The definition of high key photographs is thoroughly answered by @mattdm. What I understood is that a light toned subject is the most important requirement to take a high key image. However, it seems there are other pre/post processing arrangements that needs to be considered. If you see photographer's description on the example image mattdm posted in his reply, there are few things to note:

  1. He exposed it for 3secs. (Probably to get unsharp edges.)
  2. He is using halogen worklights. (To lighten the tones?)

So my question is: what are the lighting and other pre- or post-processing requirements for a high key image similar to this?


1 Answer 1


The halogen work lights are a common DIY substitute for more expensive photograhic "hot lights" (such as the Lowel Tota-Lite or the Ianiro RedHead) -- you can usually pick up a 250 or 500 watt fixture with bulbs for under $50 rather than spending hundreds on the "real deal". They're usually much lower temperature than photographic lights, but filters (with film) or a white balance adjustment (video or digital photography) will make up the difference.

The picture is not only high-key, but overexposed for effect. (The overexposure is absolutely not necessary for high key.) If we assume 2 250W lights and a one-and-a-half to two stop overexposure, 3 seconds is not a tremendously long exposure at a low ISO -- hot lights may seem ridiculously bright when you're looking at them, but they can't hold a proverbial candle to the sun or to a flash. The long exposure was probably made, as you assumed, for the etherial quality it lends the subject due to subtle motion.

As for high-key as a concept, it simply means that the majority of the tones in the image are lighter than mid-tone. An image can have a full tonal range and still be high-key, such as, say, a still life consisting of white objects on a white background with full-developed shadows, or a floral macro consisting of a wash of pinks against a light background, with accents of deeps reds and purples. It's just a matter of where the majority (usually the preponderance) of tones in the image lie on the tonal scale.


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