Definition: High Key lighting/photography

Definition: High Key lighting/photography | Glossary entry

Definition: High Key lighting/photography

"High Key Rocking Horse" - the predominance of high brightness and whites

“High Key Rocking Horse” – high brightness and mixed whites is a modern version of the high key shot.


High key photography is a modern lighting technique that is based on using mid-tone greys through to bright whites. The use of bright lights and lighting to eliminate shadow reduced the contrasts in the picture.

Early film was not good at coping with extreme blacks right through to extreme whites and all the shades in between. As a result the lighting was arranged to ensure that the contrasts were reduced. Deep black shadows were removed by the lighting leaving much less variation in the range of brightnesses in a scene. The contrast reduction raised the lighting levels overall – the scene tended to lose the benefit of modelling caused by shadows. This made mood difficult to express because all the tones were in the upper range of brightness.

The history of photography has shown a gradual improvement in the dynamic range of contrast that the camera can record. Modern digital cameras (DSLRs and others) are able to cope with a much wider range of contrast than older film. Digital sensors are now beginning to be able to offer a wider range of contrasts than even the most modern film formats.

The use of high key lighting gradually gave way to methods of lighting mimicking natural light sources. Today, high key photography lives on as bright light and high light levels. The modern emphasis on whites has become a genre of its own much used in fashion and portrait photography. Modern high key shots typically have a large proportion of whites. White on white shots with only minor tonal variation, is a common and a prominent feature of the high key genre.

High key shots today are mostly about high brightness. Special emphasis is put on techniques to light the background as bright white. The following diagram shows how this is done…

The infinity wall is a way of completing a seamless white background

The infinity wall is a way of completing a seamless white background. Notice the flash (F) lights the background NOT the subject (S). The latter needs to be separately lit.

More details on how to actually use this technique is available in A simple way to make and use a seamless white wall

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