How to take high key and low key portraits

  • High key pictures are those where the tonal range is predominantly light. These are not to be confused with high contrast pictures, which are images that have extremes of tone with few if any mid tones. In contrast, low key pictures have a tonal range mainly from dark end of the scale. Again, these are not the same as low contrast pictures, which are images which have a narrow range of tone this is probably due to underexposure and the prints will have a muddy look.

  • When a full tonal range is easy to achieve, why, then, take high or low key pictures?
    High key pictures can look very romantic, and sometimes achieve an ethereal quality. If the background to a picture is uninteresting or intrusive it may be possible to fade it out by overexposing it. This may cause flare around the subject but, handled carefully, even this can be used to creative advantage. High key pictures can also portray freshness, a virginal quality or the innocent of the newborn.

  • Conversely, low key pictures can convey isolation or loneliness. They can be very atmospheric.
    The easiest way to create low key effects in the studio is with what is known as a rim light. The light is positioned slightly behind the subject. This create a slightly halo effect on the side the light is coming from. Using a reflector or a fill in light can give the shaded side of the face just enough tone. The result is an image with dark tones, but one in which the subject is easily discernible.

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