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High Key photography and what it isn’t

There are many misconceptions in Photography and, in part because of the easy access to information on the internet, they tend to spread more quickly these days. One of the common points of misinformation is what ‘high key’ lighting is. Unfortunately there are now many people who think that ‘high key’ is an image on a blown white background like this:

When, in actual fact, that is just a blown white background. It is quite easy to do a blown white background and, for a variety of reasons, it is a popular lighting style. In the studio, once you know how to do it, you can repeat it time after time. Also the lighting tends to be an even coverage making the position of the person / people less critical. It is a style that I have used in school classrooms, village halls, pubs, meeting rooms etc at Proms and Balls, ….. and so the list goes on. However, this is NOT high key, it is just an image on a white background.

There is nothing about this image that makes it a ‘high key’ image. It is a photograph of a group of cousins on a white background. It could have been a red background or blue or yellow or ……… The mixture of colours in their clothing meant that a neutral white background was the best option.

However, true high key lighting gives results more like this:

Nearly all of the tones are in the upper third on the histogram ( inset image ). It is possible to do a high key colour image where the background is not white but a very light blue, yellow, red, lilac, green …… This sort of image is much more difficult to achieve.

If someone is telling you that they do ‘high key’ but mean ‘blown white background’ have a think about what that is telling you and what they are not telling you.

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