Photography 101: High key photography

To illustrate how high key photography works, let’s look at a disturbing series of photos featuring the UK’s next top model, Darth Tater.

This is the fifth in my ‘Photography 101’ series, aimed at helping people feel more confident with their camera. Ideally you’ll have read all of the others before now. For best results, follow the ‘Homework assignments’ and try the exercises. You’ll get to know your camera a lot quicker if you do. Today, we start breaking the rules you’ve just worked so hard to learn!

Today, I will show you a simple way to create the effect we call ‘high key photography’ where we intentionally overexpose our photo (have too much light). Ready?

Let there be light

Your first requirement is a strong light source. It needs to be powerful, even, and the bigger the better – you won’t get quite the same effect from a torch, no matter how powerful it is. That’s why a wide window works wonders (especially alliteratively). Your subject is positioned in front of the light source (you can experiment to find out how close – touching will be too close, but they’ll need to be relatively close). Then, the camera is at the other end of the straight line from light source to subject.

This straight-line placement is one of the two key factors to producing the image above. After you’ve created your own high key image (oops, homework spoiler) then you can experiment with the effect produced by different angles.

The other key factor is the amount of over-exposure in your image. We produce that effect by decreasing the shutter speed way past the point of correct exposure. To illustrate that, let’s look at a disturbing series of photos featuring the UK’s next top model, Darth Tater.

I find your lack of exposure disturbing

I had three options here. I could have modelled myself, but I’m sure no one wants to see my disturbing thirst traps. I could have used The Cat, but as anyone who has a cat will know, they’re not really sentient beings, more the corporeal manifestation of the spirit of mischief, so that ruled little Ginge out. I hunted round the house and finally settled on Darth Tater.

Darth Tater turned out to be the perfect model because of his huge, shiny helmet. There, you can do what you want with that double entendre. The important thing as you look at this series of images is to pay attention in particular to the areas marked in the blue boxes. Watch how the light behaves as we increase the exposure/decrease the shutter speed. For all these images, the aperture is F2 (because we want to blur out the background as quickly as possible) and the ISO is 200. They remain the same and we only change the shutter speed. Also, you don’t have to do it in black and white, I just don’t take colour pictures because I’m very pretentious.

1/1000th of a second. As always, we start dark and work back to the light. Complete blackness with no detail, rather like Boris’ Coronavirus strategy.

1/500th of a second. Little noticeable change to our Sith supermodel. Wish I’d framed that drainpipe on the left out, but it will disappear soon enough.

1/250th of a second. We’re starting to see some detail, in particular on the right side of Darth’s body (the sun was on that side, although it wasn’t hitting him). We start to see more detail inside the silhouette; for the first time you can see the outline of the eyeballs for the Death Star Project Manager, and you can just make out “FUJIFILM” on the left side of the box.

1/180th of a second. No huge change, could probably have skipped it. I can’t even think of a joke worth making. Would you mind just scrolling past and not reading this?

1/125th of a second. The dome of Darth’s helmet is getting shinier. Oh for goodness’ sake stop sniggering at the back.

1/60th of a second. Now we’re getting somewhere. The edges in the blue boxes, especially the arms, are starting to lose definition. The grey tones here are beautiful – I mean, I could get really lathered up about the tonal quality. And this is straight out of the camera. Fuji’s JPGs are untouchable in terms of quality.

1/30th of a second. Look at the arms in particular, the knuckles of the hands, the cuff on the left arm, and compare back to two or three photos ago. Look at the background too – it’s practically gone.

1/15th of a second. I like this one, for the purposes of this exercise I’d probably stop here. We’ve lost edge definition on his head, on both arms, and also on both sides of his body now. There’s good light on his face and we can see plenty of detail there. But for the sake of curiosity, let’s go a couple of steps further so that you know what happens when you go too far. Also because “pushing things one or two stops too far” is basically my personal brand value proposition.

1/8th of a second. Bad, very bad. Although we could live with the body, we’ve lost too much definition in the face now, and the forearm on the left has almost gone too. See how much lighter the base is too – that box is pure matte black so the fact that it’s gone a piss-poor shade of grey means we’ve definitely gone too far.

1/4 of a second. Even Darth’s crotch, which should be in almost complete shadow, is very overexposed. There’s nothing usable in this picture; burn it with fire.

Get it right in camera

This is our motto now and always: ‘get it right in camera‘. If you take that picture above at either of the last two settings, you can’t fix it in Photoshop or another app*; the camera simply hasn’t recorded enough detail for you to salvage. 1/15th of a second here gives us a good, strong image, with plenty of areas of contrast, but that pleasing high key effect.

* If you shoot in RAW – to be discussed later, maybe, I don’t know yet, I haven’t decided – this is not quite true and the camera will actually record more information than you see on screen. Let’s assume you’re shooting in JPG for now.

Homework assignment

Go forth and shoot thine own high key image. I suggest you find a big window and follow the same process. I suggest starting with:

  • F2, or whatever your widest aperture is
  • ISO 100 or ISO 200, whatever your camera’s best quality setting is
  • And then choose a shutter speed for yourself – start dark (so a fast shutter) and work backwards

Quick snaps

  • High key photography is when we intentionally overexpose our image
  • For the basic effect, get the light source, subject and camera in a straight line
  • Keep an eye on your exposure – you’ll quickly go from ‘pleasing’ to ‘beyond salvage’

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