Tips for Capturing High Key and Low Key Lighting in Your Photos

Today I will be sharing some tips on shooting my favorite type of photography, high key/low key. In case you didn't know this about me, I’m a bit of a black and white photo fanatic.  I’m always looking for ways to highlight an artistic touch in these photos and have found that manipulating light is one of the best ways to accomplish this effort.

Low Key

Low key photography is accomplished by shooting your subject in low light and in a shadow of some sort. The key here is to find the sliver of light that highlights your subject.  Can this be done both indoors and outdoors? Absolutely.  To shoot indoors, I like to have my subject in front of a dark background or backdrop and angle my synthetic light above the subject in a way that highlights part of the face.  If your subject is a person, try to adjust the subject to where the cheekbone, right under the eye, is most lit.

To shoot outdoors, I recommend doing so when the sun is at its highest point in the day (around noon).  Why? You need harsh and direct light to distinctly light up a part of your subject.  You can typically find this on a side of a building where some of the wall is in a shadow and some of it is directly lit up by the sun.

Now that we’ve discussed finding a scene that will allow for you to shoot in low key, we need to review your exposure settings. To start, I have my camera settings changed to black and white. Ensure your shooting mode is set to manual (M) and balance your exposure on the brightest part of your subject.  What we’ve essentially done is informed our camera our exposure is balanced on the brightest part of our subject.  Obviously, it’s under exposed, but we need our subject under exposed to pull of this look. We want the background to be dark (almost blacked out) and our subject to be lit up by slivers of light. This emits a moody, sensual vibe to our photos.  See some examples below.   


High Key

High key photography is exactly opposite of low key.  Instead of under exposing our subject, we are going to over expose our subject for a high key photo. To accomplish this, we need to place our subject in a well-lit area, preferably in front of a light color background (white works best). Can this be done outdoors? Yes, but it’s a little harder to achieve than finding shadows for low key.  For indoors, you may need 2-3 light sources to expose your subject (softboxes, reflectors, beauty dishes, etc.). You will of course want one light in front of the subject. You will want to also have a light behind the subject (and another on the side if you can) to eliminate any shadows. The goal is to fill in the shadows with light.  

 For outdoors, you will want to place your subject under harsh mid-say sun and preferably near a shadowy area that you can use to provide some contrast. Any part of your scene that is not in a shadow will need to be blown out and overexposed.

 Setting your exposure: Again, I recommend changing your picture settings to black and white (but it still looks neat if you shoot in color). Don’t forget to ensure your camera is in manual mode. Think opposite of low key. Find the darkest part of your subject (part of the scene that is in the shadow, etc.) and balance your exposure meter to that area. We’ve now over exposed our subject.  These photos are great when you want to emit a bright and clean look to your photos. Personally, I love to use this to emphasize lips, eyelashes, cheekbones, etc. See some examples below.