Key Photography Effects: High Key And Low Key Photography

High Key and Low Key photography are two effects in the photography world that many have achieved in their own photography without realizing it. High Key and Low Key photography are basically posh terms for a photograph that uses extremely high levels of white or black.

High Key images are generally associated with happiness and well-being, therefore a lot of High Key photography can be found in professional family and children portraits, as well as a lot of advertisements too. In general, you would find that High Key photographs do not contrast very much as the shadows are suppressed by lighting, or suppressed later in a photo-editing program. As well as that, although High Key images focus on a lot of white, they are not generally supposed to be overexposed.

In contrary, Low Key images are full of shadows and black, and used to create dramatic tension and suspense in the photograph’s atmosphere. Low Key images also sometimes pay attention to lines and shapes, and being so full of dark areas and black colour, light can be reflected easily off these lines and shapes to emphasize them among the darkness.

The below image by vramak grabbed at my attention during my search for a suitable example of Low Key photography. It was not originally what I was looking for specifically; however it stood out so much that I had to include it. It has obviously been greatly edited in a photo-editing program, but the Low Key effect just emphasizes the shape and smoke, focusing the viewers’ attention on the fact that the smoke is not just smoke, it is in the shape of a tiger. I love the way the smoke is highlighted and brought to attention by the mass of shadow and black colour, and I also really like how the face is half in the shadows, providing a nice contrast for the smoke.

Self destruction by vramak.

"Self destruction" by vramak.

On the other hand, here we have a High Key image by bigboydrums advertising the man in the photograph who is “3byone media”. I really like this image as the model’s humorous expression is atypical of usual advertisement photographs, and the viewer can tell that he is so obviously full of vivacity and cheek. The High Key aspect of the photograph really provides a clean and neat appearance that is suitable for advertising, and makes it easier for the viewer to take in information.

3byone media by bigboydrums.

"3byone media" by bigboydrums.

Personally, I prefer High Key photograpy of landscapes, and also High Key macro photography is quite interesting as High Key effects make a landscape seem strangely ethereal and magical due to the high levels of white colour in places you would usually expect a different colour. The two photographs below show this.

Here in my room by evilkorny.

"Here in my room" by evilkorny.

Making the best of... by kantryla.

"Making the best of..." by kantryla.

These two images really stood out to me, as they are both images of usually boring subjects that are common photographs, but the High Key effect has made them both into strange images with no colour and a lot of white, and the lack of colour adds a certain strange etherealness and fantastic feel to the photograph.

After looking at these inspirational images, I decided to try out High Key photography myself as I had never really attempted it fully before. I spent a while considering what to photograph as I had limited resources, and decided to do something small and simple, so I chose one of my new, clean paintbrushes. During the photographing, I realized that it was a good choice as I could really get close up, and the edge of the bristles would look really nice as they were still soft and clean, and they almost blended into the background.

Monochrome paint by ameena rojee.

"Monochrome paint" by ameena rojee.

I took the photograph with my settings increased to full exposure, and a low shutter speed as my lighting was not too strong. I used a plain piece of strong paper as a background, and a desk lamp as my main source of light. I lowered the ISO to 200 to reduce the noise as I wanted a pretty clean image, which I think I achieved.

I half followed a tutorial to edit the image in Photoshop, but generally just played around with curves, contrast (and contrast in specifically selected areas) and layer masks. One of the instructions of the tutorial which was the most important was to convert the image to black and white by opening the channels mixer tool, and setting it to ‘black and white with red filter’, as this gives it the best setting for a High Key effect.

In general, I played around a lot with different settings and did not completely follow the tutorial, but the photograph turned out quite good, and I really like it, especially the bristles part as I think that was the best part. One annoying thing was that I could not get the background to go very white, as p0rg has done in his tutorial, without the brush blending into the background a little too much.

Link to the tutorial I used

Thanks for reading!

Studying photography at UWE, Bristol, Ameena is a self-taught photographer and retoucher, working to get into the fashion photography industry. Cinematography and portraiture are her two favourite genres, and she loves to create and tell stories. In her spare time, she likes to play sports, video games, and lose herself in good books
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