How to Create High Contrast Portraits

[Editor's Note:  It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you Jaycee Crawford, an exceptional portrait/boudoir photographer based in New York City.  I'm confident his articles will inspire you to up your game and inspire many great photographs of your own!]

As a photographer, I love working in monochrome.  There is a simplicity and a timelessness in the way the tones reside in these photos, stimulates me visually.  Truth be told, I dig all sorts of monochrome images, but my favorite type of monos to produce are highly contrasted ones as they tend to contain more ‘energy’ and elicit more of an emotional/visual reaction.

Now in my opinion, in order to produce highly contrasted portrait images, it is best to use as few light sources as possible (preferably just one) as this helps make sure that everything will not be evenly lit.  The key is to have distinct areas of light and dark.  One light, placed at a high angle in relation to your subject or angled to the side of the subject, will throw interesting shadows across the ‘landscape’ of the face.  These contrasting shadows can then be augmented during the conversion to monochrome, resulting in a highly contrasted image every time.  Before we begin, here are two definitions that often apply to monochromatic images:

A ‘High Key’ image is made when mostly light or white subject matter is composed in the frame.  The resulting image would consist of mainly white tonalities and therefore would be considered High Key.  These types of images are used quite often for head-shots and for commercial product shots because of the clean, sharp feel these images emit.  It should be noted that quite often images that are High Key do not have a good amount of dark areas or solid blacks and therefore are often not well contrasted.

A ‘Low Key’ image is made up of mostly blacks or dark tonalities.  The images tend to be very stylistic and moody and are able to tell stories and evoke intense feelings in the viewer.  Let’s look at the 9 photos below and see how they would be classified, some will be High Key and some Low Key.



I shot this High Key photo with 2 strobe lights, using one to light the subject and one to ‘blow out’ the background to a white without detail.  A white corner wall was used to reflect light back onto the model for the light visible on her back and left cheek.  Notice that there isn’t a lot of heavy contrast.  High Key photos are often this way.

Ruhi_Mother of Pearl


Here is a more stylistic version of a High Key image.  This photo was shot against a white wall with 1 constant light as the only lighting source.  The majority of tones in this image are necessarily bright: the face, the highlights of the silk gown and the white wall make this High Key.  The slight folds in the gown create silky, wonderful gradations in tonality and in this instance, also provide some welcome stark contrasts towards the lower right of the photo.

Angelene_All Black


The above image is a very highly contrasted photo and can be considered a Low Key image as the majority of tones are dark.  This image in particular is very stark and there are very few middle tones.  Notice how the bright line of the subject’s cheekbone pops forward — on account of the heavy blacks tonalities that push the white tones toward the viewer.  Nik Software’s Silver Efx will help polarize your images’ tonalities so you can achieve strong tonal differences like these.



Another low key example.  Notice how the white tones have been partially muted by a yellowish tinting and there are very few middles tones — but that the image still has relatively strong contrasts of light and dark.



To change things up this image is neither High Key nor Low Key.  However, there is a nice balance of bright whites and inky black darks with a few gradations of gray in the areas not directly lit.  This was shot with natural light coming in from very large, floor-to-ceiling windows at the Standard Hotel.



Here is a shot from another on-location shoot at the Night Hotel in midtown last December.  It was icy cold but we successfully shot on the balcony overlooking the street with 1 constant light that threw wonderfully irregular shadows over the right hand side of the subject’s face.  This image qualifies for Low Key as most of the photo consists of deep black.  Notice that there are good contrasts between hair and skin and between both hair and skin and the inky black of the background.



This image was shot with 1 constant light so that it lit three-quarters of the subject’s face and let the rest fall into shadow.  This is also a Low Key image but it has an excellent amount of well placed contrasting shades.  The tones of the face and hands contrast beautifully against the darker shaded background.



The majority of tonalities here are bright, making this a High Key image.  However, I have taken special stylistic precaution to make sure there are strong blacks present as well – and in this way the image really ‘pops’.  The jawline here  is very well contrasted against the dark areas of the hair and shadows on the neck.  The dress line is very contrasted against the skin tones of her back and the hair on the top and sides of the head contrast well in tone to both the white background on the left and the more shadowy gray of the background on the right.



Finally, here is another example of a stylistic, High Key photo that also possesses significant contrast due to the existing areas of heavy shadow and tonality.  Ambient light filtering in from a sliding glass balcony door was used along with a slight augmentation from a single constant light, to better illuminate the face. Additional brightening was achieved in conversion.

All photos were converted to mono with Nik Software’s Silver Efx plug-in using a red filter to polarize tones and increase contrast.  Layers of either Gaussian Blur or Selective Color were subsequently used to add further contrast and softening with the blending mode set to ‘Overlay’ in Photoshop.  Some photos were then tinted with color in the shadows tones or painted in for desired effect.

Jaycee Crawford is an artist, DJ and world traveler at heart. An avid collector of electronic music, he also routinely ‘collects’ people, places and ideas from all walks of life and all over the globe; all of which inspire him to create his imagery. He currently lives in New York City and is developing a small business in creative portraiture and boudoir photography.


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