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Monday, November 28, 2011

High-Key Portraiture. A brief overview.

This blog describes the main elements that comprise high-key portraiture. We’ll cover low-key lighting in a future blog.

The terms High-Key and Low-Key have been used (and misused) by photographers for decades. The differences between the two styles are obvious when they are placed side-by-side, as in the two shots below of jazz pianist Preston Brahm. The photo on the left has many of traditional elements that bring the shot into the category of high-key. We describe those at length below.

The low-key photo on the right is the opposite of high key in many respects: Dark background, high contrast lighting ratio, deep shadows on the face, dark clothing, etc.

High-key means that the majority of tones in the photo are on the bright side of the exposure scale. Low-key means that majority of the tones are on the dark side of the exposure scale. It’s that simple.

What do I mean by the exposure scale? Let’s use Ansel Adam’s Zone System to explain this:

Ansel adapted an 11-step scale, from absolute black (zone 0) to absolute white (zone 10). The gray card that photographers use for exposure is zone 5, right in the middle of the scale. The palm of your hand, no matter what your racial group, is between zone 5 and zone 6. IN A TRADITIONAL HIGH KEY PHOTO, THE MAJORITY OF THE TONES WILL BE RENDERED ABOVE ZONE 5.

To accomplish the ‘traditional’ high key portrait, it’s best to dress your subject in white, use a white background, and expose the image enough to ‘wash out’ the skin tones so they are in zone 6 or higher. The following photo was taken decades ago when I was a beginning photo student and the traditional high key style was still popular. Today, this approach is more retro than traditional.


You don’t need a blond model to accomplish the feel of a high-key portrait, even though that’s often the traditional approach. Dark skin responds very well to large soft-light sources like OctoDome® and LiteDome® because the highlights show up better on a dark surface than on light skin. In other words, light skin is already at zone 6 when it’s properly exposed, so only two brighter steps are available before all details are completely washed out.

With normally exposed dark skin, the tones can be as low as zone 2, leaving 6 additional zones for the photographer’s interpretation.

The photo below qualifies as a high-key portrait because more than half of the image is brighter than zone 5. (This is a cropped version of the original) It could be argued that the high-key effect could have been enhanced by having the subject dressed completely in white, but that doesn’t necessarily improve the photo. Personally, I don’t like to be locked into any restrictions for wardrobe or background, but I am particular about my lighting.


One of the elements I like best about the photo below is that the broad planes of the subject’s face are over exposed, and pushed up the tonal scale. This is the only way to achieve a high-key effect with a dark skinned subject. The shadow side of his face is still dark, so there’s a good range of tones to show detail and shape, but the overall ‘feel’ is that of a high-key portrait.

What is high-key lighting?

The style of ‘High-Key Lighting”, which uses large soft lights to accomplish a shadowless effect, was popularized by Francesco Scavullo, who used it to photograph every single Cosmopolitan magazine cover for over 30 years. (More than 1500 consecutive covers!) High key lighting became so synonymous with his name that photographers would call the high-key lighting scheme the ”Scavullo.”

A simplified version of his approach, often called “Clamshell” lighting, is shown below. You can see the complete lesson on this approach in Photoflex Lighting School, along with dozens of other free lessons. This one is called “Fine Tuning Your Soft Light With Grids Part Two”.


Note that clamshell lighting differs from many other types of portraits because there is no obvious key light used. Both top and bottom lights are of equal brightness, so no distinct lighting pattern can be seen.

Why is there a grid on the top light? Grids help to narrow the spread of a softbox and keep light from falling on the background. In this lesson, the photographer teaches us how to achieve high-key lighting and darken the background at the same time. It’s a great technique, and I highly recommend reading the entire lesson.

In the comparison below, the photo on the left used a top light only, while the photo on the right used a top and bottom light. The difference is quite dramatic and illustrates how the shadowless result defines the high-key lighting effect.

Additionally, while the photo on the left has a higher percentage of lighter tones, and is therefore a true high-key portrait, the right hand photo has the soft attractive lighting on the face that we associate with the high-key style.

High-key lighting can be achieved in other ways besides the 'clamshell' set up. Large soft lights can be placed on either side of the subject, instead of top and bottom. The main thing is to fill in all of the shadows, and since some of the most noticeable shadows occur just below the eyes, the soft light from below works the best for my personal taste.

In summary, let’s simplify the definition of high-key and low-key portraiture:

  1. In traditional high-key portraits, the majority of the tones are brighter than middle gray, with many of them being almost white. Light skin tones, white clothing, a white background, and shadowless lighting all contribute to the classic high-key look.
  2. Bright soft lighting and mild overexposure of the skin tones can be used to achieve a high-key feel of the subject, no matter what the skin tone or apparel. While this isn’t a traditional high-key result, it is attractive and useful.
  3. Low-key portraits have a majority of the image rendered as darker than middle gray.
  4. Low-key lighting effects rely upon most of the subject being in shadow, often against a dark background. See low-key example below.


In the above photo of jazz singer Ron Kaplan, the dark clothing, dark background and ‘rim lighting’ all contribute to make a traditional low-key portrait. Low-key lighting tends to show a lot of skin texture, so we see more low-key shots of men than women.

I hope this short overview has helped to describe the difference between high-key and low-key portraiture. Keep an eye out for a complete lesson on high-key and low-key lighting coming up on

Keep shooting and have fun!

Jeffery Jay Luhn and Team Photoflex

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