposure for any given shooting situation. The histogram of a ‘typical’ image usually has a wide spread of tones.

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The ‘sunny f/16’ rule is based on this assumption (the basic idea is that on a sunny day the correct shutter speed, with the aperture on your camera to set f/16, is roughly the same as the ISO used). The ‘sunny f/16’ can be expanded to work out the exposure for other conditions too. In fact with a bit of searching on the Internet it’s possible to find tables of exposure settings that cover every eventuality (Fred Parker’s Ultimate Exposure Computer is a particularly useful resource).

Who wants to be correct all the time though?

High and low-key photography are styles of photography that require a slight bending of the rules. First though you need to know the rules… A photograph is essentially a range of tones from dark to light that form an image. Typically the key tones are mid-tones (subjects such as grass or rock for instance).

Camera exposure meters are calibrated to average out the exposure to an overall mid-tone. A high-key image is one that has been exposed so that the key tones are lighter than this mid-tone ideal. This means that shadows are brighter and more open and the image usually has a light airy feel. Conversely a low-key image is one in which the key tones are darker than the mid-tone ideal. This makes the highlights dimmer, the shadows dense and the overall image looking darker and more brooding.

Pink and white tulip with out of focus background, high key, low key, photography, online photography courses, David Taylor, The ‘sunny f/16’ rule, exposure, tones, shadows, highlights,

This is a high-key image. Virtually all the tones in the image are lighter than a mid-grey. The background was lit by a lightbox to make it as bright as possible.

Theoretically (there’s that word again) all you have to do to achieve a high or low-key effect is over or underexpose your images respectively. In practise however, it’s all too easy to clip the highlights or shadows. This results in a loss of detail that can’t be recovered. However, it’s fun to experiment shooting this way. As long as you don’t push the exposure too far it’s possible to create very acceptable results.

 high key, low key, photography, online photography courses, David Taylor, The ‘sunny f/16’ rule, exposure, tones, shadows, highlights,

Shooting this low key-key product shot involved stopping light falling on the background and precisely directing light onto the camera.

For full control over your high and low-key images you need to modify the light that falls onto your subject. For high-key images this means pushing more light into the shadows. At its simplest this can be achieved by using a reflector or two (the least expensive option being white card, though commercial reflectors give more consistent results). A slightly more complex method is using additional lighting such as flash or studio lights to lighten the shadows. Low-key images require the opposite: actually blocking light from reaching certain areas of the subject. This can be achieved by sheets of card again or by fitting snoots and barn doors to your lighting (a snoot is a tube that directs the light from a flash or studio light, a barn door is a set of four flaps that can be opened or closed to precisely direct light). The key (hah!) in both instances is interpreting the camera’s histogram so that you’re confident that the desired effect has been achieved. Do that and I’m sure you’ll be impressed with what you’ve accomplished. Well, theoretically. If you would like to learn more about photography why not consider taking one of our 4 week online photography courses and take your photography to the next level.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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