High Key – part 2 – James Allan and Alberto Giurelli


Martina with Snoopy using high Key lighting.

Alberto and I decided to have another Crack at “High Key”.  We had a BPC workshop to prepare for, and we both felt that we needed to have something more substantial to show for our efforts.  On Sunday morning Frances and I drove down to Happy Valley and we set up Alberto’s studio to do some high key portraits.  Alberto had 2 Nikon 900 flash units with remote triggers.  Independently Alberto and I had both done some reading on the internet and come to the same conclusion.  We needed an arrangement with a white backdrop, both key and back lighting.  See the diagram below.


This is how it worked out;

High Key

We spent a bit of time messing around to get the settings right.  We set the two flashes on manual.  We turned the back light up to full power and dropped the key light back a few stops and fired it through a soft box.  We put the camera in Manual mode and dialed up the sync speed of the flash at 1/250th second.  ISO was set at 100 and we used the aperture to adjust the exposure.  We found that you need to push the exposure to the upper limit of acceptability, perhaps 1 or 2 stops above the meter.  We also used the histogram to guide us.

Below you can see my preliminary (natural light) photograph of the lilium followed by the high key photograph.  There is a real difference in the appearance of the shot.  The High key photo is crisp and punchy where the natural light image looks dull. The background is mostly blown out and the wrinkles in the sheet disappear.  However the subject is beautifully exposed, if perhaps a little on the bright side of the histogram.

And here are Alberto’s high key portraits of his daughter Martina.

I must admit we were both quite thrilled by our results and are now quite keen to experiment further.  So what did we learn?  I will summerise In note form

  • Back Light 2Ev stronger than Key light
  • Key light – soft to avoid shadows
  • Exposure – in manual mode and experiment – but slight overexposure +1Ev helps
  • Highlights – Back ground should blow out, but not the subject
  • Keep Post production to the minimum – mild curves + sharpening
  • Monochrome looks good

Well I hope that helps you to give it a go.

James Allan

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