2017 Photochallenge Week 27: High Key

This week’s challenge is to capture a high key photo. Technically “high key” means that the majority of the tonal range of the image is in the light tones. Please note that high key is not simply an over-exposed image! Just as with low key images, it takes some thought and planning to capture an effective high key image. For this challenge, I want you to set up and capture a high key image in your camera, not create one from a “normal” photo in post-processing.

Great Blue Herons - High Key “Great Blue Herons – High Key” by Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero

High key photography is all about the lighting. It’s challenging because it requires you to overexpose the background while keeping the subject properly exposed. Interestingly, the lighting is somewhat similar to that of silhouette photos: the background needs to be much brighter than the subject. The goal is to open up (i.e. lighten) the shadow tones of the subject without blowing out the highlight detail AND have a white background behind the subject. While you might be tempted to use a subject that is white or light colored to create your high key photo, you will find it easier to capture a white background if your subject is darker.

If you have a drab cloudy sky or fog or even snow, you may be able to capture a high key wildlife image. Have you ever tried taking a photo of a bird against a cloudy sky? If your camera is set to Auto, it usually turns the bird into a silhouette, right? But if you up the exposure compensation by 2-3 stops, you will find that the sky turns pure white and the bird looks properly exposed. A similar thing happens in snow or fog. So if you are lucky enough to have inclement weather this week, it might be the ideal time to try a high key wildlife shot.

Dice “Dice” by Eric Minbiole

High key photos have an upbeat, happy feel to them. That’s why you often see them in product and stock photography. In fact, take a look at all of the product photos on Amazon – they are all “high key” photos! If you sell things online, this is a really good skill to have in your photographic toolkit.

Anne-Charlotte - High Key “Anne-Charlotte – High Key” by Antoine Robiez

High key portraits are also extremely popular. Most high key portraits are created in a studio with 4-5 light sources – two are used to light the background and 2-3 are used to light the subject. However, it is entirely possible to create a high key portrait using natural light. You can either have your subject in the shade with the background in full sun or you can position your subject with the sun behind them. Check out the links below for more details if you want to try this.

Wheat field “Wheat field” by Sarah Horrigan

High key landscape photos can be tough to find and capture in the camera, but they are very effective when you do. Again if you have snow or fog or overcast skies in your weather forecast this week, you might get lucky. This is probably the most difficult subject for the challenge this week because it is so dependent on the right lighting conditions. Remember, I don’t want you creating a high key effect in post processing – I want you to capture it in the camera as best you can.

Of course no exposure related challenge would be complete without taking a look at the histograms of high key photos. Notice how they are all heavily weighted to the right? In fact, a couple of them are stacked up against the right side. This indicates that the highlights are blown-out, which is exactly what we want in this case because it ensures that our background is pure white. (Note that landscape photos with no obvious distinction between subject and background won’t have blown-out highlights but the majority of the histogram still in the right half of the tonal range.)


Another thing to notice is that all of these histograms extend pretty far to the left. That shows that the images have high contrast. (Not all high key images are high contrast, but a large percentage are.) Thus, you can use the histogram on your camera to tell you whether you’ve captured a high key image. You might also find it useful to turn on “highlight alerts” in your camera’s menu if you have that option. This will tell you when you have successfully blown-out the background, but will also warn you if you’ve gone too far and have blown-out the highlight detail of your the subject as well.

This week’s challenge:

  • Capture a high key photo in the camera.
  • Do not simply over-expose a normal scene and call it high key. I want you to find or create the lighting necessary to capture a well-exposed, high key image in the camera.
  • You can tweak the exposure in post-processing (in fact, you pretty much have to if you shoot RAW), but I want you to focus on capturing the correct exposure in the camera which means the histogram should be mostly in the right half of the histogram and likely even stacked up against the right side.
  • Please post the histogram in the comments under your photo.

For more information on how to take high key photos, I found the following links particularly helpful while doing research for this challenge:

How High Key Photography Works: 3 Must Know Tips
Understanding Histograms – Low-Key And High-Key Images
High-Key Nature Photography
High Key, Low Key
4 Tips for a Perfect White Background in High Key Photography (including a video that explains how to position lights for portraits in a studio setting)

If you want to try taking high key portraits in natural light, I found the following two videos helpful:

Natural light photography tips – High key portraits under a tree canopy
Outdoor GOLDEN HOUR Portrait Photography Tips – Using Natural Light

Don’t worry if you don’t have any studio lights or flash units. I did a little experimenting in front of a window and came up with a setup that should work for anyone with a small subject such as a product, figurine or flower. (You could even use this setup for a portrait if you used a larger piece of fabric.) I taped some white fabric (it would be better to press the wrinkles out or you could also use white paper) to a window with the sun shining through and placed my subject (a silk flower) in front of it. The sun made the white fabric very bright and in turn, the fabric acted as a shade for the flower so that it was much darker than the fabric behind it – the perfect setup to blow-out the background! I also used a reflector to bounce some light onto the front of the flower to fill in the dark shadows. (You could use another piece of white paper or cardstock instead of a reflector.)

I’ve included a photo of my setup below along with the resulting high key photo of a silk rose. I was very happy to discover that it required almost no post-processing, so this setup should work for just about everyone assuming you have sun – and if you don’t, then use the cloudy sky as your background. It should produce a similar result.


Our friendly community guidelines are pretty simple:

  • Post one original photograph (Your Image) shot each week per theme posted on this blog to Google+Facebook, or Flickr (or all three). Tag the photo #photochallenge and #photochallenge2017
  • The shot should be a new shot you took for the current weekly theme, not something from your back catalog or someone else’s image.
  • Don’t leave home without your camera. Participating in the 2017 PhotoChallenge is fun and easy.

About thedigitaljeanie

I’m a self-taught photographer and way back when I used to love taking photos, but I allowed a business that I started in 2004 to take over my life and my photographic repertoire was reduced to quick product shots and how-to tutorials. When I joined the PhotoChallenge in December 2015, I was looking to rekindle my creativity and bring some joy back into my photography. I jumped in with both feet and have not looked back. I believe that photography can change the way we see and interact with the world around us. Some people may think that I hide behind the camera, but I feel that I experience the world in a much more intimate way when I am creating a composition in my viewfinder. In those moments distractions disappear, my mind focuses and I am fully present. It is just me and my camera capturing a moment in time that might otherwise go unnoticed. My background is as varied as the photos that I take. I’ve trained and worked as a software engineer, a massage therapist, an English teacher in Vietnam, a photo restoration artist (which is how I learned Photoshop) and for the past twelve years I have run a small software business with my husband where I have been published in numerous books and magazines, appeared on PBS television, created designs for fabric, quilts and machine embroidery and won awards for some of my quilts. It should come as no surprise that I am intensely curious about life and love to learn new things. I am blessed to live in the beautiful state of Colorado, USA in the Rocky Mountain foothills outside of Fort Collins with my husband and cat. You can find me online at: Photos: flickr.com/photos/the-digital-jeanie/ Day job: KaleidoscopeCollections.com Facebook: facebook.com/jeaniesa