How to Shoot High Key Portraits With a Single Speedlight

Did you think that having just one flash unit is not enough to create bright high-key portraits?

Straight from Manila-based wedding and portrait photographer Jiggie Alejandrino, this live demonstration and tutorial on shooting a model against a plain background to produce high-key portraits might be perfect for your practice shoots while stuck at home. 

In the video, Alejandrino demonstrates this simple workflow using a Sony a7R Mark IV with an 85mm f/1.4 G Master lens, a blank white wall, a single flash unit, and a standard two-sided reflector. In the process of shooting, he talks about how to use your camera's settings to eliminate any ambient light in the shot, as well as how to use the ambient light to complement your speedlight. He also later talks about the difference in the effect of the silver and the white side of the standard reflector and how it affects the texture of the skin of your model. 

In application, the video disproves a misconception that you would need multiple light sources to shoot such a bright high-key portrait. For most beginners who are trying to get into portraiture, it may seem intimidating to think that you would have to invest in so much gear to come up with a beautifully lit studio portrait. The demonstration, however, shows otherwise. 

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12 Comments

Johnny Rico's picture

Shooting on a white seamless is not high key, this is also full of lens flare.

Spy Black's picture

Looks high key to me, and flare is easy enough to fix if you want it.

Johnny Rico's picture

High key is stacking tones on the right of the histogram, not just having white or overexposing. Put this model in a white jean's and a white blouse and then you have high key.

Dave F's picture

"In application, the video disproves a misconception that you would need multiple light sources to shoot such a bright high-key portrait."

It doesn't even come close to disproving that. What it does prove is that if you speak with authority while saying something that people wish were true, loads of them will follow you.

It’s sleight of hand. People get so distracted by the demonstration and the idea that you can do something more easily than it would otherwise appear, they forget to pay attention to the actual result. The picture is terrible.

There are tons of accounts on Instagram now that do nothing but post 5 BTS pics before showing the actual result (if they even show it at all) and people eat it up, except that most of the time when they do show the final image it’s awful. And if you ever try to point this out, people always fall back on the whole “well, for beginners who are just starting out, this is the way you can do it until you can afford more gear”. No, bad results are not the way to do things. Brilliant marketing though… you’re basically showing people exactly what not to do and selling the notion of “acceptable substitutes”. People always want easier and cheaper. Appeal to that and you’ll get a ton of followers. The joke is that none of them will ever produce a good image, at least as long as they’re listening to you.

Beginners, if you want a real lesson, it’s this: education is probably the biggest moneymaker for photographers these days. Do you think “professional photographers” are spending so much time creating (and selling) educational content out of the goodness of their hearts? It’s business. And just like any industry, there are a few premier brands and tons of garbage. You really need to ask yourselves whether you want to be learning from the garbage.

That’s not to say there aren’t genuinely amazing photographers who are producing top notch educational content, but we’re in a cycle right now that most of what beginners see other photographers doing is teaching, not shooting million dollar ad campaigns. So, that’s what they aspire to, and YouTube has no quality control for this. Anybody can be a teacher as soon as they decide that’s what they want to be. Their skill level is irrelevant.

If there’s one thing that can’t be stressed enough, it’s that if you really want to learn, go to where the good pictures are, not to where a BTS is most accessible. Everybody is trying to teach these days and it’ll take you 4 times as long to learn if you don’t wise up to this practice. You’ll go further developing your eye by looking at amazing pictures than you will by following a million BTS accounts whose end results are irrelevant because they’re not actually selling good images. They're selling snake oil.

Stuart Carver's picture

With such strong opinions I expected to see some great pictures in your portfolio... oh wait.

Stuart Carver's picture

A what sorry? Are you 5 using words like poop?

Dave F's picture

With such a strong desire to voice your opinion of my comment I expected to see some substance in your response… oh wait.

This is a tired argument that’s perpetuated mostly by people who don’t know anything about logic and can’t think for themselves. I’ve got no problem with disagreement but, oh wait, you didn’t actually say I was wrong.

The thing is, nothing about what I said is contingent on having a portfolio to be right. In the words of Matt Damon in The Departed, “You don't have to trust me. Just listen to what I’m saying to you”.

But since you brought it up, a couple of points:

1) Maybe you didn’t get the memo, but one of the most valuable pieces of information that occasionally gets mentioned here is to stop marketing to other photographers. Why on earth should I care about having a portfolio on FStoppers? It’s just photographers… the one audience I shouldn’t care about at all. While I do genuinely love a lot of the images people have submitted, and there are tons of truly world class images here, it’s also a breeding ground for trolls and I’ve got no desire to waste my time feeding them. Also, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how to be my own best/worst critic, so I have no need for other people’s opinions of my work. I know what my strengths are and I know where I need to improve. Everything else is just noise.

2) Since you decided to bring the portfolio angle into this, I’ll pose this question: The author of this article, who reposted somebody else’s content from YouTube, has no studio portraits in his portfolio, neither here or on his website. In fact, as far as his portfolio would indicate, he’s never even used a flash. Is that who you think should be vetting material on how to properly use studio lighting? Or would it be more meaningful coming from somebody who has world-class studio images in his/her portfolio.

Food for thought.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Thank you sir. Point number one is key. I have a few photos posted, but nowhere near the quality I sent to my clients and agencies. Could care less about other photographers seeing what I shoot. It's like entering photo contests. Will never do that either. As for the substance in this article...a BIG pass. Doesn't come close to what it's trying to convey. Thanks for your comments.

Stuart Carver's picture

The difference between you and I is, I don’t tell anybody that their photo is terrible, I just move on.

I firmly believe that if people are going to post on the internet and have strong opinions, or decide you want to slag someone off then you should at least grow some minerals and A, don’t hide behind a fake name, and B, have some content of your own to display. If you don’t follow either of those then you will essentially come across as a troll, this applies to most photography based content across the internet.

With regards to the article, video, author. Would you prefer if both of them just didn’t bother? And anyone else posting anything that you personally don’t agree with? What’s your preference, 1/2 articles a day posted on this website? I just don’t take in the stuff I’m not interested in, it’s really simple.

Dave F's picture

“The difference between you and I is, I don’t tell anybody that their photo is terrible, I just move on”

Yes, you’ve clearly demonstrated an ability to “just move on”.

The difference between you and I isn’t that I comment on people’s photos and you don’t, it’s that we’re talking about two different things. I’m not criticizing somebody’s photo because I think it’s bad and I don’t like it (I don’t believe I’ve ever left an uninitiated negative comment on somebody’s photo, ever), I’m criticizing somebody’s misleading advice and simply using their photo as proof that what they’re saying is wrong.

“I firmly believe that if people are going to post on the internet and have strong opinions, or decide you want to slag someone off then you should at least grow some minerals and A, don’t hide behind a fake name, and B, have some content of your own to display. If you don’t follow either of those then you will essentially come across as a troll, this applies to most photography based content across the internet. “

Right, because “Dave” is such a fake name. Also, that policy basically means you’re incapable of evaluating a statement or idea based on its own merits, and instead need unrelated content in order to provide you with the illusion that you’re evaluating something objectively.

“With regards to the article, video, author. Would you prefer if both of them just didn’t bother? And anyone else posting anything that you personally don’t agree with? What’s your preference, 1/2 articles a day posted on this website? I just don’t take in the stuff I’m not interested in, it’s really simple.”

Well, in this case, I would say yes, neither of them should have bothered with this because it’s poorly executed and doesn’t achieve what they say it does. This isn’t a personal disagreement, it’s objectively bad advice. I mean, if you want to follow it, be my guest. If you decide to post a picture using this method, you certainly won’t find me commenting on it either way. But if you decide to use it as a teaching tool and give crappy advice, you shouldn’t be mad when somebody calls you out on it.

Here’s the problem, in case you haven’t figured it out:

If you use a single light behind your subject, you’re backlighting them, period. No matter what you stick in front of their face to bounce light back to them, the strongest point of the light will always be behind them. And since the light is still brighter as it travels from back to front, there’s no way to make a background white AND maintain a clean edge AND sufficiently light the front of your subject. That’s physics, not an opinion.

Shooting a high key portrait on a white background has nothing to do with wrapping backlight around them, in fact that’s what you’re actively trying to avoid when you light your background. Otherwise you get a hazy, washed out mess, just like this. I’m not saying there aren’t examples of good photos out there that are lit from the back, but they’re not “high key” and they’re done with way more control than this.