A Deeper Understanding Low and High-Key Photography is Essential for Creative Photography

A Deeper Understanding Low and High-Key Photography is Essential for Creative Photography

They can change the ordinary to the extraordinary. However, there is a lot more to creating low- and high-key photographs than just under- and over-exposing. Discovering how they work can dramatically improve our photography. It's also the reason why cameras should have one specific feature.

As I mentioned in my previous article, our minds are subject to the law of simplicity. We crave plain, clean scenes that we can easily make sense of. A low- or high-key photograph often results in us achieving that. These methods help us to isolate the subjects and stand out against the background.

Creating Low-Key Photography for Mood and Quality

In advertising, low-key images are associated with mystery, quality, and exclusivity. Check the new OM System website, the page for Nikon's Z Series cameras, or Rolls Royce. They are all selling the idea of top-class products, and their websites and leading images are low-key. It's a technique that has stood the test of time and precedes photography by hundreds of years.

As you can see in the above painting (Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy - Caravaggio 1571-1610), the artist is selling an idea, in this case, a religious one. That is reinforced in our minds by the low-key style of the painting; in chiaroscuro – an Italian word that translates as light and dark – the subject is illuminated, and the surroundings are in the shadows. The artist creates a powerful mood that complements the subject matter.

Examining the histogram of that painting, you can see that the main figures are lit and appear mainly in the mid-tones with very few highlights, and the majority of the painting sits in the shadows, isolating the subject. This is what we are typically trying to achieve with low-key photographic images.

To accomplish this effect in-camera, many novice photographers make the mistake of just reducing the exposure, but that usually results in a dull image. Sometimes, that can work. But, normally, we are looking for a scene with strong mid-tones for the subject and dominant shadows in the background. Most often, this means using camera, lighting, and processing techniques to reduce the highlights down to the mid-tones, and then, the mid-tones into the shadows. For that to work best, we need contrast in the scene we are shooting.

In the studio, this might be using a dark backdrop and aiming a flash solely at the subject. In nature, we may seek shafts of sunlight falling on a subject against a darkened backdrop. This could be, for example, crepuscular rays lighting part of a landscape, or beams shining through the canopy of trees and illuminating an object. Alternatively, it could be the subject lit by a portable flash or even a torch.

The sunlight through the trees illuminated this heron and the two rocks, while the background was in shadows, making it an ideal subject for a low-key photograph.

If using the advanced average metering mode on your camera – variously named matrix, evaluative, Multi, ESP, etc. – then relying on that metering will make your dark image over-exposed. It will be trying to turn those dominant shadow areas mid-gray. So, you may need to apply negative exposure compensation to push the darker areas into the shadows. Alternatively, spot metering can ensure that the lit subject is at the correct luminosity. Consequently, that dark background will become darker still.

Low-key images add perspective to a photograph. We perceive more brightly lit objects being closer to the camera and further from their surroundings when set against a dark background. This method of separating the subject from its environment is a useful addition to the techniques you can use to isolate a subject, such as employing shallow depth of field.

High-Key Photography for Airiness and a Quick Sale

Like chiaroscuro, high-key techniques are used in art. Take, for example, The Song of the Lark by Sophie Anderson (1823 – 1903).

The difference between the highlights and the mid-tones here is not as pronounced as the separation of mid-tones from the shadows in chiaroscuro paintings. Nevertheless, as you can see from the histogram, the image is pushed towards the highlights, giving a light, airy feel to the picture, the converse of Caravaggio’s dark, brooding paintings.

Ordinarily, in high-key photography, we are taking this a step further by blowing out the bright background. Again, the subject should usually be in the mid-tones.

David Bailey popularized a high-key style by using plain white backdrops (warning: this link contains NSFW images), a look that many emulate today. You’ll find Pete Coco’s excellent recent tutorial goes into the technicalities of achieving that.

In landscape photography, we are looking for bright backgrounds that we can turn white or nearly white. Living on the coast, I find the beach works well for this, but the sky, snow, fields of wheat, brightly lit streets, and desert can also be used too.

In advertising, high-key images and website designs are not necessarily associated with highlighting quality but with making a sale. Look at the sales pages on B&H as an example. The images of cameras are very matter of fact.

Just as primarily dark scenes will cause your camera’s metering to underexpose, your bright background will become mid-gray if you leave the metering decision to the camera. So, you need to add positive exposure compensation to balance that.

As with low-key photographs, we are still looking for contrast. We need the subject standing out from the background, or it may just become blown out and disappear into the whiteness. However, we can use that to good effect. One example would be a white bridal gown blending into a bright background that accentuates the face.

Similarly, the following picture is of an arctic tern, and behind is the near-white wall of a lighthouse.

Alternatively, we are shooting dark subjects against a bright background, increasing the exposure will bring the shadows up into the mid-tones and the mid-tones into the highlights.

Using high-key techniques to create this abstract shot of rocks in the sea. Increasing exposure made the bright water white, while the dark rocks were brought into the mid-tones.

Just as low-key techniques increase perspective, having a brighter background and a darker subject in the foreground reduces it. Consequently, high-key images can appear to have less depth. If you compare the two paintings I used to illustrate this article, the Caravaggio has much more depth than the Anderson painting, despite the horizon of the latter being more distant. From a photographic point of view, we can use this technique, along with others that give a shallower perspective, such as using a telephoto lens, to create a flattering scene.

The high-key nature of this scene helps remove perspective, so the figures almost appear as if they are stuck onto a flat, white canvas.

Post-Processing Low- and High-Key Images

There’s more than one method of post-processing raw files for low- and high-key. But I start by using the basic sliders in raw development.

Low-Key

For low-key images, I reduce the exposure. If necessary, I then increase the contrast slightly too. Next, I will increase the highlight to bring out the detail of the subject. Following that, I’m adding a drop of mid-tone contrast (clarity/structure), and finally, I decide whether I want to bring back a little more detail with the shadows slider.

High-Key

With high-key images, it’s the reverse. I may increase the exposure and reduce the shadows to darken down the subject. I still usually increase the contrast slightly. However, that depends upon the image; I sometimes reduce the mid-tones contrast a little, giving the image a softer, dreamier look. High-key color images can appear washed out, and so, I may convert to black and white. Alternatively, I might selectively increase the saturation of dominant colors to counteract this.

There’s more than one way to approach developing images, and no two photos ever require precisely the same work; I sometimes use curves, do local adjustments, and use editing software. Furthermore, you will probably want to find your style.

The Lessons Learned from Low- and High-Key Photography

The biggest lesson from taking these techniques is discovering your camera's behavior in different lighting conditions, especially the importance of exposure compensation. It is one of the most powerful creative tools in your camera that so many photographers ignore. It's also the reason I would never recommend buying a camera with just one exposure dial; pressing that +/- button on basic cameras to change the dial's function is an annoying hindrance.

Have you ever experimented with low- or high-key images? It would be great to see some of your shots in the comments and hear about your approach to shooting them too.

Log in or register to post comments
8 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

- DELETED COMMENT / IMAGE -

Matt Emrich's picture

Great article!
I've been converting some of my favorite landscape images into black and white (in Lightroom) and it feels like they have new lives, new identities. Here's one of my favorites, from Patagonia (this was the view outside my bedroom window!)

Tom Reichner's picture

Wow! That's a very complex composition - so many points of interest for the eye to wander to.

I think this is actually a great image for complementing Ivor's previous article - the one on Gestalt Theory.

Why?

Because in that article, Ivor said,

"Removing distracting elements, and reducing clutter, usually works well in photography. This is because the human mind is drawn towards simplicity. Yes, of course, it’s called the law of simplicity. That goes beyond removing subjects from the frame. The mind creates order in complex shapes and patterns to simplify what we see."

And I think that what you did here - converting the image to black and white - is helping the viewers brain to simplify the scene so that its content may be more readily organized and appreciated.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Excellent photography, Matt. I agree with what Tom said! I'm gland you enjoyed the article, thanks for the kind comment.

Harald Andresen's picture

Thank you Ivor, great article very well explained. I am a low key fan.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a fabulous shot. Thanks for sharing it, and I am glad you enjoyed the article.

Jerry Dalton's picture

Thank you for that interesting and informative article. I am a fan of both styles and I know know that I have much more to learn.

Ivor Rackham's picture

We all have much more to learn! It would be pretty boring if we didn't. Thank you for the kind comment.