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
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.