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.