high key photo of a woman by Andrés Gómez on Unsplash

Essential Guide to High Key Photography: From Definition to Post-editing

High key photography is one of the most popular techniques among photographers these days. You can use it to create beautiful and evocative images with a feeling of lightness and airiness.

This essential guide will explore what high key photography is, how to achieve it in your photos, and some post-editing tips to make your images stand out. So whether you're just starting in photography or are looking to add a new twist to your work, read on for everything you should know about high key photography.

1. What Is High Key Photography?

High key photography is a style of photography that is characterized by light, bright tones. Often, high key photos will have white or light-colored backgrounds, and the subjects will be well-lit. This type of lighting can create a feeling of airiness and spaciousness in an image.

High key photography is frequently utilized in fashion, product, and portrait photography. High key photos can have a beautiful, ethereal quality when done well.

2. The Equipment That You Need for High Key Photography

When it comes to high key photography, there are a few key pieces of equipment that you will need.

Digital camera

A camera is an essential tool for any photographer; if you're just getting started with high key photography, it's best to start by investing in a DSLR or mirrorless digital device. These cameras have many different features that will allow you to shoot under all sorts of lighting conditions and provide versatility when switching between subjects later on down the line.

high key photo of a woman with flower on ear

Photo by Andrés Gómez on Unsplash


A softbox is a studio light that emits a diffused, even light. This is perfect for high key photography as it will help illuminate your subject evenly.


Having a powerful set of studio strobes is essential for any photographer who takes high key images. They can function as your main light, and then you will be able to add other lights to achieve the perfect look.

Fill Light

To get the best low-contrast high key images, you should position your main and fill lights opposite each other. This will ensure adequate lighting for all parts of an object to be brightly lit without any shadows or dark patches appearing on them.

Background Light

Background lights are a great way to add extra light to your subject and help you get an unnaturally high amount of light.

White Background

The ideal background for high key photography is a white one. This helps to bounce more natural and artificial light back onto your subject, decreasing contrast to enhance the high key appearance.

3. Camera Setting for High Key Lighting


To get a high key lighting exposure, you must alter your camera settings so that the image is overexposed. You may utilize manual mode and change the shutter speed to +2 or -2 stops from zero. Alternatively, use spot metering on mid-tone sections of photographs.

high key headshot of a woman

Photo by Luke Braswell on Unsplash


It's important to keep your ISO low when shooting in high key so that you don't end up with any unwanted noise in your image. For example, if you're shooting with a DSLR, ISO should be adjusted at about 100.


When shooting in high key, you will want to use a wide aperture so that your background is blurred and your subject is in sharp focus. This will help to create a beautiful, ethereal look in your image. Adjust the aperture to f/5.6 for a fair compromise.

Due to the close-up, the depth of field looks to be fairly shallow. As a consequence, you're allowing more light to enter while keeping a lovely fuzzy backdrop.

Exposure Compensation

If you use shutter priority, you should check to verify if exposure adjustment is enabled. Increase the exposure by 2 to 3 stops if this is the case. Overexposing can be a great way to give your portraits that professional-looking shot.

To make good photographs, take test shots with various shutter settings and determine which one works best for the required exposure. When capturing photographs, the aperture value of your camera may make all the difference. F/5.6 is often advised as the minimum for decent skin tones, but if you want sharper details, consider f/7.1.

4. How to Set up a High Key Light

It's important to understand how to set up your lights before you start shooting in a high key. Place your subject in the center of the backdrop and maintain the shot's frame inside the confines of the paper to avoid gaps. Set up a key light and a fill light next.

high key headshot of a woman

Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

The key light, which should be out to one side, should be your main light source. It will provide the main illumination for your subject. The fill light should be placed on the opposite side to assist fill in any shadows cast by the main light.

The background lights should be pointed at the backdrop. These lights will help illuminate the background to appear bright white in the final image. Once your lights are set up, you're ready to start shooting.

5. How to Shoot High Key Photography

Use shadows

High key photography can sometimes involve some nice, soft shadows. This is because we use fill lights to offset the harshness of our main light and give us that “high key” look without sacrificing overall darkness or depth in a scene, especially when shooting outside.

Spread light

When taking high key photography, use as much light and ensure that your subject is lit from all 360 degrees. This will help reduce shadow in the image, giving it an unnatural look.

6. Tips for Post-processing High Key Photos

Once you've taken your high key photos, it's time to post-process them. Here are some tips to make sure your photos turn out perfect:

  • Avoid clipping the highlights: when editing, be careful not to blow out the highlights. This will result in lost details and an overall flat image.
  • Add contrast: increase the contrast to make the whites pop and the blacks nice and inky.

high key photo of a woman's back head

Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

  • Add vignetting: adding a vignette will help draw the viewer's eye into the image and create a more cohesive look.
  • Sharpen your image: since high key photos are usually quite soft, you'll want to sharpen them in post-processing. Be careful not to overdo it, though.


High key photography is a popular and versatile technique that can be used to create stunning images. By following the tips in this guide, you'll be able to achieve high key lighting in your own photos and take your photography to the next level.

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