High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

Started 2 months ago | Discussions thread
Ed Shapiro
Ed Shapiro Regular Member • Posts: 329
Re: High key lighting outdoor portrait tips

The old expression says, "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear". My version is you can't make an authentic high-key portrait out of a low-key subject by simply providing a white or light background.

Before getting into specific lighting or exposure issues, let's examine the theory. In a typical low-key portrait, the subject is dressed in dark clothing and photographed against a dark background. The subject's face is the brightest element in the composition and the main point of interest. Traditional a high ligh ratio is employed thereby causing the shadows to become darker but detailed.

In a traditional high-key portrait, the subject is dressed in white or light pastel colours, the background is white or bright, thereby makig the subject's face the darkest element in the composition and the principal point of interest.

The portrait-purists will tell you that the best subject for a perfect lowkey portrait is someon with a darker complexion and dark hair and eyes, whereas a fair complected person with blond or very light hear and eyes are best suited for a high-key image.

So...you won't be struck by lightning if you shoot a low-key subject on a high-key background or visa versa, but it won't work as well and takes on a more "commercial "catalogue" look. The problem is the effectiveness of the key, helping to emphasize the subject, is diminished because the viewers' eyes will wander more into the background or clothing that is off-key.

What is more "off-key" is low-key lighting on a high-key background in that dark shadows become the darkest element and therefore distracting, thereby causing the ethereal quality of a high key image to be lost.

In a studio environment, it is relatively easy to create a high-key portrait by precise control over lighting form, ratio and background. Once you get the subject lighting form and ratio under control, all that you need to do is illuminate the background sufficiently to brighten it to the desired level. The exposure on the background can be anythg for 1/3 to 2 full stops over the subject exposure, depending on the unseen-secondary (bounce light for other lighting units in the room and the size of the shooting area and the reflectivity of the surrounding walls and ceilings.

Out-0f-doors requires a slightly different technique, however, the basics are the same. Preplanning clothing is important. Time of day, weather conditions, natural lighting direction all factor in. You can go to all-natural light using reflectors for main and/or fill illumination. You can use flash and balance the exposure with the daylight so that the background is the same density or brighter than the subject. Keeping the basic "formula and concept in mind you need to be able to improvise, use your hand-held exposure meter, and be able to select a background area that will work.

Many might disagree with me but there is very litte you can do in post-processing to make a high-key portrait out of a file that does not have most of the aforementioned elements. Even in a near-perfect file, you can tweak a background to lighten it slightly. Of course, you can control white balance, contrast, brightness and saturation to taste. Just dropping in, eliminating or replacing the background is time-consuming and usually will not yield the best results because there will usually be too many incompatibilities.

Ed Shapiro- Commercial and Portrait Photographer. Ottawa, Ontario Canada

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