High Key and Low Key Portrait


High Key and Low Key photography make use of lighting and contrast (or lack of) to create a specific mood. Originally high key photography emerged as a solution for screens that could not correctly display high contrast ratios. Today capturing high key photos, like low key photos, is a stylistic choice in photography.

When capturing a high key photograph there are a number of factors that need to be considered, especially if trying to achieve that classic studio look. You will have to make sure you have the right equipment for the job and give consideration to camera settings and lighting set up to capture the images. Like high key photos, low key photos are also the product of lighting manipulation and contrast. Though the resources required for capturing low key shots are less extensive – one light source compared to the four required for high key photos for example – it takes just as much skill and patience to achieve. Deciding which style to choose for the photographs all comes down to atmosphere as both are powerful tools for creating certain moods.


For the purpose of this study the following question(s) were addressed:

  1. What are the constituent element of high key and low key photography?
  2. How do they differ from each other?
  3. What different uses does each technique have?



Both techniques will require different lighting positioning and equipment but both can be achieved after research and experimentation during the shoot. There will be a large contrast between both final outcomes due to the dramatic effects of each technique.



High Key:

High key photography uses unnaturally bright lighting to blow out most or all harsh shadows in an image. High key methods were originally developed as a solution to screens that couldn’t properly display high contrast ratios, but has developed into more of a stylistic choice.







Low Key:

Low key photography is where you take a photo of a subject with everything (or almost everything) except the subject in black. This can be achieved fairly easily and, in brightly lit situations, it’s all about having the right settings on your camera.







By producing a set of both high key and low key photographs, in the same shoot and using the same model, it has helped me to see the advantage of both of them and the effects that they have. I.e. high key is for a bright well exposed photograph and low key is more moody. I also found that switching between the two techniques can add variation and achieve results that are more impressive compared to shooting in standard lighting conditions. I have learned that lighting is key to achieving the right style of shot and choosing the right style is critical to achieve the desired final image.




[1] DISCOVERY CENTER, (2015). What is High Key and Low Key Photography? [Online] Available from: http://learn.corel.com/news/high-key-low-key-photography/          [Accessed: 10 April 2016]

[2] LIGHT STALKING, (2011). Low Key Photography for Beginners: Enter The Dark Side. [Online] Available from: http://www.lightstalking.com/low-key-photography/ [Accessed: 12 April 2016]

[3] PETERSON, D. (2016). Using Lighting Style to Create Mood: High Key and Low Key Lighting. Digital Photo Secrets. [Online] Available from: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/3558/using-lighting-style-to-create-mood-high-key-and-low-key-lighting/                                                                                                                                               [Accessed: 12 April 2016]

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