A deeper understanding of low and high photography is essential for creative photography

They can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. However, there is more to creating low-key and high-key photographs than just underexposure and overexposure. Finding out how they work can dramatically improve our photography. This is also the reason why cameras should have a specific feature.

As I mentioned in my previous article, our minds are subject to the law of simplicity. We crave clear, crisp scenes that we can easily make sense of. A discreet or high photograph often allows us to achieve this goal. These methods help us isolate subjects and stand out from the background.

Create low-key photography for ambiance and quality

In advertising, discreet images are associated with mystery, quality and exclusivity. Check out the new OM system website, Nikon’s Z-series cameras page or Rolls Royce. They all sell the idea of ​​high-end products, and their websites and flagship images are understated. It is a technique that has stood the test of time and predates photography by hundreds of years.

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

Looking at the histogram for this painting, you can see that the main figures are highlighted and appear mostly in the midtones with very few highlights, and the majority of the painting is in shadow, isolating the subject. This is what we generally try to achieve with unobtrusive photographic images.

To achieve this effect in-camera, many novice photographers make the mistake of simply lowering the exposure, but this usually results in a dull image. Sometimes that can work. But normally we’re looking for a scene with strong midtones for the subject and dominant shadows in the background. Most often, this means using camera, lighting, and processing techniques to reduce highlights up to the midtones and then the midtones into the shadows. For this to work best, we need contrast in the scene we are filming.

In the studio, this may mean using a dark background and directing a flash only at the subject. In nature, we can look for rays of sunlight falling on a subject against a dark background. This could be, for example, dusk rays illuminating 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.

If you use the advanced average metering mode on your camera – variously named matrix, evaluative, multi, ESP, etc. – then relying on this measure will make your dark image overexposed. It will try to turn these dominant shadow areas to medium gray. Thus, you may need to apply negative exposure compensation to push the darker areas into shadows. Alternatively, spot metering can ensure that the illuminated subject is at the correct brightness. Therefore, this dark background will become even darker.

Subtle images add perspective to a photograph. We perceive brighter objects closer to the camera and further away from their surroundings when placed against a dark background. This method of separating the subject from its surroundings is a useful complement to techniques you can use to isolate a subject, such as using a shallow depth of field.

High-Key photography for lightness 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 highlights and midtones here is not as pronounced as the separation of midtones from shadows in chiaroscuro paintings. However, as you can see from the histogram, the image is pushed towards the highlights, giving the image a light and airy feel, unlike Caravaggio’s dark, moody paintings.

Usually in high-key photography we take it a step further by blowing out the bright background. Again, the subject should generally be in the midtones.

David Bailey popularized a high-key style using plain white backdrops (disclaimer: this link contains NSFW images), a look many are emulating today. You’ll find Pete Coco’s recent excellent tutorial covers the technical aspects of achieving this goal.

In landscape photography, we look for light backgrounds that we can make white or almost white. Living on the coast, I find the beach works well for this, but sky, snow, wheat fields, well-lit streets, and the desert can also be used.

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

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

As with discreet photographs, we are always looking for contrast. We need the subject to stand out from the background, otherwise it can just be blown away and disappear into the whiteness. However, we can put it to good use. An example would be a white wedding dress blending into a light background that accentuates the face.

Similarly, the next image depicts an arctic tern, and behind it is the almost white wall of a lighthouse.

Alternatively, we are shooting dark subjects against a light background, increasing the exposure will cause the shadows to rise in the midtones and the midtones in the highlights.

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

Post-processing of Low-Key and High-Key images

There are several methods of post-processing raw files for low-key and high-key. But I start by using basic sliders in raw development.


For discrete images, I reduce the exposure. If necessary, I then slightly increase the contrast as well. Next, I’ll increase the highlight to bring out the details of the subject. Next, I add a drop of midtone contrast (clarity/structure), and finally, I decide if I want to bring in some more detail with the shadow slider.

High Key

With high-key images, it’s the opposite. I can increase the exposure and reduce the shadows to darken the subject. I always slightly increase the contrast. However, it depends on the image; I sometimes reduce the contrast of the midtones a bit, giving the image a softer, dreamier look. High-key color images can appear washed out, so I can convert to black and white. Alternatively, I could selectively increase the saturation of the dominant colors to counter this.

There’s more than one way to approach image development, and two photos never require exactly the same work; I sometimes use curves, make local adjustments and use editing software. Plus, you’ll probably want to find your style.

Lessons learned from low-key and high-key photography

The biggest lesson to be learned from these techniques is to learn how your camera behaves in different lighting conditions, especially the importance of exposure compensation. It’s one of your camera’s most powerful creative tools that so many photographers ignore. This is also why I would never recommend buying a camera with a single exposure dial; hitting that +/- button on basic cameras to change the function of the dial is an annoying hurdle.

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

Previous New equipment: Ricoh Theta X 360 camera
Next Old Town Photography Gallery to Emphasize New Mexico