High Key Portrait – James Allan

335af73b5eac7140d44dc0714cc90ec0You know I never really wanted to do this assignment in the first place.  I hate high key.  The aim appears to be total saturation with light in order to eliminate all shadow and form.  But I like shadow and form.  All those pale pictures of disembodied lips and eyes without texture.  It’s a pretentious style that I’ve never really cottoned onto.  To me it embodies an attitude of pretense and artificiality.  Some pouty model staring blankly at the camera as if the whole thing was irrelevant.    (BTW it’s also a slang-word for upbeat.  Like, you know, “my webpage is high-key disgusting good.”)  What’s the point?   According to Wikipedia, it was originally done because early film and television did not deal well with high contrast ratios.  Well I must admit it works well for Audrey Hepburn.

So why am I doing this?  It’s because I’m doing the Dogwood 52 challenge – week 13 – “high key portrait”.   The description doesn’t add much.  It says “Expose to the right and create a light, airy high key portrait.”  Frances and I decided to press on with the challenge and try and give ‘high key’ a shot.  So what do you do?  Turn the exposure compensation to the right, up to say +3eV?  Is that enough?  How do you do it well? How do you make it zing.

I looked at some web pages.  Like “The complete beginners guide to shooting high key“.  I think if I followed Josh’s advice I would have lightened my pocket of something like $500 to $1000 buying the requisite lighting equipment.

The first problem appears to be the background.  The high key portraits have a white formless background.  I remember having trouble getting a white back background when I did the kids passport photos.  Standing in front of a white wall is not enough.  The wall will appear grey on the passport.  Using a flash doesn’t help.  The wall is still grey and now it has shadows created by the flash.  The backgound needs to be overexposed.  At the post office when they did passport photos, I noticed they used two speedlights.  One for the person and a second light just for the white backdrop.  I presume the second light is at a higher power than the first.  The background blew out and eliminated any shadows.  My problem was, I didn’t have 2 speedlights.  It is however possible to use natural daylight to blow out the background.  Some photographers place a white sheet over a bright window.

The second problem is the subject.  The subject also needs to be well lit.  To get the soft featureless lighting for high key portraits you might want a soft box or umbrella.  Ideally the subject should be lit from both sides.  You could work with one light on each side, or a single light with a reflector.  So with all of this in mind here is my first attempt at the task.

I used the chess set to get my camera settings right before I subjected my model (Frances) to the  lights and camera.  The backdrop is a little grey – but no shadows and seems to work.

Queens side white

What did I do?  It was an evening and I didn’t have bright sunlight to make use of.  In the lounge room I hung a white sheet on the curtain rail and lit it with a porta-flood light I found in the shed.  It wasn’t quite bright enough, so I brought in some extra desk lights and reading lights.  By this time the lounge room was really glowing and quite warm.  The flash I placed to one side on a tripod with a cheap diffuser and used the on-camera flash to fill the shadows.  Also I turned the exposure compensation up to +1eV.

I had to remove a few minor shadows on the backdrop in photoshop.  I also think the monochrome conversion helps.  When doing the B&W conversion, increasing the red slider helped to make the skin tones paler.  In my opinion my attempt was perhaps moderately successful.  However I have shown that it can be done without purchasing a whole heap of extra lighting equipment.

Jen Williams sent Frances a You-tube clip of Lindsay Adler using a sunlit window and a diffuser on a camera mounted flash.  You tube Clip.  This seemed to work very well and I might use this techniquer for my second attempt.

Well to finish off I tried to find a few examples of high key photography that I really like.

Picture credits – http://www.photopoly.net/18-beautiful-bright-examples-of-high-key-photography/  and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-key_lighting

The term high key refers to portrait lighting.  The light on the models face is known as the key light.  When you turn this up it is high key.  When you turn it down low key.

Well I wish you the best of luck if you want to give it a try.


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