High Key Photography. Clearing It Up.

What is high key photography?

If you Google it, you get a lot of mixed and seemingly inconsistent results. Some are black and white, some colour; some are low contrast, some high contrast; some are overexposed, some underexposed; some have white backgrounds, some don’t; some have strong shadows, some have almost no shadows. It gets worse the further you scroll through the results, and it certainly confused me the first time I was looking into it!

What’s more, if you do a general search, and start clicking through all the “How to” articles, they don’t match the majority of what you see in the image results either.

It turns out there’s a reason for this inconsistency and confusion. High key is a term used to describe an image, and is not at all equivalent to the term high key lighting which, as you might have guessed, describes a specific style of lighting. Contrary to what you might expect, high key lighting techniques don’t usually produce a high key image. They can, but that’s not what the lighting style is intended for.

Back to the search results above, the majority of those “How to” articles don’t distinguish between the two different terms. They also tend to focus only on high key lighting (and aren’t always correct on just what that is, either), whereas the image results contained a mix of high key images, and photographs that used high key lighting, but aren’t actually high key images. (Plus a couple that don’t fit either term.)

Confused yet? Hopefully this next part will clear things up.

High Key Images

So just what is a high key image?

Quite simply, a high key image is just an image that consists entirely – or almost entirely – of lighter tones. In photography, these images are often very bright and white, with the subject being lightly coloured (light skinned, and wearing light colours) on a very light (often white) background. As a result, these images are often black and white and low in contrast, but they are not required to be. The only requirement is that the majority of tones must fall above middle grey (the halfway point between black and white).

This is a high key image I photographed recently:

High Key Portrait

Image by Melissa Kee Tin Ordonez

As you can see, this image is very white, but not really overexposed. If you look closely (depending on your screen), there is still faint detail in the white jacket, and on the face. There are also still some blacks in the image, and the background is not pure white, but it’s clearly an image made up mostly of lighter tones. For the more technical people, I’ve provided the histogram for this image below, where you can see that virtually all of the image data is right at the white end of the chart.

Histogram showing the range of tones in the image. X axis is tone from black on the left to white on the right. Y axis is number of pixels.

Histogram showing the range of tones in the image. X axis is tone from black on the left to white on the right. Y axis is number of pixels.

This is all it really means when an image is classified as high key: the majority of it is made up of lighter tones. How you light it doesn’t really matter. The above shot was actually taken outside in the snow with 100% natural light on an overcast day (with some editing to enhance the effect), but I could have done this with artificial light if I’d wanted to.

Traditionally, high key images are of an already light subject on a light background. As a result, they are low in contrast, and often have a soft, delicate or feminine feel. While exposure is often increased, they are not actually overexposed.

Today, however, you often do see a much more stylised version that is deliberately overexposed and boosted in contrast. This tends to give the image more of a graphical, artsy feel, and while some people would not consider these types of images to be true to high key photography, they do still fall under the definition of being made up mostly of lighter tones.

High Key Lighting

So how does this compare to high key lighting?

High key lighting is a lighting technique that actually comes from the days of studio film production. It is a way of lighting a scene uniformly such that everything is equally well lit and shadows are diminished. You see this style of lighting in TV show sitcoms such as Friends, since the lighting doesn’t need to change (cheaper for the production company) and it doesn’t add any drama or moodiness to the scene.

In photography, the principle is the same, but the background is blown out to be pure white. That, and the uniform lighting, gives a very commercial, professional feel, and is most often used for catalogue product photography, headshots, beauty, and stock photos.

High Key Lighting Image by Marc Schultz

Image by Marc Schultz. Check out his tutorial for this image below.

As you can see here, the lighting is very even and flat across the entire subject. This image has a very different look and feel to the high key image I shot, and you can tell just by looking at it that it is not at all made up of lighter tones.

Here is the histogram for proof:

Histogram showing the range of tones in the image. X axis is tone from black on the left to white on the right. Y axis is number of pixels.

Histogram showing the range of tones in the image. X axis is tone from black on the left to white on the right. Y axis is number of pixels.

Quite different from the first histogram. There is a spike at the white end because the background is all white, but you can see the majority of the image data is at the darker end. So while this photograph used high key lighting, it is not actually a high key image. What makes it confusing is that people will still call it a high key image, but what they’re really referring to in this case is the type of lighting used.

However, if the model had been pale skinned and wearing white, then the majority of tones would indeed fall above middle grey, and you would have a high key image that was created using high key lighting.

How to Achieve High Key Lighting

Unlike my own high key image at the start of this article, high key lighting does require the use of quite a few lights. First, you need two lights just to get a pure white background in camera, and second, you also need two lights on your subject to get that even, flat lighting. You also need modifiers on those lights to soften the light so you don’t get harsh shadows.

High Key Lighting Diagram

Diagram showing a typical setup for high key lighting using four lights

There is more than one way to produce high key lighting, but I’ve seen a lot of tutorials for doing so that, quite frankly, are just plain wrong. The results they show are not evenly lit, shadows are not diminished, and sometimes the background isn’t even white. So be careful if you go looking on Google.

The most accurate tutorial I have found so far is by Marc Schultz, and that can be found here. He has some excellent examples of what is and isn’t high key lighting, and also explores the use of Photoshop to create actual high key images (the ones that consist almost entirely of lighter tones). Well worth the read, even if just to get a better understanding of what high key lighting is.

If you don’t have four lights, it is possible to achieve a similar look with less lights, for example, with one light on the background, one light on the subject, and a reflector to even out the shadows, but chances are you won’t get anywhere near as good results unless you also do a lot of editing.

Whatever equipment you use, just remember, what you’re trying to accomplish here is even, flat lighting on your subject with a pure white background.


A high key image, and an image created using high key lighting, refer to two very different things.

High key images are ones that consist almost entirely of lighter tones. Normally, it is a lighter subject matter on a lighter background that causes it to be high key, but the effect is also often enhanced or created through post processing. Artificial lights are not required.

Whereas an image created using high key lighting is not necessarily a high key image. The lighting technique isolates the subject on a pure white background, and lights the subject well and uniformly so as to diminish any shadows.

When looking into high key photography, be clear on which one you’re trying to do, and be aware that not every tutorial or article out there properly distinguishes between the two. It can be very easy to get confused, and to be led off on the wrong track.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below.


One thought on “High Key Photography. Clearing It Up.”

  1. Carmen Ray Ray Anderson says:

    Another great and informative article, tyvm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *