High-key black-and-white portraiture has been popular since Hollywood’s golden era. While those early greats created high-key glamour with hot lights and film, we can achieve the same effect today with almost any lighting approach—from daylight to strobe light, outdoors and in.
A high-key image contains tones that are primarily light gray and white with detail. High-key images work so well because they add an airy look that eliminates distracting flaws and creates a beautiful, even glamorous look. But let’s first get one thing straight—high-key photographs aren’t about high-contrast images with blown-out details, and they most definitely aren’t achieved in post. A well-made high-key portrait is precisely lit and deliberately exposed, and it can’t be achieved with a one-click software filter. Here’s how to create beautiful high-key portraits in a few different places with a variety of lighting techniques.
For starters, choose a subject and environment that lend themselves to becoming high-key. Light-colored clothing and a light background are a good start. That’s not to say you can’t incorporate darker tones and shadows, it just means that starting with light tones in the subject and background will make it easier to create a high-key portrait.
No matter what combination of location and light suits you, you’ll generally incorporate a few of the same exposure principles. Overexposure, for instance, is key. Sometimes it only may be a half-stop, but other times as much as 1.5 or even 2 stops will be ideal. The trick is to check histograms and ensure that you’re holding detail in the highlights—particularly in skin tones. While a bright white background isn’t so bad, skin that’s completely devoid of detail is no good at all.
Capturing RAW files can be helpful when shooting high-key portraits because of the flexibility for fine-tuning in post, but even if you’re shooting RAW, you can’t obliterate detail and expect to get it back later. Post-production, when it comes to high-key black-and-white portraiture, is all about refining contrast and brightness to ensure your image retains detail and polish. Expose properly from the beginning, and your computer time will be minimal.
Each of us learned early on that soft lights are generally flattering for portraits. But with a specular key, you can create classical lighting patterns that highlight face shape without enhancing undesirable details. This technique worked for old Hollywood, and it still works today. The light position I chose was a single hot light above Alyssa and to her right. I then turned her face toward the light, which created a butterfly (or Paramount) lighting pattern. I found the strong shadow below her nose just a bit too distracting for this high-key shot, but with a subtle chin tilt, the light became full frontal, smoothing out her features and eliminating blemishes, while evoking a modern take on the classic Hollywood look. Be careful, though, as it’s easy to blow out highlights with this focused specular source.
When we think of glamorous portraits, perhaps the last thing we think of is a handheld strobe. The flat, frontal light from an on-camera flash flattens subjects and can create a harsh glare—like being splashed with a bucket of light. When making a high-key portrait, however, a bit of bright frontal light can work effectively. That’s why the on-camera flash look has become increasingly popular in fashion photography in recent years.
For Alyssa, I wanted to take the frontal edge off the flash, so rather than affixing it to my hot-shoe, I mounted it to a stand just a foot or so to the side of my lens. (I also could have simply held the flash in my hand, but I wanted to keep both hands free for stability and focusing.) Playing up the snapshot glare of the technique, we found that a significant overexposure (almost a stop-and-a-half) counterbalanced the bold shadows and delivered a flattering high-key light that nods to classic Hollywood.
Working with studio strobes, there are countless ways to light high-key portraits, but I began my session with Alyssa using a favorite studio glamour technique called clamshell lighting. Perfect for high-key portraiture, clamshell lighting gets its name from the shape of the key, which is positioned directly in front of the subject, above eye level and angled down at 45°. The light is mirrored with a white card in front of and below the subject, angled up at approximately 45°. If you imagine Pac-Man as your light source, your subject will be posed at the opening of his wide mouth. (If the subject steps back, the light takes on more of the qualities of a frontal ring light, which also can be quite useful.)
Clamshell lighting is perfect for high-key portraiture because it’s so soft and frontal that even if you’re not overexposing, you’re bound to eliminate blemishes and produce a beautiful, flattering light. Overexpose a half-stop or more, and suddenly you’ll see the skin’s details recede while the eyes begin to glow. A beautiful lighting approach in every way, it’s perfect for the high-key.
Ambient Sunlight Outdoors
Photographers have always used softened sunlight to render subjects in literally the most flattering light imaginable. Outdoors on a cloudy day, contrast is minimized, shadows aren’t deep, highlights don’t immediately blow out, and the even illumination works well for a variety of subjects—especially portraits. A one-stop overexposure of a fair-skinned subject on an overcast day is bound to be beautifully high-key.
But what if the sky isn’t cooperating and the sun is blaring at high noon? The smart money is on open shade—that’s the area of bright illumination found on the shadow side of a structure, in the doorway of a building or under the canopy of a tall tree. The key with open shade is to find a position in which bright sunlight is falling nearby. With subtle overexposure, it can appear as refined as any studio source.
When I photographed Alyssa, though, I used neither an overcast sky nor naturally occurring open shade. I modified the direct sunlight with help from an assistant holding a 4×8 silk over my shoulder to diffuse the harsh sun and create a beautifully bright (and immensely soft) shadow in which my subject posed. This lighting is so simple, and the effect so beautiful, that it’s hard to recommend any other approach. For beautiful, glamorous and immensely flattering light—available to any photographer, with any equipment and any budget—there’s nothing better.
William Sawalich is a professional photographer and frequent contributor to Digital Photo Pro. See more of his work at sawalich.com.