Capturing Extremes in Tone: High Key and Low Key

The overall tone of an image, can have three keys, namely: low key, middle key and high key.   Usually we try to have adequate lighting in our images, with a balanced tone and this would be called ‘middle key’. However, there are two lighting styles which deviate from the norm because they use the extremes of the tonal range to present the image. In this two part article, I will be expounding on high key and low key, two techniques which can make quite an impact in your shots.

Although there should be hardly any contrast or shadows,  good high key images are those where the white areas still show detail instead of being blown out. The background and the subject itself are usually light colored or white. Since the exposure values are high, you have to be careful not to overexpose the shot. High key shots do not necessarily mean overexposed shots. In fact, careful consideration is taken when adjusting the exposure settings and the subject should be evenly lit.

A bright white background is ideal so for studio lighting, prop up a seamless white sheet of cloth or paper against the wall (unless your wall is already white). To make the background appear bright and remove shadows as well, you would need to light it up. Usually, two light sources aimed at the background, one on each side but behind the subject, will be enough to keep the background white, bright and shadow free. To light up the subject itself, you would need a key light (the main light source) placed off to one side (not straight on) and around 5 feet away. A fill light or a reflector would be found on the other side to keep the dark spots to a minimum.

High key shots do not have to be taken purely indoors. This shot of the flower was taken out in the garden, held up near a whitewashed wall and I just used sunlight as my light source. Just remember when taking shots in bright sunlight to use your camera’s histogram to check on the exposure since your eyes might be affected by the sun’s glare.

Aside from the bright, light colored tones, a high key image is known for the cheerful and joyous mood it can evoke. A bright, light colored image has the effect of making one feel happy and this is one great reason why we should all take high key images from time to time. 

Now we’ll focus on the other end of the spectrum which is low key. One can say low key lighting is the opposite of high key. Here the image is mostly in shadow, usually a dark colored subject set against a dark or black background. The mood is also very different. It is much more somber, mysterious, and dramatic.

A low key image may be easier to create than high key since usually only one light source is needed. The subject is easier to light and underexposure or too much contrast can easily be fixed with reflectors or just by adjusting the camera settings.

Sidelighting is one of the best ways to light up the subject in a low key shot. This position of the light allows one to capture the textures and fine details of the subject without blowing them out. It also prevents the subject from casting a shadow in the background, which is what would most likely happen if the light was directly in front. Another great way to light up the subject is by backlighting. By placing the light source directly behind your subject, the light can bleed and shine on the subject’s edges, causing a rim light. This can appear very dramatic, especially when the edges are highly detailed or have an interesting shape.

As with high key images, low key lighting needs to have proper exposure. It is easy for a shot to become underexposed since both the subject and background are dark. Move your light source around, place it closer or further away from the subject, experiment with various light intensities and reflectors. A tripod would come in handy since this is a low light situation and there is a good risk of blurriness.

One thing to have in a low key shot is a dark or black background. In studio shots, such as for still life or portraiture, a black cloth will do. Now some cloths are reflective and shiny. If you can, invest in a few yards of black velvet since it seems to suck in the light instead of bouncing it back. There are times when you don’t need a physical backdrop, just the convenient darkness of night. You can get a black background by lighting just the subject and making sure all other objects in the room are too far away to be illuminated. 

Your low key image does not necessarily have to be indoors in a studio setting. An image of an empty bench at night time under a lone street lamp can be considered low key. To add to the dramatic atmosphere of the image, find a good choice of subject that matches the mood. Perhaps a dramatic pose from a human model, or an ominous scene, or an object with a strange and fascinating shape.  There are lots of ways to be creative with low key lighting. 

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